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Commentary: University professors must teach more, have industry experience

In an age of disruption and higher education levels around the world, rising tensions between research and teaching in universities must be addressed, said retired associate professor Jeffrey Funk.

Commentary: University professors must teach more, have industry experience

A student plays Solitaire in a lecture theater of the university on October 11, 2017 in Mont-Saint-Aignan, near Rouen, northwestern France (Photo: AFP/CHARLY TRIBALLEAU)

SINGAPORE: The rising tensions between research and teaching in universities, particularly those in the US, provide lessons for Singapore. 

One reason for rising tensions is the increasing complexity of the real world. We no longer live in a world in which mechanical engineers design cars and electrical engineers design computers; we live in a world of digital systems in which everything is becoming connected. 

Thousands of suppliers often collaborate informally on the design and manufacture of these systems, often across different continents, and often for markets with different needs and regulations. 

Whether we talk about the Internet of Things, cloud computing, machine learning, or artificial intelligence, the design of everything now requires broad, technical and business knowledge that go far beyond existing academic disciplines and the narrow silos of academic journals. 


Technology is also changing the definition of jobs, requiring universities to adjust their curricula and even the boundaries between different disciplines. 

The Internet of Things, cloud computing, machine learning, and artificial intelligence are changing the work of doctors, lawyers, accountants, architects, journalists, engineers and scientists, from low-level to high-level work, even as curricula remain focused on low-level knowledge such as mathematics. 

Changing the curricula and boundaries between disciplines requires professors who understand the real world more than the academic world of esoteric knowledge. 

READ: Here’s what Singapore’s human capital index in a world of disruption should look like, a commentary

File photo of NUS students attending a lecture in 2018. File photo of NUS students attending a lecture.


A second factor fuelling rising tension between research and teaching is research has become narrower and more impractical, thus contributing less to innovation and enterprise than it once did.

For example, start-ups have been the leading drivers of innovation in the US for the last 40 years. However, preliminary results from my research with Martin Kenney and Donald Patton on IPOs (initial public offerings) filed in the US shows that the proportion of top managers and directors who hold PhDs in these successful start-ups dropped by about half between 1990 and 2010. 

If the life sciences are excluded, which represent about half the PhDs, the drop is even larger. Less than 9 per cent of top managers and directors hold PhDs, and more than half only hold a bachelor’s or MBA by the late 2000s. 

My evaluation of the Wall Street Journal’s billion-dollar start-up club finds similar results, but this time by looking at the impact of scientific papers on the patents held by these global start-ups. 

Only eight (6 per cent) of 143 startups cited more than 10 different scientific papers in their patents and six of them are biotech and bio-electronic startups. 

The importance of advances in science to biotech start-ups is not surprising. 90 per cent of royalty income for the top 10 universities comes from biotechnology, and universities obtain a larger percentage of the patents awarded in biotech (about 9 per cent) than for all other high-tech sectors (about 2 per cent).  

Again, other than biotech and related fields, PhDs and university professors have a small impact on innovation and enterprise. 

A university student graduation. (Photo: Reuters/Brian Snyder) FILE PHOTO: Students take their seats for the diploma ceremony at the John F. Kennedy School of Government during the 361st Commencement Exercises at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts May 24, 2012. REUTERS/Brian Snyder


The falling relevance of research, along with the increasing complexity in the real world, make most university rankings meaningless. 

Who cares if your university scores high in research rankings if your graduates don’t receive high salaries or create successful start-ups? Adding value requires universities to make contributions to productivity growth, jobs, and other aspects of local and national economies. 

READ: Singapore and Singaporeans lose when universities chase after world rankings, a commentary

Viewed from this angle, graduates of Singapore’s top universities have much lower pre-tax starting salaries (about S$3,500 each month) than do graduates of America’s top 10 (S$6,700) or even top 300 or so universities around the world where graduates have a starting pay of S$5,500. 

Viewed also from this angle, Singapore’s graduates of Singapore’s top universities have been involved in few successful start-ups in Singapore over the last 30 years. 

They are also not top managers or directors among US IPOs, ranking far below graduates of universities in the UK, Canada, Israel, Taiwan, Germany, France, Finland, Sweden, Switzerland, Russia, and South Africa, according to my research. 

READ: Time for Singapore universities to switch gears, a commentary


Singapore can learn from the US because its universities have been feeling the impact of the changes discussed above for many years. 

For instance, trust in universities, experts, and institutions in general have plummeted in the US as students realise that university educations are not as practical and thus not as valuable as they once were. 

These problems became well known after the 2008 Global Financial Crisis when many university graduates could not find jobs, even low-paying ones. Many students realised they have been in school for many years and yet had few marketable skills.  

In the US, high school students are also becoming aware of this problem and it is one reason they have trouble choosing a career or even a major. They realise that in their 10 years of school, they have learned little about work, what it involves for many professions, and thus the advantages and disadvantages of various career choices. 

READ: Don't wait until graduation to find a job, begin university with end in mind, a commentary

File photo of a man looking over employment opportunities at a jobs centre in San Francisco, California. (Photo: REUTERS/Robert Galbraith) A man looks over employment opportunities at a jobs center in San Francisco, California, U.S, February 4, 2010. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith/File Photo

Bryan Caplan, a professor of economics at George Mason University, illuminates some of the problems with education in his book The Case Against Education

Through an assessment of statistical research on employment and salaries, he shows that most of the high salaries achieved by high school and university graduates come from “signalling” and not from better skills.  

Employers pay higher salaries to high school and university graduates because these graduates have “signalled” in their degrees and in their high grades the attributes of intelligence, diligence, and conformity, attributes that are favoured by companies. 

But as the percentage of people graduating from universities increases, the bar rises thus making it harder for university graduates to obtain the jobs that university graduates obtained 30 years ago. 

Caplan documents how recent university graduates in the US can increasingly be found employed in bars, restaurants and other jobs previously filled by less educated workers, simply because companies value the signalling from education. 

Singapore does the same thing, for example, hiring Filipino college graduates to work in bars and restaurants, even though skills covered in university courses aren’t used in these jobs.  


What should Singapore’s universities do to avoid the downward spiral that many parts of America’s education system have entered? 

One option is to increase the number of practitioners among faculty to increase the practicality of courses, something that many top universities do. 

The advantage of practitioners is that they have deep practical knowledge, but this can also be a disadvantage. Different products, services, companies, and institutions require different types of solutions and thus the deep, narrow knowledge of practitioners can push students away from unique solutions and towards one-size-fits-all solutions. 

Students attend a lecture in the auditorium of a university in Munich, Germany, May 25, 2016. (Photo: REUTERS/Michaela Rehle/File Photo)

For example, auto companies operate differently from semiconductor companies. Thus, practitioners with broad knowledge are needed, knowledge that was once held by PhD holding faculty before academic journals became their sole obsession.

Some argue that universities should even consider hiring practitioners as department heads, something that has been tried by business schools but met with mixed success. 

This mixed success came from pushback from PhD-holding academics who were not interested in the practical teaching and research advocated by practitioners. 

Deans could not fire poor teachers, reassign them, or even hire better teachers because tenured faculty have large amounts of power. This provides another reason why the pendulum must swing back towards teaching among PhD-holding faculty.

For the pendulum to swing back, leadership is required; leadership from university deans, provosts, and presidents and in Singapore, ultimately from the Ministry of Education to hire professors with more knowledge about the real world of work, even if they don’t have as many publications in top journals as others do. 

In the end, the Singapore Government can decide the type of universities they want, ones that score high in research results, or ones that provide Singaporeans with the skills that will lead to higher salaries, successful enterprise, and faster growth in productivity. 

Jeffrey Funk is a retired associate professor of management at the National University of Singapore. 

Source: CNA/nr(sl)


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