The French higher education and research (HER) system has been facing many challenges for several years: demographic influx, lack of autonomy of institutions, underfunding, lack of attractiveness... The Covid-19 crisis has exacerbated these structural difficulties for French universities, which are under severe strain. But is the French case unique? To explore the question, Institut Montaigne is launching a blogpost series to shed light on the challenges and opportunities faced by other HER systems worldwide. For the first article of our series, we dive into Singapore's HER system and what to learn from it.
Apart from a shared passion for food, France and Singapore do not have much in common. Located at the southern tip of the Malay peninsula, the "Little Red Dot" is an island state of 718.3 square kilometers - the smallest country in Southeast Asia. It is also a young country that only turned 55 last year. Strategically located but with next to no natural resources, Singapore has invested heavily in its human capital, making Singapore's education system one of the most praised in the world.
Its position connecting the Indian Ocean with the South China Sea allowed the city-state to become one of the busiest ports in the globe and a real hub for Southeast Asia. Spotlessly clean Changi airport, where a flight used to take off or land every 80 seconds in pre-pandemic times, is a source of national pride. With the efficiency that characterizes Singapore, Changi airport connects the island with the entire world, making it one of the top-10 air travel mega hubs in the world.
Being success-oriented, Singapore's ambition to climb up the ladder is also present in the field of Higher Education and Research (HER). Excellence stands as a priority and during the past twenty years, the city-state has been deploying enormous efforts to make Singapore the "Boston of the East".
As an education hub, the city-state has always been very open to international collaborations but also very pragmatic in its choices. As a consequence, for many Singaporean institutions, harnessing the complexity of the French system has not always been an easy task compared to other HER systems.
The report on French Higher Education and Research, released on April 8 by Institut Montaigne, offers an interesting diagnosis of the situation and proposes relevant solutions to overcome some of the most pressing issues in French HER. In light of this report, we hope to provide an overview of the evolution of the Singaporean HER landscape and to address the main challenges that will need to be faced in the post-pandemic world.
Attracting international talent to the tropics
The "Global Schoolhouse" initiative was launched in August 2003 by George Yeo, Minister for Trade and Industry at the time, to make Singapore a world education center "providing educational programs of all types and at all levels" and with the capacity to attract "an interesting mix of students from all over the world."
To achieve this goal, three main targets were established: to attract leading foreign institutions into Singapore, to develop Singapore's local institutions and enterprises, and to bring a large number of international students to Singapore.
To that end, the Economic Development Board (EDB) offered substantial economic incentives to bring prestigious higher education institutions to the city-state. Despite a promising start, when institutions such as Chicago's Booth School of Business, NYU Tisch School of the Arts, INSEAD, and Johns Hopkins University set up campuses in Singapore, some of these schools were not able to thrive in the city-state and were obliged to close after a few years. The global financial crash in 2008 and other structural conditions, together with a backlash against immigration, became an obstacle to pursue the future-ready dream. INSEAD, though, has benefited from the vibrancy of the region and decided to maintain its Asia campus in Singapore. ESSEC, another French business school, followed and opened a full-fledged campus around the same area in Ayer Rajah.
Although with mixed success, the Global Schoolhouse paved the way for the Campus for Research Excellence And Technological Enterprise (CREATE), another initiative launched by the National Research Foundation (NRF) under the Prime's Minister Office, which allowed Singapore to remain attractive for international institutions.
CREATE targeted top research universities to bring their talent to the island to work on key Singapore-related matters (the environment, energy, human and urban systems) in exchange for abundant resources and a supportive work environment. Nine top institutions are now part of the team: MIT, ETH Zürich, the University of Cambridge, Berkeley, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Technische Universität München, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Illinois University, and the CNRS - the last institution to join and the only one that is not a university.
From rising stars to world-class: Singapore’s autonomous universities
Singapore is now home to six local autonomous universities and the local higher education landscape has evolved very rapidly in the past forty years.
Meritocracy and the pursuit of excellence have always been crucial for Singapore. The two comprehensive universities, the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU) have become highly reputable institutions ranked highly in the university rankings and attracting a lot of attention to the city-state.