University governance and management in Singapore began to come under firm government control in the 1960s. Prior to that, the then Raffles College and King Edward VII College of Medicine, precursors to the University of Malaya and the University of Singapore, enjoyed considerable operating autonomy. In addition, the Chinese-medium Nanyang University, which began operations in 1955, was fully privately funded.
The situation began to change when the People’s Action Party (PAP) was elected in 1959. A series of confrontation with university staff and students at both the University of Singapore and Nanyang University led the PAP to begin clamping down on academic freedom and imposing draconian legislation governing student activities.
In addition, the state began progressively playing a dominant role in such matters as the appointment of top university officials, as well as in funding, admission and strategic planning. Moves in the direction of greater operating autonomy began in 1999 when the then Deputy Prime Minister Tony Tan commissioned a committee to explore this prospect. Citing the need for change amid the challenges of the knowledge economy and international competition, the committee released its report in 2000. A key recommendation was for greater operational autonomy within key government-determined policy parameters in three main areas – the overall development of the university sector, funding and subsidy, and manpower planning.
Five years later, another committee that had been commissioned by the then Deputy Prime Minister Tony Tan released its report recommending that all three publicly-funded universities be turned into autonomous universities by being corporatised as not-for-profit companies. The report also claimed that the National University of Singapore and the Nanyang Technological University would no longer be constrained by the operational regulations imposed on statutory boards.
THE CASE OF UNISIM
The Singapore Institute of Management University (UniSIM) had its origins in a totally private not-forprofit institute that was established in 1964 with a grant from the Economic Development Board, in order to provide professional leaders and managers to aid Singapore’s economic development. Since its inception, it has evolved in many ways – ways that challenge the simplicity of the term “private” and shed light on the difference between “private” and “autonomous” in Singapore.
UniSIM was set up as a private limited company in 2005 and received a degree-granting licence from the Ministry of Education. In the first few years of its operation, it was “private” in the sense of being totally self-financing and self-governing, with total autonomy to decide on matters such as staffing, running of programmes and quality assurance.
After a few years of operation, negotiations took place between the ministry and UniSIM to provide government financial subsidies for part-time undergraduate students in order to encourage more working adults to acquire degree qualifications.
With the start of government financial subsidies came, quite naturally, an increase in government intervention and oversight of UniSIM’s programmes.
GOVERNANCE AND MANAGEMENT
UniSIM was part of the Singapore Institute of Management (SIM) Group, a not-for-profit organisation established under the Charities Act. UniSIM was autonomous from the SIM, except for SIM Governing Council representation on its board of trustees. The University President was directly accountable to the board, and was appointed by the board in consultation with the SIM Governing Council. The board also has an Establishment Committee that had broad oversight over the appointment of top management staff such as Deans, Directors, Department Heads and senior non-academic administrative posts. The resident made nominations for these positions, which must then be approved by the Establishment Committee.
Almost 100% of UniSIM’s income was from student tuition fees. Full-time students, similar to their counterparts in autonomous universities, could apply for various forms of financial assistance. Tuition fees for both full-time and part-time programmes were based on market forces. UniSIM used the autonomous university fees as a benchmark to determine what might be affordable for its students, and also does market surveys to determine what fee levels students are comfortable paying. The President pointed out that UniSIM was a not-for-profit institution, and that while some programmes were making money, others were operating at a loss. It was not necessary, he claimed, for every programme to make money, as the more important priority was serving the needs of the country and working adults. Being a private institution meant having to make its own calculations about financial viability, without any guarantees on either student enrolments or Ministry financing.
STAFF AND STUDENT BODIES
As of 2016, there were approximately 130 fulltime and 800 associate staff. Associate staff who have relevant industry experience were appointed on a flexible basis, that is, for a semester, two semesters or even up to three years, depending on course demand. There was a deliberate flexibility in staffing in order to meet market needs. This large percentage of associate staff is one major difference between the UniSIM and the autonomous universities. There have been two part-time student intakes and one full-time student intake annually, with no pre-determined upper limits on student enrolments in various programmes and courses.
UniSIM discusses with industry representatives to determine market demand for programmes, to predict their financial viability, and to curate course content. A Programme Definitive Document (PDD) is produced, which contains information such as market demand and sustainability; programme structure and curriculum; programme outcomes and course learning outcomes; modes of delivery and assessment; and resources needed and financial breakeven analysis; external assessor review of the proposed programme. There must be approval by the Curriculum Planning Committee, before final approval by the Academic Board and board of trustees – a process largely different from the case of autonomous universities, which undergo considerable consultation with the government about national economic needs before deciding on new programmes and courses, as well as enrolment levels.
There has been an Academic Quality Assurance Unit that works with various departments and centres. UniSIM also subscribed to the SIM Quality Framework. In this regard, the UniSIM Quality Assurance Unit holds a few annual meetings with its SIM Global counterpart.
Furthermore, UniSIM has also undergone the Ministry of Education’s Quality Assurance Framework for Universities (QAFU). Every five years a ministry-commissioned team conducts an external site-based inspection of various aspects of university governance and course delivery. This is one respect in which UniSIM is identical to the autonomous universities.
Fourthly, UniSIM as a private institution has had to submit annual routine reports to the Ministry of Education’s Council for Private Education (CPE), which was established in 2009 to monitor quality in the private education sector. UniSIM has a mutual understanding with the Ministry that its degree-granting licence will normally be granted for consecutive four-year terms. The CPE audits are more detailed than the QAFU audits, involving more detailed inspection of course materials and instructor qualifications, for instance.
Fifthly, UniSIM, like all the autonomous universities, has needed to submit annual routine reports to the Ministry’s Higher Education Division. It also needs to undergo annual SIM financial audits. However, UniSIM has not been required to undergo EduTrust inspections by the Committee for Private Education, since it has not enrolled non-Singaporean students. (The EduTrust inspections ensure that the needs of foreign students are adequately addressed.)
UniSIM was renamed the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS) on 17 March 2017, as part of its restructuring to become Singapore’s sixth autonomous university. It is now also no longer part of the SIM Group.
The case in the Singapore context of UniSIM/SUSS shows that the term ‘private’ needs to be considered carefully. Although UniSIM/SUSS differs from autonomous universities in some respects, in many other ways the Ministry of Education’s influence is clear. It remains to be seen, however, as to what extent the new ‘autonomous’ label will translate into more operating autonomy for the SUSS, compared to its earlier UniSIM days – during the dispensation when state subsidies were tied to the government’s oversight of UniSIM’s programmes.
*Editor’s note: The SIM University was renamed the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS) on 17 March 2017, as part of its restructuring to become Singapore’s sixth autonomous university. However, because the article primarily discusses the university as it was before 17 March 2017, its old name of UniSIM is used. Its name change, and related changes, are discussed in the conclusion.
Jason TAN is Associate Professor in Policy and Leadership Studies at the National Institute of Education (NIE), Singapore.