Students sue NYU over ‘subpar’ branch campus education

In a lawsuit that, if it is successful, could have major implications for the way United States universities teach degrees in overseas branch campuses, three former students of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in Singapore are suing NYU, alleging its now defunct branch in Singapore failed to provide the quality of education they expected.

The suit claims the students were told they would receive the same high-quality education as at the renowned Tisch School of the Arts at NYU's main campus in New York, but that was not the case, they claimed in court documents.

NYU, denying the allegations, said it provided students with an “excellent education” and said it expects to prevail in court.

Anna Basso, Amy Hartman, and Jaime Villa Ruiz filed the lawsuit on 19 September at the NYU District Court for the Southern District of New York. According to the complaint, the three individuals suffered financial damages from being “misled” into enrolling at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts Asia in Singapore.

The three said they had paid between US$100,000 and US$165,000 for their education at Tisch Asia.

The lawsuit alleges Tisch Asia was “a subpar programme in practically every aspect, from the quality of faculty, facilities and equipment to exclusion of Tisch Asia students from grants, competitions and networking opportunities available to students at Tisch New York”.

Describing Tisch Asia as an “educational scam” the three claimed in their suit that NYU failed to provide their Singapore students the same quality of education and opportunities as their New York counterparts.

"Except for the cost of tuition, Tisch Asia never lived up to the level of Tisch New York," court documents said. "Tisch Asia students were not provided with the same quality of instruction and equipment as their New York counterparts; did not have an opportunity to gain the same or even comparable internships, part-time jobs in the industry or other résumé building opportunities; enter into certain important artistic contests and festivals or apply for certain grants available to New York students."

The former students are suing for alleged breach of contract, fraud, “negligent misrepresentation” and “unjust enrichment”. According to the suit, the education provided was “not even remotely worth” its US$50,000 yearly tuition fees.

Faculty gaps

Tisch padded gaps in the faculty with under-qualified Singaporean adjuncts, the suit alleges.

Students maintained some faculty members at Tisch Asia had “either subpar experience or knowledge compared to faculty in New York", did not have strong ties to the industry and-or “had not been active in the industry for a long period of time”.

The lawsuit claimed one professor teaching a cinematography class did not appear to know how to use a modern camera. Another class was taught by a professor in New York via Skype, despite an awkward time difference between Singapore and New York.

Tisch School of the Arts Asia opened in Singapore in 2007, and had some 28 full-time faculty members when the announcement to withdraw from Singapore was made in November 2012.

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, at the time of the closure announcement, which was ostensibly due to financial problems.

The three former students completed their classwork at Tisch Asia in Singapore, New York-based lawyer Oren Giskan, acting for the three, told University World News.

Among the allegations in the lawsuit was that the “majority” of Tisch Asia students were “rejects who couldn’t get into the Tisch New York master of fine arts programme”, another possible indication of a “subpar” programme.

In response to whether some of the three had tried to gain admission to Tisch in New York, Giskan said: “My understanding is that they did not have that choice.”

The suit notes that despite an assurance from NYU that Tisch Asia would be in operation “a long time” and would create a legacy, when NYU decided to close Tisch Asia in 2012, “it became abundantly clear to Tisch Asia students that they fell victim to an educational scam, that their programme would never create a legacy, and the hundreds of thousands of dollars they paid for education of far lower quality than provided by Tisch New York were not even remotely worth it".

NYU Response

NYU Spokesperson John Beckman said: "This suit is wholly without merit, and we expect to prevail in court."

He said: “The students at Tisch Asia had the same curriculum as Tisch uses in New York; many Tisch Asia courses were taught by New York-based faculty and all were taught by highly qualified faculty.

“Students had excellent facilities and equipment; and, notably, graduates received a Tisch School of the Arts degree. It was a robust, graduate level programme in the arts, and artistically the school was a success, with a number of students winning prestigious student film awards.”

Tisch Asia students also allegedly weren’t eligible for certain grants and fellowships afforded to those in New York.

But NYU provided a list of such awards.

Referring to Tisch’s closure in Singapore, Beckman said: “It did not work financially and operated at a steep deficit precisely because NYU was providing the students with an excellent education that cost more than tuition dollars brought in. And even after the unsustainability of the finances became clear, NYU continued to honour its commitment to the students it had admitted by keeping the school open until each and every one had had a chance to graduate.”

The suit is seeking class action status, which means other former Tisch Asia students could be part of it.