Transnationalization of Higher Education: private higher education and liberal arts in Asia

I recently gave a guest lecture at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore to a group of sociology of education students (on 10 March 2017). This was part of a series of invited lectures on topical issues in critical education. Past lectures included critical pedagogies in Singapore (Mark Baildon), talent war and migrant labour (Yasmin Ortiga), and Singapore school curricular policies (Charleen Chiong). My lecture contributes to this series through a focus on “transnationalization of higher education”, with a focus on what the “transnational” in scholarship around higher educational change means as well as underlining the under-studied youth question in extant literature. I used the case studies of private higher education and liberal arts experiments in Asia-Singapore to illustrate my lecture content.

My lecture slides can be viewed here:


Articles from 3-year research on Singaporean youths and private higher education

With the final major empirical piece from my doctoral research entering publication, I would like to summarise and highlight the papers that emerged from this project, entitled Restructuring of Education, Youth, and Citizenship: an Ethnographic Study of Private Higher Education in Contemporary Singapore, 2013-2015.

This three-year study explores the ways in which Singaporean youths are creating meanings and identities as citizen-subjects through their participation in private degree education.

The role of private higher education in the reproduction of cultural and economic capital has not been addressed in existing scholarship on contemporary higher education in East Asia. Within Singapore, private institutes has a longstanding role to play within the state vision of creating a flexible and economically ‘viable’ workforce. Across the 1990s, private institutes began to burgeon as part of the state’s internationalisation strategy, alongside an increased privatisation of higher education in the city. By the 2000s, the private institutes have already become a significant presence in the Singapore higher education landscape. In the latest round of university restructuring, the state is beginning to acknowledge that the private sector plays a complementary role to the public universities in terms of meeting the growing demand for higher education (MOE, 2012). What might these shifting dynamics tell us about contemporary state and educational restructuring in Singapore? More importantly, what can we glean from the lives of an increasing number of youths who are part of this emerging private higher education landscape?

Using a single private institution as the ethnographic locus, my research addresses these questions by drawing on the perspectives of students who are between ages 18 and 25 and pursuing their first undergraduate degree at the institute. Drawing on Foucauldian notion of governmentality with a pragmatist interpretation of social practices, my study contributes to geographical scholarship on education and youth by (i) arguing for a bio-political analysis in higher educational student life, (ii) advancing a concept of value/s to study the actual production of neoliberal (‘learning’ and ‘caring’) subjects, and (iii) challenging an elitist notion of cosmopolitanism attached to higher education. These arguments are explicated across four key publications in different peer-reviewed journals – Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Environment and Planning A, Antipode, and Social and Cultural Geography. These are accompanied by a critical essay that uses Singapore to explore geographical issues about education and youth, published in multi-volume reference works series. The articles are:

Cheng, YE (forthcoming) Educated non-elites’ pathways to cosmopolitanism: the case of private degree students in Singapore, Social & Cultural Geography.

Cheng, YE (2016) Critical geographies of education beyond ‘value’: moral sentiments, caring, and a politics for acting differently, Antipode, 48, 4, 919–936.

Cheng, YE (2016) Learning in neoliberal times: private degree students and the politics of value coding in Singapore, Environment and Planning A, 48, 2, 292-308.

Cheng, YE (2015) Biopolitical geographies of student life: private higher education and citizenship life-making in SingaporeAnnals of the Association of American Geographers, 105, 5, 1078-1093.

Cheng, YE (2016) Learning to labour in Singapore: cultural politics of education and human capital formation, Tatek, A. and Waters, J. (eds) Work and Education: Labouring and Learning, Volume 10 of Skelton T. (ed) Geographies of Children and Young People, Singapore, Springer. DOI: 10.1007/978-981-4585-97-2_11-1.


Batam Fieldtrip

5.30am. My mobile phone’s alarm clock went off. It’s an extremely early morning, especially for a Saturday. But it is a long day ahead. On 10 September, a group of Yale-NUS College students enrolled in Urban Studies courses took the 6am bus to Harbourfront so as to catch a morning ferry to Batam. The itinerary included around 6-8 sites, each to tell some stories about Batam’s urban development, its economic linkages to Singapore, and the social life of Batam’s inhabitants.


We embarked on our first task to look at oil rigs and ship yards. So we boarded small boats, each holding about 15 of us. The excitement of it all. It was raining.


Our next destination: Funtasy Island, a project that has been in the plan for just 20 years. Advertisement has already started, yet nothing seems to be ready. We saw only coastal bungalows under construction and man-made beach utilised by stray dogs having fun chasing each other.

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We visited government subsidised housing provided for employees and their families, each family comprised of parents and on average 3 children, living in a one room flat. And these are considered the lower-middle income group.


We observed a divided Batam city. Built and managed housing on the one hand; informal settlement on the other hand.


We obtained an ethnographic portrait of one of the families living in the informal settlement. They earn an income from subcontract, informal work performed in the house, by the women who sort out bottle caps, while the men take charge of delivering them to a (recycling?) plant to sell them off.


We spotted Batam’s children and how they play in a space that clearly does not integrate the concept of childhood leisure, as well as their shrewd ways of overcoming problems.


We explored and rested our feet inside a built shopping mall, except that the only shop was the hipster cafe we bought coffee from.

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The students also visited a fishing village. But it is perhaps no more a fishing village given that we learned most of the young adult men and women are finding work elsewhere. Those who stayed behind engage in their own economy involving vegetables, fruits, and snacks market.  The fishing village is also perceived as “eye sore” by the official now that a brand new hotel is built just within 1 km or so away.

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We ended our evening at a waterfront development, modeled after Dubai’s “The World”. Largely aspirational, the idea was to revalue the waterfront and create a Sentosa (or MBS?) space to attract tourists. Yes, we paid ticket fees to enter.


And there was foam party that evening. They had the cosmopolitan, progressive, circuit party music. They had the foam. But the the less-than-100 crowd in the foam is not quite what I imagined foam parties to be about.





AAG 2017 CFP: Theorizing Citizenship in Higher Education: Students as Agents for Change?

CFP: American Association of Geographers Annual Meeting 2017, Boston MA, 5-9 April

Theorizing Citizenship in Higher Education: Students as Agents for Change?

Convenors: Mark Holton (Plymouth University) and Yi’En Cheng (Yale-NUS College)

Citizenship – whether it is constitutional-legal status tied to certain rights and responsibilities; or practiced by people as they navigate obstacles to carve out spaces and communities of belonging; or even as embodied, sensuous, and felt within the psychic and emotional realms – is central to a repertoire of issues in contemporary restructuring of higher education around the world. Recent research has begun to question how various processes are changing students’ ideas and practices around citizenship: from the increasingly globalised networks of students moving around the world to the neoliberalization of higher education policies that have heavily marketized (transnational) degree programmes, term-time accommodation, and student organizations and unions; from the mounting pressure on students to search for and acquire ‘useful’ cultural and embodied capitals, such as critical thinking, emotional intelligence, and global competencies, to the ways in which students’ identities are negotiated, accepted, or rejected on campuses. At the same time, class, gender, race/ethnicity and other social differences continue to act as prisms through which inequalities are [re]produced, even though these can also occur alongside hopeful practices of love, care, solidarity, and anti-injustice. Analyses of interactions across structure, agency, and change are part and parcel of writings about these young people’s educational lives. How might the notion of citizenship help frame these ongoing discussions and/or open up conversations about students-as-citizens? What kinds of citizenships are emerging in these different moments of higher educational change? Relatedly, how can that further our understanding of higher education spaces as contentious, politicized, and possibly radical locations?

In this session, we explore how citizenship can be theorized in diverse contexts of higher education, across both the global north and south. By fostering a dialogue between citizenship studies and geographies of higher education, the session will allow us to rethink and renew the research agenda on the geographies of higher education students. We are interested in multiple ways of thinking about citizenship as informed by students’ experiences during and beyond term-time, their mobilities across various scales and borders, as well as their engagement with explicit and implicit forms of politics. We want to unpack the ways in which dominant understandings of the ‘student voice’ and the ‘student experience’ in higher education are assembled through representations, discourses, and practices of citizenship within particular political-economic and socio-cultural regimes. We are also keen to examine students’ responses to the burdens placed upon them in terms of peer, institutional and policy pressures and the extent to which this might act as potential catalysts for change. Papers that offer fresh materials, theoretically and empirically, to advancing existing scholarship on the geographies of citizenship in higher education and student lives are especially welcomed.

Please submit a 250-word abstract with title and short bio to Mark Holton ( and Yi’En Cheng (, by 20 September 2016.


Symposium on Youth Mobilities & Immobilities

So I have been working with Brenda Yeoh (NUS) and Shanthi Robertson (Western Sydney) on a workshop – regrettably we did not have time to do a call for papers – on youth mobilities and immobilities in the Asia-Pacific region. The workshop idea first conceived when Shanthi approached Brenda, who then enrolled me into the project. Great to be part of the team. This will take place at Asia Research Institute’s new home, back at the Kent Ridge Campus, National University of Singapore, on 7-8 November 2016. We hope to have a diverse and excellent line-up of speakers to explore and renew an agenda for youth mobilities in the region. I think it will be a great 2 day workshop and am looking forward to it!


Youth Mobilities and Immobilities in Asia-Pacific Region

Young people in the Asia-Pacific increasingly move around for work, education and leisure. Traditional typologies of ‘sending’ and receiving’ countries in the region are changing, with countries such as Australia and Singapore serving not only as significant hubs for incoming and outgoing youth migrants, but also as places of transit, stop-over and temporary stays. Current national policy frameworks tend to encourage much of this mobility, reflecting the widely accepted view that transnational mobility will provide young people with enhanced life chances and competitive job skills, as well as benefit national and local communities more broadly through remittances, skills transfer, cultural diplomacy networks and an increasingly cosmopolitan and agile workforce. Furthermore, significant and increasingly diverse commercial interests facilitate youth mobilities throughout the region. This covers a wide spectrum of processes, from the trafficking and recruitment of marginalized young people into unskilled and undocumented labour flows, to the development of commercial enterprises around international education, voluntourism, internships and ‘working holidays’ that target a burgeoning population of middle-class youth.  Varied forms of mobility, whether residential mobility out of the family home, rural-urban mobility, inter-urban mobility or cross-border mobility are increasingly connected across young peoples’ pathways to adulthood, and are positioned as desirable and desired experiences for many youth. Virtual mobilities and digital spaces play an increasingly important role both in these mobility aspirations as well as in the facilitation of mobile realities.

Desires for mobility are, however, equally underpinned by senses of global interconnectivity, and senses of increasingly precariousness of local and emplaced social and economic security. As such, the realities faced by varied groups of youth on the move are often obscured by aspirational positionings of mobility. For young women and men caught at the margins of enduring patterns of social division, mobility often engenders a set of new challenges and vulnerabilities.  And, even for ‘middling’ and elite mobile youth, the actual outcomes and ongoing impacts of different forms of mobility across social, civic and economic domains are still poorly understood, and could be unevenly experienced. Further, in a context in which mobility is often seen to confer advantage or social capital, the consequences of immobility for contemporary youth, and a sense of how mobility and immobility work together across young people’s lives at various stages, warrants further attention.

This workshop seeks to open a dialogue between youth studies and migration studies within a mobilities paradigm to begin to set a renewed research agenda around youth and im/mobilities in the Asia-Pacific and beyond. Youth studies has often focused on young people as emplaced, rather than mobile subjects, and, with a few exceptions (e.g. Coe et al 2011), migration studies seldom foregrounds youth experiences (Cairns 2014:2), tending to focus on adult migrants or transnational families. In addition, while there is a wealth of literature on particular forms of youth mobility, such as the prolific amount of work on student mobility and education, and the more emerging studies into voluntourism and leisure mobilities, connections across and between these literatures, and their connections to other forms of mobility are yet to be fully explored.

Within this context, we identify three key aspects around youth and im/mobilities that require further attention. First, very little research examines the actual impacts of different constellations of mobilities on young people’s experiences, including how these are configured in relation to immobility, friction and other ‘less-than-mobile’ states of being (e.g. Cresswell, 2010). Second, how are contemporary processes of youth migration and mobile practices intertwined with historically specific local and regional narratives about places, political regimes, and cultures of class, gender, ethnicity etc.? Third, the concept of ‘youth’ needs to be problematised both as an age-related category and as a set of discourses informing the work of governments, actors in different social institutions, and young people themselves (Durham, 2000; Ruddick, 2003).

We gather scholars whose works are related to Asia-Pacific youth im/mobilities to begin a conversation, in the format of paper presentation and discussion. The aim is to carefully examine the types, motivations, conditions and outcomes of mobility amongst a diverse set of young people across the region of the Asia-Pacific in order to understand its actual effects at various scales – from the impact of im/mobility on individual life choices and chances, to how im/mobility is changing forms of social and economic infrastructure, including how nation-states are seeking to govern and direct youth on the move to specific ends. Some of the key framing questions we seek to address include, but are not limited to:

• How are different spatio-temporal forms of mobility (cross-border, intra-national, temporary, permanent etc.) and motivations for mobility (work, leisure, lifestyle, education) interconnected for youth on the move?
• How do immobility and stasis also configure into the interconnection?
• What critical concepts and methods can bring together developments in critical youth studies and migration studies to further youth mobilities research?
• How are infrastructural processes (state policies but also commercial enterprises) implicated in the facilitation but also the construction of emerging youth mobilities?
• What are their implications for the lived experience and the outcomes of im/mobility?


Prof Brenda S.A. YEOH
Asia Research Institute, and Department of Geography, National University of Singapore
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Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University, Australia
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Division of Social Sciences, Yale-NUS College, Singapore
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