Thu, Jul 17, 2008
The Straits Times
Australian universities thriving in Singapore

By Sandra Davie, Senior Writer

WHAT a difference a year makes.

This time last year, polytechnic graduate Sharmaine Rose, 20, was worried about finding a university or private school to further her education.

She had been offered a place by the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Singapore and even paid up her first-year fees. She was due to start on her business degree studies in August.

But in May came the shock announcement of the closure of UNSW Asia. The Australian university said it was pulling out of Singapore after just three months, citing poor demand from the region.

Students like Ms Sharmaine, who could not afford to transfer to UNSW's Sydney campus, were left scrambling for another local university or private institution that would take them in.

She found a place at the Singapore branch of another Australian university, the James Cook University (JCU). But at the back of her mind, she wondered if it too would pull out if enrolment fell.

She need not have worried. JCU Singapore, which started five years ago with 50 students, soon faced the opposite problem of having to find a bigger site when its student numbers swelled to 1,200. It was occupying six floors of the Spring Singapore building in Bukit Merah.

It is moving to a new 18,500 sq m campus in Upper Thomson Road next week, offering students more and bigger teaching rooms, as well as sports facilities. It expects to have 3,500 students by 2012.

Said Ms Sharmaine, who is looking forward to the new academic year in the new campus: 'Looks like UNSW had it wrong. It said Asian students will not want to come to Singapore to enrol in Australian university programmes. But look at how James Cook has grown. And there are other Australian universities coming in as well.'

She was referring to the Curtin University of Technology, which announced in March that it had partnered Australian education company Navitas to set up a campus here. The venture will be financed to the tune of $40 million.

The Perth-based university will occupy the former Institute of Technical Education campus in Balestier and start offering business degree courses to over 1,000 students before the end of the year.

It hopes to add more programmes including mass communications, nursing, engineering and design modules and enrol up to 5,000 students eventually.

Another Australian institution, the University of Adelaide, which operates out of Ngee Ann Kongsi's Tank Road premises, intends to double its intake to 900 by next year.

And Perth-based Murdoch University, which has been offering degree programmes at the Singapore Manufacturers' Federation's (SMa) School of Management premises in North Bridge Road, has spent $1 million to set up an international study centre there.

It said the number of Singaporeans doing its degree courses here has increased sharply from just 22 in 2004 to more than 1,000 and it plans to double this by the end of next year.

Dr Dale Anderson, chief executive officer of JCU Singapore, is not surprised at the increasing presence of Australian institutions here.

'Like James Cook University, they clearly recognise the viability of Singapore in attracting students from around the world,' he said, revealing that his university had spent about $5 million so far on its new campus but was confident of growing its enrolment.

'We have had to hold back on launching some new programmes and taking in more students because of the lack of space. But now we can go ahead and add more programmes and students.'

Mr Rod Jones, executive director of Navitas, said: 'We are a publicly-listed company so we did our homework before venturing here. There is a shortage of higher education opportunities for students in the region and Curtin will provide a good opportunity for them.'

He also pointed out that UNSW Asia had aimed to be a research-intensive university which is expensive to maintain.

Curtin will focus instead on teaching and learning, which will enable it to keep its costs low and charge students lower fees than in Perth.

Murdoch's deputy vice-chancellor (Faculty, Enterprise & International) Gary Martin said the Singapore centre is the third such overseas facility for Murdoch, after Dubai and Tokyo. The target is for the Singapore centre to enrol 2,000 students in three years' time.

He believes that with Murdoch's promise to deliver high quality programmes, the Singapore centre will easily meet the target.

'Singaporeans as well as foreign students want quality. Courses delivered at the Singapore centre are the same as courses offered at the Murdoch campuses in Perth,' he said.

'The curriculum on offer is identical and at the completion of studies, the degree is the same as that awarded in Australia.'

Dr Anderson added that it helps to know the environment and market here.

'You must understand where the students are coming from and what they are looking for and be nimble in adjusting to market demands,' he said.

He thinks Singapore, which has over 80,000 foreign students here, is an attractive study destination for many reasons.

'It is a very modern city, yet safe and culturally familiar to Asian students,' he said.

As for Singapore's target to have 150,000 foreign students here by 2015, he said: 'I am confident that Singapore will reach its target. James Cook hopes to be part of its success story.'

This article was first published in The Straits Times on July 15, 2008.

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