A Singapore University Plans Its First Residential Colleges

National University of Singapore

An artist's rendering of the National University of Singapore's University Town.
December 14, 2010

Many of the world's leading Western universities are reaching out to the East, setting up campuses and forging relationships in Asia. But one renowned Asian university is looking to the West for inspiration as it builds four residential colleges using a North American and British hybrid model.

The flagship National University of Singapore will kick off a phased opening of the city-state's first residential colleges in August 2011. It is a unique arrangement in a place where many students live at home, and those who do stay on the campus are ensconced in dormitories. The project, known as University Town, will eventually house some 4,100 students in the four colleges and a graduate residence.

Professors, undergraduates, and graduate students will live together in high-rise buildings surrounded by ample green space. Facilities like common areas, dining spaces, seminar rooms, and cafes are designed to encourage intermingling between students and staff. The project is situated on a plot of land, adjacent to the campus, that was once a golf course. A bridge links the space to the main campus.

The concept is new not just to Singapore but also to much of Asia.

"It's an interesting challenge designing the 21st-century Asian college," says Gregory Clancey, an associate professor of history and master of one of the two new colleges. "The college form is very ancient, but we're among the few universities designing [new] colleges" today. "We're hoping that if we're successful, it will be a model not just for NUS but for Asia."

Tan Tai Yong, vice provost for student life, adds: "We wanted to create a new environment—a new platform—for residential learning."

NUS has standard dormitories now, but University Town will facilitate "teaching and learning within." The project will incorporate "a mix of students from different backgrounds, and they will view issues in multidisciplinary ways." Informal learning will be stressed, with seminars and group talks on contemporary multidisciplinary issues, such as global warming or biomedicine and society. In addition, there will be a speakers series, and when distinguished scholars visit, they will mix with students.

The university is hoping to foster "creative destruction," Mr. Tan says, because students sometimes enter the university with passive learning practices. "We want to disrupt them and create a new way of learning." While students may excel at specific subjects, Mr. Tan says they need to see those topics from different perspectives in an increasingly complex world.

Better Engagement

The idea for University Town was hatched several years ago, when administrators were looking for ways to better engage students, Mr. Tan says, and enhance their communication and broad-based critical-thinking skills. But there was a more practical concern, as well: a lack of space to house students on campus.

This was part of NUS's motivation, says Mr. Tan, adding that students who live on campus have better academic experiences. But in Singapore, which is about three and a half times the area of Washington, D.C., many students live at home. So University Town is growing up, not out.

The university sent three undergraduates to visit the United States in February, says John Richardson, director of the University Scholars Program and a professor in the department of English language and literature. (The University Scholars Program students will live in University Town.) They went to Harvard, Yale, and Princeton Universities, and the University of Connecticut. The students took in the way the universities were structured and used their observations to help plan University Town.

Mr. Clancey notes that much of the university's faculty is international and received schooling abroad. This diversity of geographic experiences, he says, means the school is the "perfect place" to design a new residential-college model.

This model is adapted from the "Oxbridge" blueprint, though University Town will house only about 10 percent of the university's undergraduates. It will borrow concepts such as tutorials, comprising small groups of students—15 per class—to encourage more interaction with instructors than would be likely in bigger classes, says Mr. Tan, a historian who earned a doctorate at the University of Cambridge. Students will spend just their first two years at University Town. The University Town-specific curriculum includes an undergraduate seminar, writing program, and two multidisciplinary modules.

The first two colleges, called Cinnamon and Tembusu, will open in August, with the next two following in 2012. In order to ensure that students and faculty mix, there will be a healthy dose of programmatic planning, with a "master" and support staff for each college. In addition, Mr. Clancey notes that the facility will be home to classes for students who don't live in University Town, so as to avoid a sense that the area is off-limits to those who don't live there.

Jeremy Auw, a second year life-sciences student, says he is happy to be among the first students who will live in University Town. To prepare for the new setting, he and other student leaders are already running programs in their campus housing, with various days of the week dedicated to seminars, public service, and sports activities. "We hope this will set the tone and help ease the transition" to University Town, he says.

Students aren't the only ones who are enthusiastic about the project. "I'm really looking forward to it," says Mr. Clancey, adding that he relishes the chance to interact closely with young people. "I've been living on or near universities for most of my adult life, and I don't like being too far from the university library. So to me, this is heaven."


More from The Global Chronicle

SIGN UP: Get Global Coverage in Your Inbox
JOIN THE CONVERSATION:    Twitter     Facebook      LinkedIn