Students turn to Asia for public policy expertise

MPP courses in Singapore, India and Japan offer experience of the region’s fast-growing markets
The view from Singapore: studying in Asia offers an alternative outlook to western schools © Reuters

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With neat green lawns and clean white arches, the colonial-era architecture of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy reflects the calm and order typical of Singapore. The campus was once home to Raffles College, the alma mater of Mr Lee, Singapore’s founding father, who is credited with driving the efficient government and faultless public services that add to the draw of studying policy in the city-state.

“Singapore is a wonderful public policy laboratory,” says Kishore Mahbubani, dean at the Lee Kuan Yew School. For years, growing numbers of students in the US and Europe have been opting for a Master of Public Policy (MPP) over the traditional MBA as they search for a course that trains students for government, civil society and the media.

As policymakers around the world look to Asia, drawn by the prospect of fast-growing markets such as China and India, many students are keen to gain experience on the continent, flocking to institutions like the Lee Kuan Yew School, the Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Tokyo and the Jindal School of Government and Public Policy near New Delhi, all of which run MPP courses in English.

“Europe represents the past, America represents the present, Asia represents the future,” Prof Mahbubani adds. “So, if you’re a young person do you want to place bets on the past or the future?”

Asian policy schools remain fledglings when compared with their US peers. The Harvard Kennedy School of Government, in particular, was the template for the Lee Kuan Yew School when it was set up in 2004. Much like their western counterparts, MPP courses in Asia have the goal of equipping people to improve governance. Through one- or two-year programmes, students are taught basic economics, politics and quantitative skills, before taking elective courses on everything from trade to security.

The Lee Kuan Yew School, the best known option in Asia, now has three postgraduate courses for those with different professional experience. Prof Mahbubani says 60–70 per cent of those admitted are offered financial aid to ensure that students come from varied backgrounds. There is also an aim to recruit an equal number of students from Singapore, Southeast Asia, China, India and the rest of the world.

The Global Public Policy Network — a partnership that includes Columbia University in New York and the London School of Economics and Political Science, as well as the Lee Kuan Yew School and the University of Tokyo — is crucial for Asian programmes eager to offer students the brand of a known western university alongside a strong insight into emerging markets.

Khasan Redjaboev, for example, grew up in Uzbekistan, where he dabbled in entrepreneurship and was an education consultant to the government, before enrolling as a double-degree student at Sciences Po in Paris and the Lee Kuan Yew School. The 26-year-old says he sees an advantage to studying in the Asian market: the opportunity to be a big fish in a small pond.

“Since Paris is quite big and people are quite fancy . . . you don’t really get to meet the top people. It is nearly impossible for a student to have a dinner one-on-one with the chief executive of a big company,” he says. “But in Singapore it is possible.”

As well as offering exchange programmes and joint degrees, the network’s schools collaborate on cross-border events and research. For Hideaki Shiroyama, dean at the Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Tokyo, the system is a way in which newer institutions can compete. “The Kennedy School is a longstanding model but actually what we did is to set up an alternative network model,” he says.

Yet, just as public policy programmes struggle to compete with established MBA schools — which host slick recruitment drives and career counselling — newer policy schools in Asia face criticism from education analysts, who point out that those investing in postgraduate education expect a great job on graduation. “Even if you have a global applicant pool, your placement is local,” says Karan Khemka, a partner at Parthenon-EY, the education consultancy, explaining that many international students eager to study in China and India are reluctant to work in the emerging markets in the long term.

Yet, for those looking beyond their pay cheque, schools in Asia promise a different perspective on policy. In India, academics at the Jindal School argue that professors with experience in emerging markets offer a more useful perspective on challenges such as poverty and agriculture, which academics in Singapore and Boston may struggle with. “If you look at the Lee Kuan Yew School you would think public policy is an extension of the state — here we are democracy driven,” says vice dean, Shiv Visvanathan. “It gets you a different kind of student — not a student who is searching for a World Bank job but someone who is looking for the meaning of India.”

Just four years old, the Jindal School, named after the Indian business family, faces starkly different challenges to its peers in Tokyo and Singapore. The fledgling institution is not part of the global network and with just 25 graduate students on the postgraduate course every year, it draws from a different pool. Of the 20 per cent of overseas students every year, the majority come from Africa. The school’s Rs600,000 ($9,050) fees for the residential two-year course, though piffling compared with the $45,697 tuition fee for just a year at Harvard, is still a stretch for many of its students. Mr Sarkar says three individuals a year have a full scholarship with others receiving funding of 20–50 per cent.

S$34,500

Cost of Lee Kuan Yew School’s international MPP once state subsidies accounted for

Meanwhile, it is still difficult to draw top talent from India, where the most accomplished students are encouraged to study engineering and then pursue an MBA. Those that do choose a degree in public policy after studying maths and science often struggle with qualitative courses.

“Students don’t have the analytical capacity because that’s not how they were trained,” Prof Sarkar explains. “How do you go about imparting that? How do you make students think and think logically?”

Just as those in India see poverty and chaos as a major draw for young people interested in solving policy issues, the Japanese school sees itself as a developed world environment from which to explore Asia. “Going to China might be dynamic but there is some difficulty in living in Beijing with the culture and freedom and accessibility,” explains Prof Shiroyama, who estimates that 50–60 per cent of the school’s international students come from Asia. “Japan can be like a bridge between emerging Asia and developed countries.”

While education analysts and academics look at the curriculum, students often have more practical reasons for enrolling in Asian policy schools. The most obvious is the lower cost. Tuition is an annual Y535,800 ($4,428) for the international MPP in Tokyo, on top of an admissions fee of Y282,000, while the Lee Kuan Yew School’s international MPP students pay S$34,500 ($24,585) once state subsidies are accounted for.

For Mr Redjaboev, the decision to take a joint degree in Paris and Singapore was easy. Harvard and Princeton have a cachet but the US government is not considered friendly to his own administration, or to those his friends would like to join elsewhere in central Asia and Russia. If the goal is a job in the civil service, he says, opting for a US school could be counterproductive.

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