Engaging globally through joint and double degree programmes: a view from Singapore

Editor’s note: further to Kavita Pandit’s entry yesterday (‘Engaging globally through dual degree programs: SUNY in Turkey‘), Lily Kong‘s entry here also focuses on joint and double degree programmes, at the undergraduate level, though from the perspective of a senior administrator and scholar of cultural change who is based in Singapore. Lily Kong is Vice-President (University and Global Relations) for the National University of Singapore (NUS), and also Director of the Asia Research Institute. One of her previous entries in GlobalHigherEd focused on international consortia of universities. Both entries reflect NUS’ role as a relatively global university, partly spurred on by the nature of higher education policy in this Southeast Asian city-state, and partly by the forces underlying Singapore’s development process.


International agendas for many universities today almost invariably include a student exchange/study abroad component. In fact, for some, setting and reaching a self-imposed target to send a certain proportion of each cohort on such programmes can become a consuming affair, never mind the quality of the actual experience.

Another common expression of the international ambitions of many universities is the facilitation of education tourism (perhaps described in more exalted ways). In many cases, students travel together under the care of a lecturer, learn about another country, but stay in their “environmental bubble”, remaining part of the large group from their home university and within a safe comfort zone.

There are other expressions yet of global ambitions among universities and while they are fraught with a range of difficulties, there are of course also many positive ways in which such programmes have been implemented, and from which students learn much.

In Singapore, not only do universities roll out programmes such as these, so too are secondary schools and junior colleges actively involved in promoting and facilitating such overseas experiences. In a country where overseas private travel for leisure is common and has been on the rise (any flight is a flight out of the country), the question that needs to be asked is how local HEIs can provide for stimulating and meaningful international experiences when many young people have literally been there and done that.

nuscampus.jpgIn the last three to four years, the National University of Singapore has negotiated joint and double degrees with overseas partners for undergraduate courses of study (preceding these by quite some years were graduate level joint/double degrees). They offer that qualitatively (and quantitatively) different experience for students, so they present a value proposition to many who had in their earlier years of education already gone on a short exchange to Australia or visited Shakespeare-land in a school group.

What a joint degree means and how it is different from a double/dual degree is not as common knowledge as I had previously assumed. When approaching other universities with the concept and proposal to explore possibilities, I have been surprised by how some with very explicit global/international rhetoric have never thought about these options.

The versions I am familiar with are as follows. A joint degree student spends the same amount of time obtaining the degree as a single degree student, and about half the period of candidature is spent in a partner institution. He/she obtains a single degree with two university imprimaturs upon graduation. A double/dual degree student usually spends more time than required for a single degree but less time required for two separate degrees and obtains two degrees upon graduation. The time saved comes from “double-counting” some courses. Again, about half the total period of candidature is spent in the partner institution.

These joint and double degree programmes have been attractive for a variety of reasons for students at NUS. For those desirous of an overseas education/degree but for whom that is not possible (e.g. financial constraints, familial conditions), the shortened period overseas becomes a nice middle-ground. For those tentative but curious about a full overseas education, this too provides a comfortable combination. Others have recognized the advantages of two sets of educational, social and cultural experiences, and developing two sets of friendships and networks. And of course, the value of two degrees in less time or one degree from two prestigious institutions is a draw in itself. Indeed, this has become a significant part of NUS’ strategy to attract some of the brightest students in Singapore to study at NUS, and early indications are that it is working.

NUS now has joint undergraduate degrees with Australia National University (in physics, chemistry, mathematics, economics/actuarial studies, history, philosophy, English literature), the University of Melbourne (civil engineering), and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (in geography, political science, history, English literature, and economics).

The challenges of setting up these arrangements are not trivial. Often, the transaction costs are very high. Setting up the joint undergraduate degrees named above, for example, entailed many rounds of careful discussions and many levels of approvals at both institutions. The discussions and agreements have to penetrate to individual faculty in departments, whose curriculum and perhaps even pedagogies have to be modified. This is one of the first challenges, when university or college administrators wish for a variety of reasons to embark on these arrangements but need to have colleagues at the coalface who will be persuaded by their merits enough to work on them.

Setting up the structures and programmes is one thing. Encouraging and identifying appropriate students to sign up for these programmes is another. For Singapore, this has not been a problem. Students have for the most part been enthusiastic about the experience and opportunities that this affords, as mentioned above. But students in Australia and in the U.S. have seemed to need much more encouragement. The pastoral care dimension of students who move across state, social and cultural boundaries also needs careful attention.

Overall, the opportunities have been welcome by students at NUS, and this has been cited by a small, growing number to be the reason for coming to NUS.

Lily Kong

6 thoughts on “Engaging globally through joint and double degree programmes: a view from Singapore

  1. Pingback: Engaging globally through dual degree programs: SUNY in Turkey « GlobalHigherEd

  2. Pingback: Engaging globally through joint and dual degrees: the graduate experience « GlobalHigherEd

  3. Pingback: Special survey on transatlantic joint and dual/double degree programs (1 May deadline) « GlobalHigherEd

  4. In Malaysia, a variant of the dual degree award/programme is being practised by several private higher education institutions. These private providers have a recognised home grown curriculum and award degrees. A reputable university overseas would recognise such degrees and award graduates of the homegrown degrees with their own degrees. Thus, graduates of the Malaysian higher education institutions/university colleges will receive degrees from the local institutions plus degrees from the overseas institutions. In other words, this practise has enabled local university colleges a benchmarking opportunity with reputable overseas institution. This dual degree programme is becoming popular in Malaysia.

  5. Pingback: Debating NYU Abu Dhabi and Liaoning Normal University-Missouri State University « GlobalHigherEd

  6. Pingback: US-European academic collaboration via transatlantic joint and dual degree programs « GlobalHigherEd

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