Written on: Fri, Apr 1st, 2011

Reflections on Yale-NUS College, the University Scholars Program (USP) and the Status Quo

Reflections on Yale-NUS College, the University Scholars Program (USP) and the Status Quo
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A follow-up piece to this article written by the same writer, in which a revision of perspective is given, can be found here.

After months of speculation and debate, where the likes of Yale lecturer Mark Oppenheimer and Yale Daily News student writers publicly criticized Yale University’s plan for a tie-up with NUS, a clear official confirmation of the Yale-NUS College venture has finally been given.

University President Tan Chorh Chuan sent an official email to the campus population on 31st March 2011 to announce that “agreement has been reached with Yale to establish the Yale-NUS College at NUS”.

According to the email, the Yale-NUS College will be an autonomous college of NUS which will open in 2013. Charles Bailyn, the A. Bartlett Giamatti  Professor at Yale who specializes in Astronomy and Physics (and who is an expert in black holes) has been named as the inaugural dean of the college and will be responsible for faculty recruitment.

(Edit: 2nd April 2011 – Link to NUS announcement here)

Residential Colleges: the new trend in Singaporean tertiary education

The Yale-NUS College will be located north of Kent Ridge campus, and will have a student body of about 1000. There will be 3 residential colleges each catering to about 330 students, and these residential colleges are the focal point of the YNC experience.

According to the college’s website, “These residential colleges are far more than dormitories: they are full collegiate communities, drawing on some of the best traditions of residential colleges at universities like Yale, Oxford and Cambridge, while developing their own unique features and distinctive characters in Singapore.

“There will be lovely dining halls to encourage lingering conversations and robust debates, as well as classrooms and seminar rooms with state-of-the-art technology. Each residential college will have student meeting spaces, a major Common Room and a student-run buttery in which student enterprise can be developed. Except for those periods engaged in studies or internships abroad, students will live in their college for all four years. They will develop deep bonds with college mates and be supported in exploring the intellectual and personal creativity characteristic of a liberal arts education.” (my italics)

Further, faculty members will live in these colleges and “work closely with the students to shape their curricular choices and to develop distinctive co-curricular programs and activities for the members of that college.” (my italics)

Parallels can be seen with the USP (University Scholars’ Program) Residential College. Students at the USP residential colleges will also “be part of a closely-knitted community and network of USP alums, faculty, staff and students.” Indeed, “professors and staff… will live, work and play together as one community.” (my italics)

The student-meeting spaces in YNC also find their analogue here:  “As we build and develop the USP residential college, the present USP student lounge (aka Chatterbox) will continue to morph in its character at the ground floor location of the USP residential block. It is your space, your expression.

“Whether in the form of comments, poems, scribbles on the walls, or impromptu open mike sessions, lively debates or intellectual discussionsit adds zest to your student life. We will be in a community of like-minded intellectuals committed to making significant contributions to society. We will be the cradle for independent learning and creative ideas.” (my italics)

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  1. […] Koh Choon Hwee thinks that the presence of an Ivy League institution in Singapore affirms the prevailing attitude in society of worshipping the ‘superior’ education of Western countries Hence, while I do feel happy for the Yale-NUS College, as an NUS student and as a Singaporean, I am aware that this ‘happiness’ exists within a discourse of ‘Western superiority’. My ‘happiness’ quickly dissipates into apathetic jadedness (read: sian) at this point. […]

  2. Harold says:

    Hi Choon Hwee

    Brand name issues aside, do you think that the liberal arts offerings in YNC would be as satisfying as good, or even top LACs in the US, given it’s addition of Asian schools of thought?

    Especially with regard to the following criteria:

    1) the quality of discussion generated

    2)the examining of the links between disciplines (as opposed to just lumping a mish-mash of different modules together without taking any effort to make comparisons)

    3)overall warm collegiate experience (as opposed to being an insignificant figure in a sea of tens of thousands)

    I am a recent JC graduate looking to study the liberal arts, wherever it’s offered. Would be great if you could weigh in on this issue!

  3. Koh Choon Hwee says:

    Hi Harold!

    I actually think that the quality of discussion in current NUS tutorials and seminars are already very high. I have done 2 exchange programs in Delhi University and (now) University of Arizona, and alot of my JC and sec school classmates went to Ivies and LACs like Brown, Oxbridge, Columbia, UPenn you name it, hence I speak from personal as well as what I have gleaned from my friends’ experiences. (but here I speak only my views)

    With regards to point number 2, NUS actually reformed its system in 1990s (1994 I believe) which took the best of the ‘British’ system and the ‘US’ system, enabling students to take modules from different disciplines while still retaining a strong enough emphasis in one discipline (the major). Alot of my rich friends who could afford to go overseas are under the impression that at NUS you cannot take modules from other faculties or departments – that is false. There is freedom of academic exploration in NUS, and strong emphasis of structured interdisciplinary modules in programs like USP and the upcoming YNC.

    Hence, the ‘brand’ name of Yale, while important in pragmatic aspects of NUS-branding (corporate side of things), adds little (so far) to the good substance NUS already has in terms of curricula and structure, in my humble opinion. Further, you may want to check out the USP program at usp.nus.edu.sg .

    A warm collegiate experience – I think people ought to stay away from stereotypes like being an “insignificant figure in a sea of tens of thousands”. That is quite exaggerated. You make friends the same way you do in JC or sec school. Even in an LAC vs Big Public US university situation – often people promote LACs over Big Public US Unis because students are scared of being ‘lost’ in a sea of people. It is an exaggeration- it was quite easy to make friends here at Uni of Arizona.

    Further, big public unis (NUS, or foreign ones) mean that you get to interact with a bigger variety of people, including science/engineering students (if you’re an arts students) and arts students, if you’re sciencey. or Law students, Nursing students, Med students, all of whom will have an interesting perspective to bring to the classroom. Small Colleges will not have such a big variety, imho)

    Sometimes the ‘smallness’ of an LAC may have a flipside – example, when you have a bad break up and can’t seem to stop bumping into that ex or something. Ask any law or medicine student, first-years are always warned not to get involved with their batch mates too fast if not it will be hard to avoid that significant-ex for 4 yrs of undergrad life.

    Good luck with your applications, but I’m assuming you would be doing NS now. Good luck with that too! Let me know if you have any other questions.

    Best regards

  4. Harold says:

    Hi Choon Hwee

    Thanks for the reply!

    Real sorry to bug you, but I’ve sent you an email with some other queries on education in NUS in general. Take your time to reply.

    Thanks again and love what you’re doing here

  5. Harold says:

    Hey, referring to your post, I disagree with you a few points:

    Firstly, liberal arts colleges have almost the same variety of students as any other large university. A lot of people have the misconception that the liberal arts are an ‘arts-oriented’ style of learning, which is simply not true. ‘liberal’ simply means studying the sciences, arts, social sciences, and a foreign language. Students can major in anything from the natural sciences like physics, to the humanities.

    Perhaps the only type of student demographic LACs lack are the business, engineering, law, accountancy students; professional degrees

    Secondly, while NUS does offer a broad range of modules for General Ed, this does not mean that the links between disciplines are established. One could study a broad range of modules, but in isolation.

    But am I correct to say that for USP the curriculum is a lot more unified compared to normal general ed? Like students apply psychological concepts to economic issues to explain rational or irrational consumer behavior?

    Thirdly, while friends can be made in any sort of university, wouldnt you agree that it is to some extent warmer when you have fifty people in a residential college living, dining and going on overseas trips together for four years, and everyone knows who everyone else is.

    But i do agree with you that social boo-boos might become impossible to escape.

    • Koh Choon Hwee says:

      I know that LACs also have an emphasis on science, but the instances I had mentioned -nursing, medicine, law- are precisely (as you mentioned yourself) those that small LACs would most probably be lacking.

      I know that LACs have a stereotype of being only ‘arts-oriented’, but in actual fact they do have courses as computer science, etc. Yet when compared to big public research universities, the variety in an LAC is limited. This might not matter to you however, and that’s great!

      I don’t know what you mean by NUS offering a broad range of modules for Gen Ed that do not have established links. There are coherently cross-listed modules, and USP offers coherently structured interdisciplinary modules.

      To your third point – it’s subjective. You seem to prefer small residential college living, so LACs would suit you in that case. I was just pointing out that not many people would, but of course there will be students like you that do.

      Best regards

    • Glenn says:

      Hi, I am a Singaporean at Williams, and chanced upon your article.

      The biggest draw of LACs, for me at least, is the small class size which gives you maximum interaction with professors. This is in contrast to many larger universities where classes are not only large, they are also taught by graduate students instead of professors. At Williams, I have had classes with faculty-student ratios of 1:1, 2:1 and 5:2. This means that one cannot hide in class, and must learn to formulate, defend and criticize arguments. This ability to think critically is point of a liberal arts education, and is best cultivated at a liberal arts college. The smallness of LACs are thus advantageous not because they make it difficult to get “lost” socially, but because of the intense intellectual stimulation one gets each and everyday by virtue of being in smaller classes.

    • Koh Choon Hwee says:

      I agree with you entirely, and hope that you do not mistake my earlier comments as criticisms of LACs – I was just giving what I hoped was a fair enough comparison between LACs and big public unis.

      In any case I think PM Goh was a Williams alumni also.

      Thanks for your comment!

  6. Nathan says:

    If you want to de-center the West and stop making people think that you are from/in China, then stop acting so similarly to them politically and educationally. Sure Yale could help, but using them is simply another way of searching for a white savior from the West. Changing your own system internally and freeing yourselves politically and educationally will get you much more respect and put the NUS brand at a distinct advantage that no Ivy could bestow.

    • Koh Choon Hwee says:

      I think you have quite completely misunderstood the article. Your broad, sweeping statements – ‘free yourselves politically and educationally will gain you much more respect’ – are also quite off the mark and bewildering.

      I understand you write for this 21cb.net; I suspect you wanted to advertise your site here, and so yes, I decided to approve your comment, and yes I have visited your site and read your article.


    • Ronald Jay says:


      Yale goes global—university plans “liberal arts college” in authoritarian Singapore

  7. […] 1/4  (oooh, is this the same ‘Koh’ from the debate above?) Kent Ridge Common’s op-ed Reflections on Yale-NUS College, the University Scholars Program and the Status Quo  […]

  8. Peter says:

    Poor article. The idea that an alleged case of plagarism dosen’t undermine the credidability in general. It would be naive to think that LSE is a lesser instituition academically because of that. Furthermore Sir Davies quit his job because he allowed LSE to be linked with Gadaffi and not due to the claims that Gadaffi jr plagarised his thesis.

  9. Overseas Singaporean says:

    University Scholars Programme is like a double major, students come from Faculty of Science, Engine, FASS etc.

    So basically students are majoring in Liberal arts and their faculty major.

    BTW, I wanted to comment on your article on Cornell-Qatar and Yale-NUS but for some reasons the comments feature is not there.

    It is an apple to orange comparison because Yale-NUS is producing liberal arts grads whereas Cornell-Qatar aims to produce medicos.

    It was conceived out of wife of a Qatari prince desire to improve the quality of medical education within the region. The Qataris are serious about this and they built the Hamad Medical Complex to complement the medical school. All medical schools have an attached hospital where students learn the art of doctoring.

    It is unfortunately not a good comparison for the reason that you should rightly compare a professional school with another professional school. A proper comparison will be Duke-NUS versus Cornell-Qatar. Note that Duke Uni and Cornell are the two so far who have expanded their medical schools outside .

    Cynically, American expansion of education is really about the moolah….You need to read how much funding they poured into Cornell-Qatar. Moolah as in paying for the brand name of the degree.

    For medical schools it is a different story. Singapore Medical Council for example only recognises degrees done in the home university itself. I believe it is the same for bodies recognising medical degrees.

    • Koh Choon Hwee says:

      Hi there! Yes I agree that it is a bad comparison between Cornell-Qatar and Yale-NUS, I had removed the article because I realized that. Then one of our readers tried to access the article and managed to get a google image of it, and thought that it was being censored. So I just re-posted the article to banish any conspiracy theories of censorship.

      But I fully agree with you that it is apples to oranges in terms of subject matter ; liberal arts v medicine


  10. […] vis a vis YNC’s relationship with the mothership of NUS? Indeed, KRC has critiqued this venture before.), but I would have expected more sophisticated arguments from these Yale professors, not arguments […]

  11. […] vis a vis YNC’s relationship with the mothership of NUS? Indeed, KRC has critiqued this venture before.), but I would have expected more sophisticated arguments from these Yale professors, not arguments […]

  12. […] to establish a liberal arts college, and had expressed these objections in articles (here and here) at the Kent Ridge Common, an independent online student […]

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