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Student safety, Yale-NUS merger: WP MP calls for greater accountability, less ‘opaque’ decision-making at tertiary institutions

SINGAPORE — Workers' Party (WP) Member of Parliament (MP) Leon Perera on Monday (Nov 28) called for a stronger culture of accountability at institutes of higher learning for the welfare and rights of students and staff members, saying that several recent incidents have shown signs of gaps. 

Students walking towards campus residence halls at the National University of Singapore.

Students walking towards campus residence halls at the National University of Singapore.

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  • Workers' Party MP Leon Perera said many students and staff members have raised concerns about the lack of accountability at tertiary institutions
  • In an adjournment motion in Parliament, he gave several examples of where universities had fallen short
  • He also suggested five ways to help foster a more open, responsive and consultative environment
  • Education Minister Chan Chun Sing broadly agreed with the proposals, but said that the incidents raised do not necessarily reflect a lack of accountability 

SINGAPORE — Workers' Party (WP) Member of Parliament (MP) Leon Perera on Monday (Nov 28) called for a stronger culture of accountability at institutes of higher learning for the welfare and rights of students and staff members, saying that several recent incidents have shown signs of gaps. 

The decision behind the merger of Yale-NUS College and the University Scholars Programme was among several examples Mr Perera gave that was deemed to have shown a lack of accountability and transparency as well as a perception of top-down decision-making.

He then offered five proposals to improve accountability, including having a representative for student bodies and staff members who would be added to the governing boards of these institutes.

Being accountable means students and staff members have greater ownership over their institution and students would have a better experience, which can translate to stronger alumni engagement, Mr Perera said in an adjournment motion before the end of Monday’s parliamentary session. 

Giving students a say in their education also helps them fulfil their purpose for learning, he added.

“Institutes of higher learning are not merely factories to churn out economically useful graduates.”

The MP for Aljunied Group Representation Constituency added: “As our institutes of higher learning seek to go beyond rankings… they should also build a reputation of being great places for students. And this includes being more open, responsive and consultative.”

Mr Perera said that he was prompted to raise the matter in Parliament after having met many students, teachers and alumni who offered their suggestions, which they often felt were not being reflected or heard at the decision-making levels at the institutes.

In reply, Minister for Education Chan Chun Sing said that accountability is about addressing the needs of diverse student groups across different generations.

“The fact that some students or some group of students at some point in time did not get what they want does not equate to a failure in accountability,” Mr Chan added.


When the announcement that Yale-NUS College and the University Scholars Programme will be merged, the timeline for implementation was short, Mr Perera said.

And despite an earlier claim that the replacement NUS College will provide a liberal arts education, liberal arts subjects were later dropped to the surprise of many. 

Some students and staff members protested about the perceived lack of transparency. “The decision-making process was seen by many as opaque and with limitations on the autonomy for working group student representatives,” Mr Perera added.

He also said that there was a lack of transparency in how the National University of Singapore (NUS) handled disciplinary actions for sexual offences, including the case in 2019 involving Ms Monica Baey who was filmed showering at a student hostel by a fellow undergraduate, and the dismissal of former lecturer Jeremy Fernando.

In another case in March 2019, two student groups calling on NUS to divest from fossil fuels were granted a meeting with university administrators only after six months, Mr Perera added. 

They were then told at the meeting that their petition, with nearly 800 signatures, was not enough to show substantial support.

At the Nanyang Technological University last year, several students and faculty members found themselves stuck overseas due to Covid-19 border closures and were unable to attend lessons online as well.

The university asked students to miss the semester and put faculty members on no-pay leave, Mr Perera recounted.

“I don’t think these are necessarily representative (of the culture of accountability) of the institutions (where) they took place and it is not my wish to single out any particular institute of higher learning for criticism, but they serve to give us a sense of what students in (these institutes) feel are some of the areas where the accountability culture can be improved.”


To improve accountability, Mr Perera gave five suggestions:

  • Include more rank-and-file faculty members on senates or other oversight bodies to improve oversight over executive decisions
  • Add a representative for the student body and staff members on governing boards so that the voices of students and staff members can be directly represented in the decision-making process
  • Require institutes of higher learning to consider petitions with a sizeable number of signatures, which can also help students learn how to be active and involved citizens in a democracy
  • Simplify the process for setting up new student groups, so students are empowered to set up their own groups based on their interests and passions
  • Share best practices among institutes of higher learning, particularly in the regards to feedback handling, accountability and the campus experience of students and staff members


Mr Chan broadly agreed with Mr Perera’s proposals but questioned whether the WP MP indeed meant that the many examples he cited were not representative of the culture of accountability at the institutions where they took place.

“I would agree that there’s room for our officials to improve, but I want to make a distinction to not say that just because of these isolated incidents — which in your words may not be representative of our institutes of higher learning — they have therefore not been accountable.” 

Mr Chan also took issue with Mr Perera’s reference to a survey published last year by the website, which suggested that there was a significant proportion of academics concerned about the state of academic freedom.

Government officials should exercise caution when using surveys that “measure partial statistics to reflect a wider point”, Mr Chan said.

On greater representation for rank-and-file faculty members and students, Mr Chan said that institutes of higher learning have mechanisms to consult these members on various decisions even if they do not sit on the boards.

Petitions should not have a requisite number of signatures because the “correct thing”, which the institutes are already doing, is to take every feedback seriously, he added.

The burden of leadership is about making the best decision for all stakeholders across different generations and to explain the decisions clearly to their people, Mr Chan continued.

“I expect the leadership of institutes of higher learning to exercise their leadership responsibilities, to make sensible decisions on what are the things to consider and what are the things that they cannot consult,” he said.

“Leadership is not just about saying nice things to people to make them happy without telling them the consequences.”

Related topics

Leon Perera WP NUS Yale-NUS College Chan Chun Sing

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