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The Straits Times
Oct 6, 2016
It was touted as the first overseas offshoot of a celebrated film school, which boasts of alumni such as film-maker Martin Scorsese, and opportunities for students to hobnob with big names and be taught by illustrious directors.
But when Tisch Asia - a branch of New York University's (NYU) Tisch School of the Arts - shut its doors last year due to financial woes, some students felt that they had fallen victim to an educational scam.
Now, three former Tisch Asia students are suing NYU on behalf of their peers, alleging "sub-par" faculty, facilities and equipment compared with that available to their New York peers.
Ms Anna Basso, Ms Amy Hartman and Mr Jaime Villa Ruiz filed a complaint against NYU in the US District Court for the Southern District of New York last month. The American residents spent US$100,000 to US$165,000 (S$136,000 to S$226,100) each in tuition fees to study at the now-defunct school in Kay Siang Road.
The Singapore campus, which opened to much fanfare in 2007, left the private education scene last year after its last batch of students finished their courses. The branch, which offered degrees in areas including animation and digital arts, dramatic writing and film, took in students from a number of countries such as the US, China, South Korea and India.
In documents obtained by The Straits Times, the lawsuit states that Tisch Asia students, many of whom were rejected applicants from Tisch New York's Master of Fine Arts programmes, enrolled on the promise that programmes were identical.
But only the tuition fees were the same at Tisch Asia, the suit alleges.
"When NYU decided to close Tisch Asia, it became abundantly clear to students that they fell victim to an educational scam, that their programme would never create a legacy," the suit noted. "In reality, many faculty members at Tisch Asia had either sub-par experience or knowledge to the faculty in New York... At least one teacher was a fresh graduate of Tisch Asia."
Students also "could not avail themselves of the networking opportunities crucial to the art world", which Tisch New York students had access to through faculty connections and exposure to Hollywood and figures in the film industry.
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The suit claims that some cinematography professors "showed students outdated lighting techniques resembling television lighting of the 1990s". One of them "did not know how to use a modern camera".
The alumni suing NYU are seeking class action status, representing other Tisch Asia students.
Many Tisch Asia graduates told The Straits Times they are disappointed with the quality of education, from facilities to exclusion from grants available to their New York peers. A few, however, said their education could not possibly be similar to the one in New York.
A film graduate, who declined to give his name, said: "The only discrepancies I did find were that certain networking events provided to the New York students were not met in the Singapore campus, and at certain times the New York students were given larger allotments for film productions."
However, the 30-year-old, now a director, said the claim that most of his peers were rejects from Tisch New York is not true. "Many of the students applied to Tisch Asia directly because of its location and unique experience of being in South-east Asia," he explained. "To call Tisch Asia an educational scam is a gross exaggeration."
NYU spokesman John Beckman stressed that Tisch Asia students had the same curriculum as the one Tisch uses in New York.
"Many Tisch Asia courses were taught by New York-based faculty and all were taught by highly qualified faculty," he added. "Students had excellent facilities and equipment, and graduates received a Tisch School of the Arts degree.
"Artistically, the school was a real success, with a number of students winning awards."
Financially, however, it did not impress. The school posted million-dollar deficits. The branch was brought here as part of the Government's global schoolhouse project, which drew many high-profile foreign institutions like French business school Insead.
Mr Beckman said Tisch Asia operated at a steep deficit as NYU offered an education that cost more than the tuition fees paid. He said: "This suit is wholly without merit, and we expect to prevail in court."