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Anne Pakir, National University of Singapore

Anne Pakir is the director of the international relations office at the National University of Singapore, an institution on the rise in the global university rankings. She talks to The PIE about the university’s international student population and alliances within the ASEAN region.

The PIE: What is your student mix at NUS?

"I think Singapore is one of those countries where we have no other resources except human potential"

AP: We have 37,000 students. 27,000 of them are undergraduates and before they graduate from us in four years we hope that more than 70% will leave our campus to go abroad on a global education adventure, experience, academic opportunity, etc. We have achieved that statistic – more than seven out of 10 leave our campus before they graduate.

The PIE: What kind of programmes?

AP: 2,000 will go on a student exchange programme. To do that on a tuition-free waiver bases, we need to invite 2,000 students to our campus. Reciprocity basis without any tuition involved.

“Our approach is to provide multiple global pathways”

The PIE: Where do they go?

AP: All over the world. If we look at the 2,000 of them, around 50% will go to Europe. Another 25% to the Americas, and another 25% to the Asia Pacific.

Another 3,000 almost will go on shorter stints. They go on international internships, they go on international research attachment programmes, so regularly we’ll send about three students to the University of Oxford, for example, because the professors look at our students as potential PhD students. And we also send them on summer programmes and winter programmes. Our approach is to provide multiple global pathways, and the students can choose whether they want to go away for two weeks or more, four months, a year or two years. We have 70 joint double-degree programmes, and so they can stay away for two years if they want to.

The PIE: Do you find lots of students want to do that?

AP: It depends very much on the kind of programme that we provide them with, so for the one year away, NUS overseas college is a system where we sent students to the six top entrepreneurial destinations of the world: they go to Silicon Valley for a whole year. And while they are there they do a full year of internship at startup companies and these startup companies cannot be more than three years old, so they learn from the founders and the CEO.

This would appeal to the more entrepreneurial-minded students. They may not be thinking of a graduate degree, a PhD in the end. They’re thinking of starting their own business.

That’s the one year away. And for the two years or more away, this would be for the joint and double degree programmes. We recently signed an agreement with Sciences-Po in Paris.

The PIE: There’s quite a lot of funding for outbound study in Singapore, isn’t there?

AP: There is. I think Singapore is one of those countries where we have no other resources except human potential, and that’s where most of our funding goes – developing through education, right up to tertiary level, the best possible in every individual.

“English is one of our four official languages, but is also the main medium of education in Singapore”

The PIE: And the government matches funding?

AP: Yes, so there is something that is just outside our university system called the National Research Foundation. This is the government’s way of ensuring we are very active on the R&D scene, and in the first five years I think the tranche of money they put aside was $5bn, and the next five years was $10bn, and so on. The idea is to attract the top research universities to come to Singapore, to collaborate with professors at NUS and Nanyang Technological University. So they come in large numbers, because these are huge labs. We have MIT occupying maybe two floors of this Campus CREATE building.

CREATE stands for the Campus and Research Excellence And Technological Enterprise, and on this campus, it’s a vertical building full of research going on, we have MIT, we have the Technical University of Munich, Berkeley and we also have a few others. They make up ten top universities, working in collaboration with our professors and researchers on very focused areas like vertical cities. This is the way for the future, right? Sustainable futures – so energy efficient processes, developments and products and so on.

The PIE: What would you say the barriers to study abroad are for students in Singapore?

AP: I think the barriers are very few, essentially because we are blessed with a few major factors that help us: English is one of our four official languages, but is also the main medium of education in Singapore, so in terms of compatibility of standards and courses in English, we have no problem. Our students go to Canada, the UK, the USA, Australia, New Zealand, and they’re quite happy. They can compete on the same basis.

Funds are available – not too much! – there is a kind of understood model where the student comes up with one-third of the cost, the university will provide one-third of the cost, and if we can get a third party, foundation or agency to provide the remaining one-third, the students are able to go abroad. And we do have overseas programmes loans systems.

“By 2025, 2030, ASEAN will be a huge economic block”

The PIE: Has it been a challenge historically, making students aware of Singapore?

AP: Yes historically it was a real challenge. When I first joined the international, I was the deputy director in charge of the Americas. I used to knock on doors of the major campuses in the states and they’ll be asking me questions, this was 15 years ago, like “Where is Singapore?” “Are you part of China?” “Do you speak English?” And this is from top administrative officials in these campuses. But they’ve now come to realise that Singapore is a globalised city, a dynamic global city, that we use English very easily and what we can offer in terms of quality of education, and academic framework would be similar to what they can offer.

The PIE: And NUS is also rising up in the rankings.

AP: We are number 12 in the world according to one ranking, number 24 in the world according to another ranking depending on what you look at. And the UK, fortunately, is more familiar with Singapore because we were formerly a British colony. It was getting the orientation from the Americas.

But we do send out students into very remote destinations of the world as part of that diverse global pathway that we want to build for them. So they go to Colombia to do internships, they go to Sri Lanka to do their community service projects, they go to the Philippines, Indonesia, not too far away, but they also go to Costa Rica for their summer programme, we do provide a large platform for them to choose their pieces.

The PIE: Are rankings a big draw for students?

AP: Yes I think so because we do invite the New Colombo Plan scholars from Australia, for example, when they have universities to choose from, they can choose the top universities in Japan, Korea, China, Singapore and a lot of them come to NUS. There is a nice number that comes, between 8-10 a year, and we’re very happy to hear they are interested in doing some of the courses at the university.

And one of the questions I ask them would be “Why are you coming to Singapore, why aren’t you going somewhere else?” and they say it’s our ranking. They know us through our ranking.

The PIE: Do you have alliances with universities in the ASEAN region?

AP: Definitely. There is the tension between regionalisation and internationalisation. And it was a very important question for us to focus on now because by 2025, 2030, ASEAN will be a huge economic block. It is already the third largest in Asia and it is the seventh largest in the world in economy. It’s huge and we are talking about an ASEAN vision in 2025 where mobility across the borders will go beyond global, beyond student mobility, it will be the workforce moving from Manila to Jakarta to Singapore to Bangkok and even further afield to Vietnam, to Cambodia, Laos and so on.

“I think there is a perception that Singapore is further ahead in terms of the hierarchy of universities in the region”

The PIE: Where is Singapore’s role in that?

AP: I think there is a perception that Singapore is further ahead in terms of the hierarchy of universities in the region and I don’t think it’s an unjustifiable perception. It is true that we have advanced quite a lot so we’re helping in terms of capacity building, and sharing of prospectuses.

We do engage them and in our university, we regularly conduct a course which I call PLUM, Professional Leadership in University Management. So we get the rectors and the vice rectors to come to our campus to learn about how we have managed as a global university, how we have risen in terms of academic reputation, research citations, and technological advancements etc. And we learn something in the process too.

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