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Falling cohort size prompts NTU to review funding for programmes

SINGAPORE — A shrinking cohort size due to declining birth rates — which has already hit secondary schools and junior colleges here — has prompted the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) to review and make changes to how it allocates its financial resources.

Undergraduate enrolment at NTU has been relatively stable over the past decade, ranging from 23,481 in the 2010/11 academic year to a high of 24,312 in the 2016/17 academic year, before tapering off to 23,891 in the latest intake.

Undergraduate enrolment at NTU has been relatively stable over the past decade, ranging from 23,481 in the 2010/11 academic year to a high of 24,312 in the 2016/17 academic year, before tapering off to 23,891 in the latest intake.

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SINGAPORE — A shrinking cohort size due to declining birth rates — which has already hit secondary schools and junior colleges here — has prompted the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) to review and make changes to how it allocates its financial resources. 

TODAY has learnt that some modules and overseas programmes at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information (WKWSCI) — which is under the umbrella of the university’s College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences (CoHASS) — have been scaled back, with the message of fiscal discipline and prudence being emphasised at a recent regular town hall with CoHASS faculty members. 

CoHASS consists of WKWSCI, the School of Art, Design and Media (ADM), the School of Social Sciences (SSS), and the School of Humanities (SoH). 

Some faculty members from WKWSCI, SSS and SoH also told TODAY that funding for them to attend conferences has been cut, and they have been encouraged to use their own research grants to attend conferences. 

However, unlike the undergraduates from WKWSCI, students from ADM, SSS and SoH interviewed by TODAY said none of their programmes or modules have been affected. 

Responding to TODAY’s queries, an NTU spokesman stressed that the university’s financial position is sound. Nevertheless, changes were “made in financial allocations to optimise resources, so as to ensure the changing needs of students and other university stakeholders continue to be met”.  

“A falling cohort size in the coming years due to declining birth rates, which impacts all universities in Singapore, also means fewer students to spread out fixed costs. The University therefore needs to be strategic and prudent in its allocation of resources to ensure financial sustainability.” the spokesman said.  

The spokesman noted that the university’s leadership “regularly has town hall sessions to share with the faculty and staff the University’s new developments, future directions and major initiatives”. He added that fiscal discipline and accountability “are emphasised at all levels”, given that the university receives a significant amount of public funding. 

STABLE ENROLMENT FOR NOW 

Undergraduate enrolment at NTU has been relatively stable over the past decade, ranging from 23,481 in the 2010/11 academic year to a high of 24,312 in the 2016/17 academic year, before tapering off to 23,891 in the latest intake.

However, the trend of declining enrolment has hit lower educational institutes — 14 primary schools, 22 secondary schools and eight junior colleges have undergone merging exercises since 2016, with the Ministry of Education (MOE) citing dwindling birth rates and shrinking cohort sizes as the main reasons behind the moves. 

An MOE spokesperson said the ministry provides operating grants to publicly-funded Autonomous Universities (AUs), including NTU, to meet their operational needs. “The grant is provided on a per student basis. The AUs have the autonomy to decide on the internal allocation of the operating grants provided by MOE,” the ministry spokesperson added. 

Speaking to TODAY, four CoHASS professors said that during the college’s town hall earlier this year, they were told by their dean that the university is watching its finances in the coming years. All of them spoke to TODAY on condition of anonymity because they are not authorised to speak to the media on this issue. 

When contacted, CoHASS dean Joseph Liow told TODAY that he had spoken to the faculty members about “financial issues and part of the strategy of the university is to be more disciplined in the use of resources”. 

He added: “Singapore is facing demographic challenges and the pool of students is getting smaller. Enrolment is a major source of revenue, so we need to calculate this as well.”

These financial issues have had an impact on faculty. One faculty member said that previously, her department was able to hire at least five part-time tutors but now it can hire only two. "It means a lot of pressure on full-time faculty," she said.

The NTU spokesman nevertheless said the number of employees remains stable and it “continues to exercise prudence in hiring”. 

“The university continues to hire staff and faculty at a pace that ensures organisational renewal and responsiveness to strategic areas of need, so that our workforce is equipped with the skills required to sustain and support the growth of a world-class university,” the spokesman added. 

MODULES & PROGRAMMES AFFECTED 

Among the modules and programmes at WKWSCI which students and faculty members said have been affected are: 

  • The Engage Communication Conference which had been held in the past three years to give students insights into the media industry. According to student organisers, there will be no such conference this year. 

  • A practicum module offered by WKWSCI, which involves students producing the 25-year-old campus newspaper The Nanyang Chronicle. The module was no longer offered this semester, after the newspaper stopped its print run amid plans to go fully digital.  

  • The Overseas Film Festival Practicum module which is not offered this semester. Checks on the university’s website showed that it was offered in the corresponding semester in 2017 and 2018.  

When asked about the affected modules and programmes, the NTU spokesman stressed that none of the programmes were cancelled. They have “either been redesigned to adapt to a changing media landscape, or expanded to cater to more groups of people”, said the spokesman.

Asked to elaborate, the spokesman said that for example, the school now offers eight overseas learning programmes — instead of just four previously — and it is “alternating these programmes annually so that it can continue to serve the same number of students as before, while providing meaningful experiential learning opportunities to cater to a broader range of student interests”.

TODAY understands that there were no formal announcements or emails notifying students about the changes to the affected modules and programmes. Students would find out on their own when applying for their modules during the start of the semester or referring to the course list during registration. 

Nevertheless, a notice was put up earlier this month on the Nanyang Chronicle website stating that it will launch an online version in August next year in response to “a new media landscape and how audiences consume news”. 

In the meantime, it will publish “a few articles” written by first-year students from the Basic Media Writing course and edited by a faculty member.

Several WKWSCI students who worked on The Nanyang Chronicle last semester said that towards the end of the semester in May, the lecturer-in-charge told them that the campus newspaper could go fully digital because of budget issues. 

When contacted by TODAY, the lecturer, who has since left NTU, declined comment. 

Ms Nicole Fong, 22, a third-year student from WKWSCI, was among those who lamented about the loss of hands-on experience which would have been provided by a stint with The Nanyang Chronicle, for example. She added that the university could also have better communicated to the students about the changes to the affected modules and programmes.

The NTU spokesman reiterated that it is “common for organisations, including universities like NTU, to regularly review their programmes and make changes to ensure that they remain relevant”. 

The changes in financial allocations “will enable the University to continue offering quality programmes and an optimal environment for education and research”, the spokesman added. 

In the meantime, the university “continues to invest in initiatives to improve organisational capabilities” to keep abreast of skills and technology required for Industry 4.0. “For example, a new leadership programme was launched last week. These moves will enable NTU to be responsive to changes in the global landscape,” the spokesman said.

Related topics

NTU tertiary education birth rate secondary school

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