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Mixed fortunes for Singapore's overseas campuses

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On the shelves of "Happy Mart," there are gleaming cans of "instant nose jobs", packets of "Same Face" cookies and boxes of "Luxurios" cereal.

These aren't real products, of course, but an art project poking fun at Asia's obsession with beauty and its propensity for conspicuous consumption.

The display was created by the inaugural cohort of Singapore-based graduates of the Glasgow School of Art, which set up its first overseas campus here in 2011.

The Scottish arts institution is looking to expand its course offerings over the next few years and aims to help develop the city-state's creative scene.

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Image caption Singapore has a strong local education system - so does mean less emphasis on overseas institutions?

"We hope that we can use this platform and build relationships with other parts of the region using it as a hub," said its director, Tom Inns.

"To be an international art schools you've got to understand how the world works in terms of regions and different thinking and different cultures.

"It is only by being there that you can only really begin to understand that. You can't understand that from a distance."

But if the experience of the last foreign creative arts school to open up in Singapore is anything to go by, there may be some challenges ahead.

Shutting down

This summer, the editing labs and sound engineering stations at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts in Asia will fall silent for good.

The campus, set upon three-acres of prime property in central Singapore, is closing less than 10 years after opening due to millions of dollars of debts.

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Image caption Building cultural bridges: Wearable technology conference in Singapore

NYU still operates two degree-granting, liberal arts research university campuses in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai.

"Despite its significant creative success, the Tisch Asia campus failed to become financially sustainable," says a university statement.

John Beckman, vice president for public affairs at New York University said that reflecting back, they had "learned a number of lessons" from their experience.

"Academically and artistically, the Tisch Asia campus was a tremendous success," he said. "But academic excellence is also expensive".

Image caption University of Chicago's Booth School of Business is moving from Singapore to Hong Kong

"We were too optimistic about prospective enrolments both internationally and locally, the latter of which has been pivotal to many global academic initiatives.

"We operate on the principle that we will not direct money from the campus in New York to sustain global operations, we should have factored in a greater degree of support needed beyond tuition, especially in the critical start-up years."

Mr Beckman added that Tisch Asia "as a relatively small, independent graduate arts conservatory, was an ambitious enterprise".

"The general lesson we learned was that it would have been better to have developed such a significant project as part of - and not separate from - our university-wide global efforts."

The closure was not just a high-profile and expensive failure for the school, but for the Singapore government, which had invited them to set up here in 2007.

Singapore dream

However, Tisch Asia is not alone.

In recent years, Australia's University of New South Wales, the University of Las Vegas Nevada and Warwick University have all exited, mostly due to financial reasons.

Singapore used to publicise its aim of becoming a global education hub, saying it hoped the sector would ultimately contribute up to 5% of its gross domestic product (GDP).


More stories from the BBC's Knowledge economy series looking at education from a global perspective and how to get in touch


The Economic Development Board (EDB), which seeks to bring investments to Singapore, launched the "Global Schoolhouse" project in 2002.

The scheme saw it offer millions of dollars in grants and subsidies to attract top names here. In many ways, it has been quite a success.

French business school INSEAD has been operating its satellite campus. American Ivy League university Yale also launched here, despite some controversy.

But following the high-profile failure of Tisch Asia and other foreign universities, it seems the government has changed its tune about attracting more entrants.

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Image caption Singapore's overseas campuses have not all proved financially viable

Alvin Tan, the EDB's assistant managing director of corporate development, says that in recent years the local higher education provision has increased in "diversity and quality" and he talks of any future incoming institutions as being a "complement" to strong local options.

A university's future in Singapore doesn't only come down to financial considerations, however.

The University of Chicago's Booth School of Business decided to relocate its campus from Singapore to Hong Kong in order to be situated closer to the China market.

William Kooser, the associate dean of global outreach at the University of Chicago said their lease in Singapore was expiring this year and that their strategy came up for review.

"There are a couple of things that schools need to understand before they decide to go overseas," said Mr Kooser.

Image caption The Glasgow School of Art opened in Singapore in 2011

"One is that it's not easy. It is not simply a matter of duplicating what you do in the United States and plopping it into another city.

"Two, you need to understand what it is you are trying to get out of the programme. Is it simply trying to create revenue? Or is it something beyond that?

"If it is simply to create revenue, if you don't to meet your revenue targets, it's easy to pull out. If you are trying to achieve something else you are typically in it for the longer haul."

Losing its shine?

Singapore is regularly cited for its high quality of life, political stability, low-tax environment and ease of doing business.

However, the city-state's rising cost of living has led to major issues for both foreign universities and students.

Most Expensive Countries for Foreign Undergraduates Cost Per Year (USD)
1. Australia $42,093
2. Singapore $39,229
3. United States $36,564
4. Britain $35,045

It is the most expensive country in the world, according to an annual survey by the Economist Intelligence Unit.

Singapore's booming property prices and strong currency has also translated into high rent and tuition fees.

Then there is the question of getting a job after graduation.

Singapore's labour market has tightened over the last few years, making it harder for foreigners to get job here.

One year after the Glasgow School of Art's first graduation ceremony, another group of students are preparing their final year projects.

It is a sweltering hot day and they are on campus despite it being a school holiday, listening to pop music while painting large wooden panels. Their enthusiasm is clear.

But like so many students at Tisch, the future of their campus may ultimately come down to dollars and cents.

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