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A view of Yale-NUS College. It will remain open and continue running its academic, co-curricular and research programmes until the end of academic year 2024/25. — TODAY file pic
A view of Yale-NUS College. It will remain open and continue running its academic, co-curricular and research programmes until the end of academic year 2024/25. — TODAY file pic

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SINGAPORE, Aug 29 — Student leaders at Yale-NUS College, who are still “shocked” and “grieving”, have hit out at what they saw was a unilateral decision made on the merger of their school that was done without consulting students first.

On Friday morning (Aug 27), the National University of Singapore (NUS) announced that this year’s cohort of students to enrol in Yale-NUS College will be its last, and the college will soon be merged with the University Scholars Programme (USP) to form a new college.

Following the news of the merger, a memo was sent to students from the college’s Student Government (StuGov), which is an elected body of student representatives.

It read: “We were all taken by surprise to hear about the decision that was taken from a top-down, governing board level.

“As we grieve, so do the faculty and staff who have poured their hearts and souls into building our wonderful community here.”

The memo, seen by TODAY, was signed by the class representatives of three Yale-NUS cohorts sent on behalf of StuGov, and they also warned students not to express their frustration in a way that “jeopardises” the community’s safety as well as their own.

“In these turbulent times, we understand the anger and outrage that may be provoked by this situation The college cannot ensure that students will be protected from the repercussions of acts such as protests or sit-ins, especially for our international members.”

The impending merger will effectively end a 10-year tie-up with Yale University in the United States, which saw the establishment of the first liberal arts college in Singapore and one of the first in Asia.

The move means that Yale-NUS will no longer be taking in new students. Those who matriculated in the academic year 2021/22 and who will graduate in 2025 will be the final cohort of students from the college.

NUS said that the new college, which is not yet named, will continue offering a liberal arts education with broader and more specialised offerings through a deeper integration with the rest of the university.

In their memo, the student representatives said that their lives in the college will “forever” be changed by the news.

“We share the sentiment of frustration and betrayal, and we are all grieving for the future we had envisioned for Yale-NUS and what it could have been.

“Our memories, our lives here, are still being carried within us today, in our hearts and in the community that we have built. That is something we will hold onto forever,” they said.

Representatives from the StuGov did not respond to TODAY’s queries and they had asked students not to speak to the media.

‘Too sensitive’ to discuss

The Yale-NUS student population is taken aback by the unexpected turn of events, several students interviewed said.

For most of them, it was only during a town-hall meeting between university staff members and Yale-NUS students that they heard about the merger for the first time, students who attended the session said.

Third-year student Betty, who declined to give her real name, told TODAY: “We all got an email at 4pm the previous day stating that all classes today have been cancelled and we would have to attend an online town hall at 9am (on Friday). We had no idea this was coming.”

In the minutes of the meeting seen by TODAY, with its contents verified by those who attended, it stated that Professor Tan Eng Chye, who is president of NUS, said that he made the decision not to consult students due to the sensitivity of the decision, since it concerned the strategic direction of both universities.

Yale University said in a statement on Friday that the original affiliation agreement it signed in 2011 with NUS “has always given either party the opportunity to withdraw in 2025”.

Other questions posed during the virtual meeting and in breakout groups later touched on whether the new college will ensure diversity, inclusivity and academic freedom, for instance.

Responding to this, Yale-NUS College president Tan Tai Yong assured students that the new college would retain the “status quo”, inherit progressive values from Yale-NUS and, hopefully, embrace the diversity of views, non-discrimination and academic freedom of the present college.

Speaking to TODAY, Yale-NUS alumnus Daryl Yang, 27, recalled how he had strived to build an inclusive and politically aware community at the college, leading a student collective called The G Spot from 2014 to 2016 and co-founding the student-led Community for Advocacy and Political Education.

Mr Yang said: “Upon hearing the news, my biggest concern is whether the new college will be an inclusive community for LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) students in the way that Yale-NUS and USP were founded on (having) respect for diversity.”

Besides leading The G Spot, a student organisation focused on raising awareness on issues of gender, sexuality and feminism that the college had recognised and celebrated, Mr Yang also founded the Inter-University LGBT Network.

The 2019 graduate said: “I hope that NUS will guarantee that the new college will also be committed to the values of diversity and inclusion where LGBTQ students can feel safe and supported.”

Another alumnus from the class of 2020, who is now working in the field of data science, told TODAY that it is key for any new college that wants to conduct liberal arts education to ensure that academic freedom is safeguarded.

“A big part of interdisciplinary education is being out of your comfort zone and engaging in academic conversations with freedom without having to limit yourself in some way,” he said.

Asked whether he was confident about the future of liberal arts education under the new college, he said that it is still up in the air.

“What I experienced in Yale-NUS was something that I would love to see will carry on and grow, but I think it is still too early to say anything (about the new college) at the moment.”

Anxious about future

Shortly after the news broke in the morning, some current Yale-NUS students organised themselves into chat groups on messaging platforms to discuss ways to move forward, including the possibility of taking their studies elsewhere.

One sophomore said that several of her juniors have been enquiring about changing to a different course or to Yale University, since they signed up because of the attractiveness of the Yale brand.

“We were given guarantees by the school’s management that students will continue to get the full experience that we signed up for, but it’s not the same because there is no new cohort coming in, and the college will just keep on shrinking until 2025,” she said, also on condition of anonymity.

She is worried that future employers may no longer recognise the Yale-NUS certification, since it would have become defunct.

“I am not considering transferring elsewhere because of my financial situation, but it means that graduating in 2024 will be a very bittersweet affair,” she said.

Another Singaporean student who is in his freshman year said it was unfortunate that the bombshell announcement was dropped right at the start of the semester, which had just started three weeks ago.

He is hoping that the announcement will not lead to an exodus of faculty and teaching staff members. “I don’t feel confident about the future if this is the first thing that happens when I enter the university.”

TODAY has reached out to several faculty members for comment.

Betty, the third-year undergraduate, said that fellow students were concerned about post-graduate programmes as well as other academic partnerships with Yale University that now seem uncertain.

There has also been some confusion regarding the future of international students at Yale-NUS, who make up roughly half of the student population.

She said that several of her peers are on a tuition grant, which is administered by the Ministry of Education to help offset the cost of tertiary education.

For non-Singaporeans, getting a tuition grant means that they are contractually obliged to work in a Singapore company for three years upon graduation.

“The administration keeps saying that it will have one-to-one meetings to help international students (resolve their tuition grant matters), but there are 500 foreign students in Yale-NUS,” she said.

“It’s a massive headache.”

At least one undergraduate, a third-year USP student who also declined to be named, is hopeful that the merger would work out for the better.

The USP is an undergraduate academic programme established in 2001, and admits around 220 to 240 undergraduates from across seven faculties and schools in NUS each year.

She said: “There is some synergy between the Yale-NUS’ liberal arts education and the USP’s multidisciplinary education and emphasis on critical thinking skills, so I think it could be a good thing.” — TODAY

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