Is the Yale-NUS liberal arts degree Asian enough?

As Yale-NUS College – the flagship liberal arts programme in Asia run by Yale and the National University of Singapore – inaugurated its new campus with three residential colleges this month, there have been rumblings of discontent over the course content.

The Yale-NUS liberal arts degree is based on Yale’s tried-and-tested formula, with some localised content that sets it apart from its US counterpart as a programme for Asia. However, several academics in Singapore admitted they were “stunned” when Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, stressed in an official speech that Yale-NUS College should not be a “carbon copy” of Yale in the US, in order to succeed.

“It has to be something creative, something different, something with the best elements of its parents – Yale and NUS – and hopefully, outdoing them,” Lee said.

Officially inaugurating the new US$240 million Singapore campus on 12 October, Lee said Singapore’s other universities also train students to think critically and build leadership skills – as Yale-NUS promotes itself – “but Yale’s approach is different. Yale has been very successful in the US context. If we can adapt it successfully to Singapore, to our context, we will have created another pathway for our students”.

“The Yale-NUS College’s success will also benefit the rest of our tertiary education system because the innovative ideas, their pedagogy, their new learning approaches, these will spread, and other institutions will learn and will seek to outdo Yale-NUS. Our students will benefit from the competition,” Lee said.

Curriculum review

The prime minister’s remarks came as Yale-NUS is undergoing a review of its curriculum two years after the first cohort entered in 2013, and already scheduled for this year.

A student-led report on the academic programme is being included in the review of the common curriculum – approximately 38% of the course content is taken by all students irrespective of their major. The common curriculum consists of a broad-based selection of courses including arts, humanities, science and social science courses.

An external review panel co-chaired by Tan Tai Yong, Yale-NUS vice-president of academic affairs, and Bryan Garsten, a professor of political science and humanities at Yale in the US, will be recommending improvements.

“The curriculum is not changing,” Tan Tai Yong emphasised in remarks to University World News in Singapore just days after Lee’s speech, adding the review was not designed to include more Asian content. Courses would continue the “marrying of the two traditions – Asian and Western”, he said.

“The content is not the problem. The review addresses certain structural issues such as whether this class is well-organised, the way [it is] delivered. The philosophy behind the curriculum is not changing,” Tan said.

“When we first started we decided that two years down the road – because this is our first batch of students – we are going to look at whether the programme is working. With feedback from students, faculty and so on, we are in the process of doing a review, not so much to change everything as to see what parts are working and what parts need fixing.”

However, other sources said the breadth of changes was not yet clear, and acknowledged the pressures to move away from the Yale model.

Faculty turnover

Some students told University World News that the institution did not yet have the breadth of faculty to deliver a broad-based curriculum along the lines of the Yale curriculum. Yale-NUS has been operating with less than its full contingent of around 100 staff, restricting some options, they said.

Yale-NUS had some 70 faculty members during the past year and local media in Singapore have highlighted the departure of three of the four founding deans in the past year.

Tan said staff turnover was “normal”. But he said it was not easy to find the right people. “At this point in time we are still trying to get the best person for the job. Nationality is not a primary consideration.”

While currently around 40% of faculty were from Asia, and 60% from Europe and the US, he acknowledged Asia is “just not training in that tradition [liberal arts]”.

“Liberal arts and liberal education comes from the United States,” he said.

NUS president Tan Chorh Chuan said in an article in Singapore’s Straits Times newspaper last week that within Asia, the way in which liberal arts education is defined and conceived varies, as do the reasons for the growing interest in it.

“As a broad generalisation, the focus of much of higher education in Asia has been largely utilitarian, as most countries are in the earlier stages of industrialisation. In several, early narrow specialisation and a dominant emphasis on science and technology subjects have helped support rapid economic growth,” he said.

“The purposes of education vary, depending on the phase of development of the country and educational system, and the changing local context.”

He added that there are nevertheless interesting convergences in Asia with other parts of the world.

But Prime Minister Lee had noted in his 12 October speech: "Asia is different from the US. Globalisation and technology are changing the way we live, presenting many countries with similar challenges – income inequality, wage stagnation, youth unemployment, ageing population, rapid economic, social and political change.

"But while the challenges are similar, the countries are not converging on a single universal social or political model that will best deal with these challenges under all circumstances."

Lee said Yale-NUS graduates needed skills “that will enable them to help countries in Asia adapt to a rapidly changing world”.

"Yale-NUS therefore needs a curriculum and a college ethos that respond to this regional context. Its graduates have to understand these countries, have a feel for how they work, what they need, how they can move forward," the prime minister said.

The programme enrols some 250 students a year, from around 40 countries.