Yale-NUS first cohort – Breaking the education mould?

Singapore’s first US-style liberal arts college in collaboration with Yale University, set up at the National University of Singapore (NUS), has selected its first cohort of 157 students to start in August – after sifting through 11,400 applications from over 130 countries – the college announced last week.

This was more than the 150 students initially planned. Around two-thirds of the first cohort are Singaporean, with the rest from 25 countries, Yale-NUS said.

Student numbers will be increased by 250 new students per year to reach around 1,000, and they will receive NUS degrees.

Many students from outside Asia were attracted to the idea of being part of the ‘Asian century’, said Yale-NUS College President Pericles Lewis.

All the students had been selected for their “leadership potential”, not just their academic records, which Yale-NUS described as “stellar”.

“We are getting the top students academically but we are looking for something beyond academic results,” Lewis told University World News on Friday, at the “Worldviews 2013: Global trends in media and higher education” conference in Toronto, Canada.

“We are not looking just for people who are good at implementing rules. We are looking for people who are going to be creative and driving new – whether new technologies or new forms of industry – people who are going to question authority as well.”

The college’s promotional literature boasts of a broad-based education with small classes and an intense residential experience to nurture graduates who can think deeply and across different disciplines.

Asia wants innovative thinkers

Although Singapore and other Asian nations perform at the highest international level in mathematics and science and have a number of world-class universities, many Asian leaders look enviously at companies like Apple, Facebook or Google, and want similarly innovative businesses to emerge from the region.

“But it’s not all about the economy and the high tech. Leaders in government need to be created too. If you keep going through the well-worn paths, you’re not ready for the next challenge,” Lewis said.

“When we look at leadership qualities, you also need people who can see other people’s points of view and who are responsive to change and have a quality of empathy.”

Broad humanities education such as the liberal arts programme on offer in Singapore could help develop that, he believes. Several countries in Asia, including South Korea and China, have shown an interest in US-style liberal arts education.

“The kind of education we’re offering is very important for rising democracies because decisions are made on the basis of rational debate and possibly consensus or even reasoned disagreement rather than based on who has the authority,” Lewis said.

Critics say it is hard to reverse an autocratic Asian political culture with just one university offering a course borrowed from the US, and controversy continues regarding the amount of academic freedom that will be allowed on campus.

Academic freedom

“It’s understood that we will be inviting both government and opposition leaders to speak at Yale in Singapore. I don’t think there’s an issue there at all,” Lewis said.

But he admitted: “Some events we will have we will keep private for students and faculty. We’re not going to be hosting partisan political campaign events. We would remain non-partisan.”

During a conference session on 21 June, Lewis reiterated to the audience: “A bedrock principle for Yale-NUS is academic freedom, and that’s something that’s strongly guaranteed in our interactions with NUS in our founding agreement.”

“The restrictions on political demonstrations in Singapore are something of concern to a lot of Yale faculty. You need a permit to hold a public demonstration, and [there are] various restrictions of that type and very strong libel laws if you criticise a government minister.

“These are restrictions on speech that are perhaps not ideal...we can’t wait for a partner country to perfectly meet all our political requirements before we open up a college or university there.”


Lewis also said that 90% of the faculty at the new college will be living in Singapore. Although most of them had studied in the US, less than half had US citizenship. “Its true we will have Yale visitors [faculty] and it’s not cheap to get people from there. But we can fit it into the budget because it’s not the main source of our teaching.”

For shorter one- or two-week courses, about half would be taught by professors from Yale in the US and half by local professors.

But he said the curriculum was a mixture of Eastern and Western approaches. “Its really not just Yale exported. But really a study of Western and Asian conversations and their interactions with each other.

“True, we are drawing on the US pedagogical style”, which he said was popular with Asian students who go to study in the US.

"We will try it out and see what works – it is also possible that in Singapore we might wind up changing things and some of that might wind up influencing the US in the future,” Lewis said.