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President of National U of Singapore discusses global tensions

Universities in Singapore find themselves in a tricky position as tensions rise between the United States and China, the head of the nation’s top university has warned.

Tan Eng Chye, president of the National University of Singapore (NUS), cautioned that geopolitical rivalry between the world’s two global superpowers could have negative repercussions for researchers in both countries—as well as those caught in the fray, including Singaporean academics.

Speaking with Times Higher Education, he said geopolitical tension was a top challenge for his university and others on the island nation, which straddles cultures and languages and is heavily reliant on business ties with both the U.S. and China.

“At the university level we’re very neutral … Because we’re all in this business of academic pursuit and research, politics should not play a role, but I think when two big countries, their political systems [come] into tension, then universities like us, we are uncomfortably placed,” he said.

While Tan said that the tensions are “not yet” affecting Singapore’s research partnerships, the tension is already palpable in multiparty research collaborations involving the U.S., China and other partners. “If you are a collaborator, you can sense the strain,” he claimed.

In recent years, the race to stay on the cutting edge in fields such as quantum computing has hindered Sino-American cooperation, as has finger-pointing over technological espionage.

In the most recent salvo earlier this autumn, Chinese officials blamed a cyberattack targeting Northwestern Polytechnical University on U.S. intelligence services. Meanwhile, figures from Scopus earlier this year show that years of rapid growth in research collaboration between the U.S. and China appear to be tailing off, with a fall in co-publications.

Tan underscored the importance of maintaining a free flow of knowledge and mobility of research talent. Still, he worried what a deeper divide between nations could mean for Singapore’s higher education sector.

“If there [is], say, fragmentation of the political order, I think talents would also be affected. How do we respond and react to this? Imagine Country A prevents students from coming here—that would create a big dent,” he said, adding, “You already see that happening in some countries.”

While the NUS president is clearly keeping an eye on big geopolitical shifts, his top priority remains building up the institution’s offerings, even as it continues to feel the ripples of last year’s controversial discontinuation of its partnership with Yale University, leading to the planned closure of Yale–NUS College, the first institution bearing the name of an Ivy League university in Asia.

Looking back, Tan cast this as a positive development, saying that the decision was a while in the making. “I think in people’s perception it was an abrupt change, but it was not—it was in line with the evolution of the university,” he said.

NUS has since focused on developing a common curriculum for undergraduates. In July, the university established NUS College, a “natural evolution” of the partnership between its Harvard University–inspired honors college, the University Scholars Program, and Yale–NUS College. It will become a base where students take common courses while studying majors at their respective faculties.

Tan has also been spearheading the grade-free year at NUS—something he hopes will encourage first-year students to venture beyond “safe” subjects and topics with which they’re familiar.

He thinks this approach could also help “ease in” and integrate young men, who need some time to “recondition to the academic environment” after two years of mandatory military service. In the future, he wants the common curriculum structure to push the boundaries further, encouraging more students to take double majors.

In previous years, fewer than 15 percent of students chose to pursue two majors. Now, 40 to 50 percent of the students at NUS’s two interdisciplinary colleges—the College of Humanities and Sciences and the College of Design and Engineering—are declaring more than one major.

“I think this is also a change in model—we want students to build multicapabilities,” he said.

Tan has previously spoken about turning the “T-shape” framework of broad intellectual foundation with a specialization into a pi (π) shape, with an increasing need for graduates to develop more than just one focus. He now wants to go further.

“We don’t want our graduates to stop at pi. You put three T’s and get the Marina Bay Sands,” he joked, referencing one of the most prominent features of Singapore’s skyline, a hotel of three glass towers connected at the top with a sprawling horizontal deck.

As Singapore’s government promotes lifelong learning, NUS is also doubling down in its efforts to draw graduates back into the fold, something that the university is still working on.

While alumni would ideally be coming back within five years of graduating, only a small portion do so now, despite the university’s efforts.

“It has not sunk in yet,” Tan conceded. “It would take a while to get enough graduates to have that mind-set.”

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