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Commentary: Singapore and Singaporeans lose when universities chase after world rankings

A focus on chasing after university rankings, and therefore prioritising research over teaching, has detrimental effects for Singapore students and society, says one academic.

Commentary: Singapore and Singaporeans lose when universities chase after world rankings

A university student graduation. (Photo: Reuters/Brian Snyder)

SINGAPORE: In the latest iteration of the Times Higher Education World Rankings, the National University of Singapore (NUS) lost its top spot as Asia’s number 1 university and falls one spot. 

It was ranked 23rd and Nanyang Technological University (NTU) was placed at 51st.

While much has been said about the impressive rise of NUS and NTU on these global university rankings, there is also a need to take a step back and ask: What does this mean for teaching and learning in these universities?

READ: The age-old question about university rankings, a commentary


According to the Ministry of Education, the core focus of Singapore’s university education is to “prepare students not only for today’s world but also for a world where there will be jobs that have yet to be invented and challenges not yet foreseen”.

In other words, the role of a university is to educate citizens and prepare them for their future careers. 

This role has become increasingly critical, as Singapore faces deep transformation and disruptions to its economy that will require graduates to be equipped with industry-relevant skills such as data analytics or coding.

This is a point that was picked up by Education Minister Ong Ye Kung, who said at a recent education conference that university ranking systems need to “evolve” beyond focusing merely on the quality of academic papers published, to evaluate the effectiveness of universities’ collaboration with industries, society and the government.

READ: My generation has a fear of missing out - on a disrupted future, a commentary

Rankings "must go way beyond publications and citations, which are the easiest to measure today and we may have relied on quite a lot", said Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung on Sep 26.

As it stands, university rankings place a disproportionate emphasis on evaluating universities’ research output. For instance, research and citations contribute to 60 per cent of a university’s performance in the Times Higher Education World Rankings, with teaching measures accounting for only 30 per cent.

This overwhelming emphasis on research has meant that universities seeking to rise up the ranks of such global university rankings have tended to devote an extensive amount of resources towards boosting research outcomes. Certainly, this is how NUS and NTU have both leapfrogged many of their competitors in global university rankings.

However, an overemphasis on research can come at a cost to teaching quality. One of the problems with an overemphasis on research is a concomitant lack of resources that can be directed towards adult-learning. 

As Education Minister Ong Ye Kung has mentioned on multiple occasions, there is a need for our universities to play a bigger role in lifelong learning.

Given the importance of continuous education and reskilling for Singapore’s future economy, this may require directing universities’ best and brightest faculty members towards adult learning and continuous education, rather than employing adjunct lecturers for this important mission.

Yet, in many universities across the world, adjunct lecturers are typically picking up the teaching slack, while professors are asked to focus on research.

Indeed, in Singapore, we are well familiar with the refrain that our people are our only resource. Shouldn’t this warrant greater emphasis among universities on education and lifelong learning, activities that can give rise to real substantive benefits for our citizens and our economy?

Nanyang Technological University engineering students engaged in team-based learning. (Photo: NTU)


More worryingly, this focus on research output and university rankings can serve to dilute the Singaporean identity of our universities.

Such concerns are not new. In a 2015 speech, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong emphasised that universities’ KPI should not be about ranking positions, but how well they serve Singapore.

Indeed, this lack of a Singaporean identity is a common grouse that I have encountered among many of our Singaporean undergraduate students, many of whom have expressed a strong desire for local academics who can present knowledge in a manner that makes sense in the Singaporean context.

To give an example: It is one thing to teach the fundamentals of financial regulation from a theoretical perspective. But without a sound understanding of how the Monetary Authority of Singapore operates or the vulnerabilities and constraints that our policymakers face, public policy education runs the risk of becoming overly-abstract and irrelevant to budding public servants and those seeking a career in the financial sector. 

In order to develop a better understanding of the Singaporean context, there is a need to encourage more Singapore-centric research. While such research may not generate high levels of citations globally, they can bring forth strong benefits for Singapore society.

This means a need for more Singaporean academics. Paradoxically, the over-emphasis on research and rankings may prove counter-productive for developing a strong core of Singaporean academics.

Professors Pang Eng Fong and Linda Lim have found that local universities’ focus on rankings and citations have sidelined local academics, with universities seeking to hire foreign academics with high citations counts rather than local academics whose work on Singapore may not generate as much global interest.

READ: The relentless pursuit of university rankings is creating a two-track system, a commentary by Professors Pang Eng Fong and Linda Lim

Similarly, Member of Parliament Seah Kian Peng has previously argued that Singapore’s academia lacks a “Singaporean core”, with Singaporeans forming the minority in political science, public policy and communications departments of several of Singapore’s public universities.

During the Budget debate in2014, Member of Parliament Seah Kian Peng highlighted the low percentage of Sing­aporeans in several departments at the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University. (Photo: Facebook / Seah Kian Peng)


Perhaps most worryingly, the “sidelining” of local academics that Profs Pang and Lim have identified can give rise to a gradual brain drain of Singaporean intellectuals.

More than simply being teachers or research output automatons, local academics play an important role in contributing to the socio-cultural milieu of Singapore. It will only be to Singapore’s loss, if our Singaporean academics decide to leave for greener pastures.

In the longer run, this strategy of focusing on research citations and hiring foreign academic talent can give rise to deep institutional drift.

READ: A holistic university education must be community-oriented, a commentary

While both teaching and research are no doubt important for Singapore’s universities, an over-emphasis on one over the other may give rise to skewed educational outcomes.

There is therefore a need to rebalance this portfolio of research and teaching activities, in order for universities to contribute towards both the education and training of a credible Singaporean labour force as well as research-driven and industry-centric innovation.

Aside from improving teaching quality, Singaporean universities will also need to reorient both their teaching and research capabilities towards contributing to Singapore’s broader national goals and needs, whether these be training up a skilled and effective workforce or providing local industries and enterprises with access to cutting-edge research and innovations.

In all instances, there is a need to groom a stronger core of Singaporean academics and encourage our foreign colleagues to apply their research and expertise to the better good of the society within which they reside.

Woo Jun Jie is an Assistant Professor in the Public Policy and Global Affairs Programme of Nanyang Technological University.

Source: CNA/sl


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