By Ichiro Suzuki Since the beginning of the 21st century, there was a great boom for world-famous U.S. universities to have a new campus in East Asia, attracted by growing affluence and enthusiasm for high education in the region. These universities embarked on a project to take advantage of brand equity of their highly recognized name and what their programs offer. In 2011, Yale University opened its first campus outside of New Haven, CT, in the school’s more than 300 years in history, in collaboration with the National University of Singapore. As a highly sought-after institution among competitive high school students, Singaporeans or else, the College’s acceptance rate is between 3-7% of applicantions. Last year, the Yale - NUS College got embroiled in a turmoil on academic freedom as the College axed a course for fear of the local authority‘s rage. “Dialogue and dissent in Singapore” originally planned as a two-week course was cancelled on an island where dissenting the authority is not as liberally accepted as in the United States or Western Europe. Not surprisingly, such self-censorship received criticism from ‘purists’ in New Haven for compromising academic freedom. Expanding into other parts of the world, especially into a region with a promised future, makes a great sense from a business perspective. However, such a move can come with a price, and sometimes that may not be small. Famed U.S. institutions face a much tougher test on academic freedom on the mainland China. Don’t ever think of a course named “Dialogue and dissent in Hong Kong”. A number of them made their inroads into the mainland whose market size far exceeds that of Singapore or the entire Southeast Asia. Ten years ago, there was a rush for them to enter China, either on a stand-alone basis or tying up with a local institution. Some of them developed a campus of their own like the case of Yale - NUS. For some, it became a full-fledged real estate development projects. Not surprisingly such projects have drifted into a somewhat different directions from what was originally intended. Since Xi Jinping’s rose to the helm in 2013, the Chinese Communist Party became increasingly more authoritarian and nationalistic, contrary to the West’s earlier, and naive, hope that economic prosperity would make China more liberal and democratic. In late 2019, it came to light that Fudon University in Shanghai, one of the leading institutions in the country, changed its charter after a video posting on social media of their students singing the school anthem that included “academic independence and freedom of thoughts” that were in the university’s original charter. The video was, of course, deleted immediately. Academics and students were appalled at this move that dropped even a pretense of freedom. This showed a climate that higher education has to live in the 2020s. As coronavirus began to spread in China in late January, universities shifted quickly to on-line education. Going on-line is tantamount to giving carte blanche to the communist party for censorship in the world’s most advanced surveillance state. This would make professors and lectures very careful about what they say, lest they be accused by the authority. Yale - NUS has swallowed criticism and contradiction of running a school on an island of imperfect academic freedom. In the mainland China where the ruling communist party is far more authoritarian than Singapore’s People’s Action Party, U.S. universities’ branches would have to go through much, much deeper and more intense internal struggles. For the schools that have participated in a real estate project, they might have to ask themselves a question what business sense the branch campus still makes.
About the author: Mr. Suzuki is a retired banking executive based in Tokyo, Japan.