You really should have a look at the enormous damage University of NSW, under its cost-cutting Vice Chacellor Fred Hilmer, has done to Australia’s reputation for the provision of high-quality tertiary education to overseas students this week.

On Wednesday, Hilmer announced in Singapore the closure of UNSW’s Singapore campus, forthwith. Students are displaced, lecturers terminated.

There are about 180+ students on the Singapore campus, but I’m told 800+ applied. The campus only opened this year – it has been open but a few months. It was opened with great support from the Singapore Government, and land allocated for a new campus to be built in future years. The decision may have made economic sense … who knows. But to make it just months after opening the campus is stupid in the extreme.

If the University of NSW knew anything – even the remotest thing – about Asia, they would understand a few points:

  1. This is a serious loss of face for those who backed the entry of this campus into Singapore.
  2. The closure will cause serious reputational damage to the University among Asian students (remember, it’s not just Singaporeans, but Indonesians, Malaysians, Indians studying at it).
  3. That will reflect badly on all Australian universities. In Singapore, they will now all be tarred with the same brush, and who can blame a discerning student population that has choice of dozens of overseas Universities with campuses or affiliate campuses in Singapore. Even the National University of Singapore is rated in the world’s top 50 universities.

The Singapore Government strongly supported the entry and is now left with nothing but a humiliating backdown. If you’re an Australian educational institution in Singapore, or wanting the slightest help in Singapore, don’t expect much – and you’d have to say, that’s fair. I suspect this stupid, short-sighted, bean-counter decision will have ramifications far beyond the current days’ emotional outpourings.

I also think it’s probably rarely rated a mention in Australia, but it’s one of the stupidest own-goals I’ve seen in my years in Singapore by an Australian company or institution. Fred Hilmer and the UNSW decision-makers ought to be held to account for this decision, and I hope every University in Australia will make sure the wrath they get, or the downturn they suffer, from Asian students as a result is placed squarely at the UNSW doorstep.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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