US branch campus demise is a cautionary tale for Asian ambitions

Tisch Asia, a graduate film and creative arts school in Singapore that is a branch of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, this month announced that it would close, possibly in 2014.

There are important implications for Western-style fine arts education’s transferability to Asia, and more specifically the viability of branch campuses in Singapore.

Singapore hosts nearly a dozen foreign branch campuses, and a similar number of partnerships offering joint Singaporean and international degrees.

Experts said Singapore officials were deeply embarrassed by the distressed high-profile institution and were examining the reasons for its failure, hoping to refine their strategy for inviting and retaining top international institutions.

Under the Global School House programme, Singapore invited prestigious institutions from around the world to establish branch campuses, part of its aim to turn the city-state into a regional education hub and attract foreign students.

Singapore specifically turned to institutions, such as Tisch, with a reputation in industries Singapore was keen to attract to its own shores.

However, after years of financial problems since it opened in 2007, Tisch School of the Arts Asia said in a memo from Dean Mary Schmidt Campbell that it would close, despite attempts to keep it afloat with injections of millions of dollars in grants and loans from Singapore’s Economic Development Board (EDB).

Closure announcement

“Tisch Asia has been a model of artistic and academic excellence, but it has also faced significant financial challenges that have required increasingly unsustainable subsidies totalling millions of dollars per year,” Campbell said in the memo, having flown from New York to Singapore for emergency meetings with the EDB this month.

“Even as we worked on various options to financial sustainability for the graduate programme, we were also discussing an expansion of Tisch’s presence in Singapore through additional programmes at the undergraduate level that would have made Singapore a part of NYU’s global network.

“Despite everyone’s best efforts, we have now reluctantly come to the conclusion that it is not possible to maintain Tisch Asia without, in fact, increasing the annual subsidy beyond what is an already unsustainable level,” said Campbell in the memo, a copy of which was made available to University World News by parent institution New York University.

Tisch Asia had some 28 full-time faculty members when the announcement to withdraw from Singapore was made on 8 November.

Around 158 students were enrolled in the two-year master of fine arts degrees in animation and digital arts, dramatic writing and international media production, and a three-year programme in film.

Up to five hours of briefings of students were held on campus the next day, although students said it was not clear what their future would be; many may opt to complete their courses in New York.

“We are developing plans for keeping the campus open over the next couple of years. Detailed planning will be developed with input from the Tisch Asia community and in cooperation with the Singapore government, on whose support we will continue to rely,” said the memo, designed to allay the concerns of staff and students.

But students in Singapore said they were concerned about their future and how employers will view their degrees.

Flawed model

The losses at Tisch Asia were reportedly huge – a cautionary tale for others thinking of setting up in Singapore to mint money and enhance their international reputation.

The latest annual returns filed by Tisch Asia in Singapore showed a S$7.27 million (US$6 million) deficit for the 2009 financial year, up from S$6 million (US$5 million) the previous year.

Experts in Singapore said the problem lay with a flawed business model, based on offering the same as what it offered students in New York, at New York prices.

“It is important to note that the cost of Tisch in Singapore was not cheap – it is almost the same as New York. But given that Singapore is not New York, any parent would prefer to send their children to New York to experience the vibrancy of a global arts city,” said Kirpal Singh, an associate professor of English literature and creative thinking at Singapore Management University.

Singh noted that the high fees for Tisch Asia were “to pay for Tisch academics in Singapore”, rather than hiring within the region, and that was unsustainable.

Big Hollywood names, such as director Oliver Stone, who was appointed artistic director of the Singapore campus, were flown in from the US once or twice a year to teach students. But it was not enough to create a ‘Hollywood of the East’.

With tuition fees close to S$55,000 (US$45,000), Tisch Asia has for some time had difficulty attracting local students, with most of its student body from overseas looking to experience Asia.

According to one report, more than 90% of current students are non-Singaporean. “What complicates this is that Tisch Asia is a graduate institution and did not have an undergraduate pool [in Singapore] to choose from,” a spokesperson for Tisch in New York told University World News. While students were certainly enrolling, “the issue was budgetary; not enough were willing to come”.

Some observers point to a cultural propensity against arts and humanities and in favour of the sciences in Singapore. However, Singh says Singapore is beginning to change.

“In Singapore, there is a growing interest in studying film and other related arts so the issue is not centred merely around the reluctance to do such courses,” Singh told University World News. Like others, he said the problems were financial.

Lack of a creative hub

Another problem is a lack of creative industries in Singapore itself.

“The arts are still struggling to gain a real presence in Singapore,” Singh said, adding that the kind of work placements and internships common in New York were simply not available in Asia, so the institution could not provide a comparable experience for students as a ‘Hollywood of the East’.

And there is a view that at postgraduate level, there is a need for a more academic element to attract students in Asia.

Local arts institutions such as La Salle College of the Arts in Singapore may not provide the same level of intensity or specialisation as Tisch Asia, but have been successful in recruiting students, experts noted.

It provides degrees in collaboration with overseas institutions such as London University’s Goldsmiths College, and includes a film school named for David Puttnam, a renowned British filmmaker.

Singapore’s main universities also provide fine arts degrees, though with more theoretical content than the Tisch model, which turns out practitioners.

According to Singh, an alliance with a local university with an academic reputation “would have calmed parents” about the merits of a fine arts education and led to higher enrolment. It would also have reduced set-up costs and financial risk.

Approaches were made to the National University of Singapore, but at a later stage and after Tisch Asia had incurred huge costs – a reported US$9.2 million alone for renovating its Singapore campus, most of it provided by Singapore’s EDB in the form of a loan.

Murky financial picture

The murky financial picture was complicated by the controversial firing 12 months ago of Tisch Asia’s former president Pari Sara Shirazi. Students said they had already become aware of Tisch Asia’s seemingly intractable financial problems, but found their questions to the university’s management remained unanswered.

This May charges were filed in a New York court alleging that Shirazi and three other executives improperly transferred US$7 million to US$8 million in funds over several years to Tisch Asia from Tisch School of the Arts in New York.

Shirazi countered last month with a lawsuit filed in New York alleging wrongful dismissal and defamation. In claims described by NYU as “baseless”, Shirazi said that while president of Tisch Asia she had initiated talks with the National University of Singapore for an undergraduate programme together with Tisch Asia.

However, she alleged NYU wanted to gain control of those negotiations “thereby securing for the central university [NYU] the anticipated future profits from the establishment of a joint undergraduate programme [with NUS]”, according to court documents.

The documents further revealed that Singapore’s EDB in 2011 was willing to forgive outstanding loans worth US$9.6 million and would consider further grants if Tisch Asia offered its programmes exclusively in Singapore and also started an undergraduate programme.

According to court documents cited by Singapore’s Business Times newspaper, EDB had provided another US$6.13 million to offset Singapore tuition tax through to 2016 as well as providing loans for construction costs.

Implications for internationalisation

In an email response to University World News John Beckman, NYU vice-president of public affairs, said: “We expect to prevail in court.”

“As to any anticipated ‘profits’: given that we just announced the closing of Tisch Asia due to financial considerations – namely the unsustainable degree of subsidy required to keep it open over these past years and into the future – I would think the illogic of such a claim would speak for itself.

“To be clear, the discussions with possible partners in Singapore regarding an undergraduate degree programme were academically motivated; had such a programme been instituted, no ‘profit’ was due NYU for its participation.”

While wrangles over financial details will be difficult to unravel, the saga may have repercussions both in Singapore and New York regarding how branch campuses are handled.

The Tisch Asia student newspaper The Cobra noted in an article by Olivia Briggs that “with the NYU brand recently expanding its satellite locations all over the world, including Abu Dhabi, Tel Aviv, numerous European countries and Shanghai, Tisch Asia remained the only school that was not part of [NYU president] John Sexton’s ‘global university’” – a reference to NYU’s plans for international campuses.

“Tisch Asia preceded the university’s global network, and was not a part of it,” confirmed NYU’s Beckman. However, Tisch Asia was the first of the NYU degree-granting programmes outside the US.

“What the student body was informed of, however, was that our tuition was no longer going directly to Tisch School of the Arts but to New York University as a whole,” said Briggs.

“This, needless to say, did not sit well with many students and led to a larger, looming question in the minds and mouths of the community – why on earth is NYU attempting to expand so astronomically [around the world] when it is unable to support the assets it currently has?”