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Troubled New Zealand university's plan to open campus in Singapore incites anger

Troubled New Zealand university's plan to open campus in Singapore incites anger
The move to expand overseas while trimming jobs at home, however, has sparked anger among its staff.
PHOTO: Facebook/Massey University

WELLINGTON - Cash-strapped Massey University, which is cutting jobs and programmes in New Zealand, is planning to open a campus in Singapore in a bid to find new streams of revenue.

The move to expand overseas while trimming jobs at home, however, has sparked anger among its staff.

Massey - one of New Zealand's largest public universities - announced in August a joint venture with "an educational investor with facilities" in Singapore. It declined to reveal the name of the co-investor.

It expects the first intake of students to begin classes in 2024, with an "ambitious target of having 5,000 students based offshore by 2026". The 5,000 target would include students based in Singapore, as well as those enrolled in partner universities in neighbouring countries such as China and Vietnam, a university spokesman told The Straits Times.

The range of programmes to be offered is still being finalised, she said. While the selection will be drawn from Massey's current programmes, they will not duplicate what is already available in Singapore.

The university currently offers an honours degree in food technology with the Singapore Institute of Technology and a master of analytics through PSB Academy. Both courses attract over 300 students. Massey has an additional 2,000 students studying through its partners in other countries.

While it is not going to "build a physical campus" in Singapore, Massey has described the size and scale of the joint venture as unprecedented for a university in New Zealand.

It will allow its international students the option to study the same programmes closer to home. New Zealand students will also get an opportunity to do part of their degree in Singapore. 

The project has been in the works for over a year. Massey's vice-chancellor, Professor Jan Thomas, said she sees Singapore as an important established market for expansion into South-east Asia and beyond.

"Sharing our expertise and creating new and diverse revenue streams is a priority for Massey," she said.

Afflicted by falling domestic enrolment due to high employment, Massey recorded a NZ$8.8 million (S$7.1 million) deficit in 2022. It is a crisis that many of New Zealand's universities find themselves facing. Six of the country's eight universities are in financial distress. 

To bring the university to financial sustainability, Massey had called for voluntary redundancies from its academic and professional staff from July in an attempt to cut costs.

According to New Zealand's Tertiary Education Union, the proposed job cuts totalled 245, affecting its College of Humanities and Social Sciences, College of Creative Arts, College of Sciences, College of Health, the Business School and the library.

An online petition was started on on July 24 to save its bachelor of speech and language therapy programme from being axed and has since gathered more than 5,560 signatures.

Massey would not reveal how many have applied for "voluntary enhanced cessation", except that the process is still ongoing and there has been interest from some staff members.

Nonetheless, the university's plans to expand overseas while cutting jobs at home has angered its staff and students. This is despite the university reiterating that funds from New Zealand would not be used for the Singapore campus.

The money is coming from Massey Global, a subsidiary of Massey University. Massey declined to reveal the size of its investment, as well as projections of when it would achieve break even, citing commercial sensitivity.

"Our plans will be to invest funds held by Massey Global Ltd in Singapore, ensuring there is no impact on funds held in New Zealand," said Dr Tere McGonagle-Daly, deputy vice-chancellor, students and global engagement.

On the proposed cuts, Massey's spokesman said "closing courses, specialisations and qualifications that are no longer in demand is part of the normal cycle of academic management".

Distinguished professor of chemistry at Massey Peter Schwerdtfeger described the situation as "distressing" for the staff.

"There is little understanding why we have to face cuts and on the other hand invest in Singapore. Such an investment is seen as high-risk by most academics," he said.

The fact that Singapore is already host to at least six world-class foreign universities - such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Johns Hopkins University and Georgia Institute of Technology - is not lost on its staff, who believe Massey's chances of success in the Lion City are pretty slim.

An academic who declined to be named cited the failed example of Australia's University of New South Wales, which closed its Singapore campus after just three months and enrolling 148 students in 2007, as well as the impending closure of Yale-NUS College.


Furthermore, Singapore has six local universities, including the highly ranked National University of Singapore (NUS) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU), he added.

Massey is in 239th position in the latest Quacquarelli Symonds World University Rankings, while NUS and NTU are respectively ranked 8th and 26th globally.

"Massey has no chance at all of competing in this already saturated and ultra-competitive market," said distinguished professor of mathematics at Massey Gaven Martin.

Meanwhile, the union has decried the move to set up shop in another country while cutting jobs at home as "disturbing".

Universities across New Zealand have been grappling with falling enrolments and budget deficits, with Otago University and Victoria University of Wellington also planning to slash hundreds of jobs and cut back on unpopular programmes. Waikato University is looking at downsizing its information technology and maths department too.

Otago needs to shave as much as NZ$60 million from its budget.


Despite the New Zealand government injecting NZ$128 million into the tertiary education sector in a one-off boost to help struggling universities, Massey's spokesman said this will not resolve the longer-term financial challenges faced by the sector in this economic climate.

New Zealand universities are not alone in their financial woes. In Britain, the University of Brighton and University of East Anglia are among the latest in the country to announce their intention to shut courses and axe jobs.

The same is happening in the United States, with financially beleaguered West Virginia University, Southern Oregon University, Pennsylvania State University and Bradley University embarking on cost-cutting measures in recent months.

This article was first published in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.

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