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Wednesday, December 7th, 2011

Volume 10, Issue 43; December 7, 2011

The Playing Field

Singapore at leading edge of Asia’s rise.

Abroad Perspectives

Thai unis battle to stay afloat as flood waters recede.

Over The Counter

Americans asking if recruiters give good advice or just interested in a quick buck?

Globe Tipping

VAT Demystified.

1) THE PLAYING FIELD – Singapore at leading edge of Asia’s rise.

As Asian universities flex their muscles, and several countries vie to become the region’s next and best education ‘hub’, the rest of the world can only wonder – will Asian institutions eventually overtake the West?

Recently, president of Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore, Bertil Andersson, spoke about the city-state’s growing attraction as a higher education destination. As one of several non-Singaporean university leaders in town, he has a unique view on the rapidly evolving industry.

Previously head of the European Science Foundation in Strasbourg, Andersson first came to NTU as provost nearly five years ago. He says his initial reasoning for the move has proven true over the years: “At the time the media asked why I was leaving a prestigious job in Europe,” he explains. “My answer was: maybe in Europe we talk too much, in Singapore they act.”

“It’s fantastically rewarding to work in the Singapore higher education system because it is doing a quantum leap. If you have ambition to do good academic research and education, you can do it here in Singapore. Unfortunately we cannot do as much in Europe.”

Describing Singapore as extremely open to “international inputs” and expertise from around the world, Andersson says the nation’s “global culture” contributes greatly to building it’s “knowledge society” – a national mission backed by huge ambition.

“It has to do with culture,” he says. “In Sweden we say we should do it our way, we know best. But in Singapore they don’t say we know best, but what they do is take good examples from everywhere and learn from that and then move fast. That I think is the strength of the system. Not only copying but being inspired by others and then remolding.”

Having helped lead his university to a huge leap up the QS ranking charts (this year it landed the 58th position), Andersson says he is now invited to give talks around the region about what it takes for a university to move so fast. In such cases, he says he describes their approach as “very systematic”, explaining “how we’ve been able to get a lot of money from the Singapore government, how we have invested that in very interesting research areas, how we’ve been able to recruit really top-notch scientists from all over the world, how we’ve been strategizing, how we are setting up a new medical school, how we are changing the education for our students, how we work with the industry.”

But above all, Andersson urges, “You must have governmental support and I think you need determination. I always say you have to walk the talk and change really means change.”

On whether Asian universities will overtake Western universities when it comes to research, Andersson says “It’s only a matter of time.”

“Asia has only been on the research map for 10, maybe 15 years, with the exception of Japan. If you build a Google or Microsoft company it can go very fast in the business world. In the academic world things happen much more slowly and it’s an evolution rather than revolution.

“That’s what I’m saying about NTU. We have jumped up to place 55 in the rankings in just five years and that’s an enormous achievement. I would predict in 10 to 15 years we will see several Asian universities in the top 20 ranks. I hope NTU will be one of them.”

Source: “ASIA: How to soar up the world university rankings”. University World News, November 20, 2011.

2) ABROAD PERSPECTIVES – Thai unis battle to stay afloat as flood waters recede.

With a number of campuses submerged underwater for an entire month, universities in Thailand – particularly those located in the country’s central region – are struggling to recover after this Fall’s extreme flooding. As the waters cede, the damages are estimated to cost hundreds of millions of baht (30 baht = 1 USD), and many institutions have been forced to postpone the start of the upcoming semester.

In particular, a number of universities, including the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT), Thammasat University (TU), Kasetsart University (KU), and Rajamangala University of Technology Thanyaburi (RMUTT) have all experienced major problems with science and engineering laboratories, where expensive, immovable machines have been submerged. At some of these same institutions, heavy damage to agricultural machinery, dental equipment, mass communications studios, electrical systems, and the flooding of first-floor libraries have all added to the overall cost.

In total, the country’s Office of Higher Education Commission has reported losses at 17 flooded state and private universities, totalling Bt6.7 billion (that’s just under $214 million USD) to the Education Ministry as part of its official request for a recovery budget.

Despite such huge losses, the universities are working hard to re-open their campuses as close as possible to their original November/December term-starts, and in some cases are even temporarily relocating classes to other universities (at no extra cost for students), in order to start term on time. Many have said they are determined to minimize the impact for their students.

As the clean-up efforts move forward, most of the affected universities plan to spend their own budgets to cover urgent needs first, then use the funds allocated by the ministry to buy more expensive equipment later on. Private institutions such as Bangkok University (BU), however, will mainly rely on their own resources.

BU president Mattana Santiwat explains that they will file an insurance claim, and use their own funds on the recovery: “We won’t wait for the recovery budget from the ministry. We have to help ourselves first so as to start teaching as soon as possible.”

Source: “Hard-hit universities begin counting the cost”. The Nation, November 28, 2011.

3) OVER THE COUNTER – Americans asking if recruiters give good advice or just interested in a quick buck?

With more international students attending American universities than ever before, questions are mounting over the motives of the very professionals who help attract so many foreign scholars in the first place.

As the debate grows, critics – including some professors and admissions counselors – are accusing higher education recruiters of putting their own profit ahead of students’ best interests. They say these companies send thousands of unqualified applicants to the U.S. each year, sometimes even allowing them to skip basic English tests and falsify applications – all in the name of making a quick buck in the form of commissions.

Earlier this year, the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), even proposed an outright ban on the use of international recruiters who are paid based on the number of students they attract to the U.S. The practices of some unscrupulous recruiters, their board stated, introduce “an incentive for recruiters to ignore the student interest” and invite “complications involving misrepresentation, conflict of interest and fraud”. Although the group backed away from the ban in July (acknowledging a “lack of alternatives” for ways to spread the word about American education around the world), it still plans to study the issue in coming years.

Meanwhile, college administrators who rely on recruiters are quick to defend them, saying they are more familiar with overseas customs and school systems. And especially for schools struggling with budget cuts, attracting and hosting international students (who pay higher tuitions) have become big business.

By using recruiters, explains associate dean of the business school at Missouri State University, David Meinert, the university “can focus on developing and delivering curriculum instead of going out and recruiting students and developing individual sponsors… [Recruiters are] are to deliver as an intermediary something that we would have trouble delivering.”

Although industry professionals do acknowledge the fact that cheating on college applications in countries like China is a major issue (one Beijing-based consulting company, Zinch China, conducted a survey which found that 90% of Chinese undergraduate applicants submit phony recommendation letters, 70% use essays written by others, and 50% falsify their transcripts), recruiters assure that they are working on tightening the oversight of agents overseas. And while some believe these agents to be encouraging the acceptance of cheating (overlooking it for the fees and bonuses they receive from schools and parents alike, once students are accepted), others regard them more fondly. Some even liken recruiters to the private admissions counsellors used by affluent families to help American students get into the most selective schools – a common and generally accepted practise right at home.

At Westminster College in central Missouri, for example, international enrolment has grown from 3% to more than 16% in the last decade – thanks, in large part, to the efforts of an organization called United World Colleges, along with a private scholarship fund. According to the school’s vice president of enrollment management, George Wolf, it’s all about finding the right recruiter.

“There are very good recruiters out there who are very solid and do all the right things,” he explains. “And then there are recruiters out there just to a make a buck.”

Source: “Motives of Foreign Student Recruiters Questioned”. Fox News, November 25, 2011.

4) GLOBE TIPPING – VAT Demystified.

Every year, travelers in Europe leave behind millions of dollars of refundable sales taxes. Although the hassle in claiming a ‘VAT’ refund may seem overwhelming, if you do any serious shopping, it can seriously add up – and means hard cash back for you.

The standard Value-Added Tax (especially in the European Union) ranges from around 15 to 25%, but this number depends very much on which country you visit. While business travelers are entitled to refunds on the tax they spend on hotels and meals, even pure tourists are eligible for refunds for tax paid on any purchased merchandise, such as clothes, souvenirs, or crystal – so long as their final purchase at any retailer is more than the country’s minimum amount (typically ranging from $30 to several hundred dollars, depending on the country), and so long as you collect the refund within three months of your purchase.

The main trick is knowing the basic steps for claiming.

1. Bring your passport. You may be asked to present your passport when you make the purchase, in order to start the refund process.

2. Shop at stores that know the ropes. Retailers choose whether to participate in the VAT-refund scheme. Most tourist-oriented shops do, but if you don’t see a sign at the window or register, ask. It would be a shame to spend big bucks at one place without the chance for any refund.

3. Get the documents. When you make your purchase, have the merchant fill out the necessary refund document, called a “cheque”. Make sure this is done before you leave the store, and there are no blanks. Attach this to your receipt and store in a safe place. Also note that some stores (most of which have a “Tax Free Shopping Network” sticker in the window) may offer to handle the rest of the process for you, sometimes even reimbursing your credit card on the spot. The more charming and/or lucky you are, the more plausible this becomes….

4. Bring your paperwork and unused goods to the airport or border crossing, and arrive early. Assuming you have your purchase, receipt, and VAT paperwork (but no refund), you’ll need to get them processed before going home. If you’ve bought merchandise in a European Union country, then process your documents as your last stop in the EU, regardless of where you made the various purchases. If buying items outside the EU, but which still offer VAT-refunds (Turkey, for example), then be sure to have your documents stamped when crossing that specific border.

5. Get your documents stamped at customs. Before checking in, find the local customs office, and be prepared to stand in line. In smaller airports, ports, and/or border crossing, finding the right customs agent can be tough, so be sure you arrive with plenty of time. At customs, an export officer will stamp your documents and may ask to see your unused goods (to verify you are indeed exporting your purchase). Note the “unused” part – if you show up at customs wearing your new Italian shoes, you may be denied a refund. And unless you get this stamp, you’re probably out of luck for ever reclaiming.

6. Collect the cash – sooner than later. After you’ve had your form stamped, you may be able to receive your refund right at the airport. If you purchases were from a merchant who works with a refund service such as Global Blue or Premier Tax Free, and you find their offices (after check-in and security, likely near a duty-free shop), you may be able to trade in your stamped document for a refund in cash, right then and there (or put the amount back onto your credit card). If the retailer you bought from handles their VAT directly, you will have to contact them yourself for your refund, sending them your stamped documents…and then wait for their response. Realize this could take months, but normally shows up in the form of a refund on your credit-card statement or a check in the mail.


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