Rankled over rankings fall

Seah Chiang Nee
The Star

The drop in the rankings of Singapore’s top two universities, one by a whopping 101 places, lays bare the contrast between expectations of a parochial public and the realities on the ground.

A friend was rankled by a colleague’s remarks when he told her that his son had been accepted by a top US university: “Why? You mean he couldn’t qualify to study here?”

This happened six years ago.

The father, a media executive, had saved hard for it and was overjoyed by his boy’s admission into the US university.

Instead of congratulations, he had received sympathy from friends who actually believed his son was forced to go abroad because he couldn’t get enough marks to study here.

“Many Singaporeans never heard of Washington University or France’s Ecole Polytechnique but they know everything about Singapore’s universities, which demand good grades,” he said.

This faith was a little shaken by the latest – significantly revamped – Times Higher Education (THE) rankings of the world’s top 200 universities, which showed a decline of Singapore’s two top institutions.

Released last week, this widely-followed ranking showed The National University of Singapore (NUS) dropping from 30th to 34th position.

The newer Nanyang Technological University (NTU), formed in 1956, fared worse, tumbling 101 places from 73rd to a shocking 174th.

For most societies, universities moving up and down is accepted as normal and evokes little excitement, but not in Singapore, which takes higher education and rankings very seriously.

This city, which has few natural resources, depends a great deal on human resources, spending more on education; 2010 budget: S$8.7bil (RM20.4bil), than anything else except defence.

The perceived decline is a major concern not only to parents but also to the country, which is building an education hub and bidding to attract 150,000 foreign students to study here by 2012.

Universities are assessed by THE in their teaching or learning environment, citations and research, international mix of staff and students and industry income (amount of innovation).

The complete revamp, said THE publishers, would raise it to “a new level of sophistication” that would be followed from now on.

“We believe we have created the gold standard in international university performance comparisons,” it added.

The National University has not commented. NTU, which suffered the biggest drop, attributed it to the revamp and said it was no cause for alarm.

Its president Dr Su Guaning wrote in a published article that THE had designed a completely different methodology, and that its criteria had not yet been accepted by many universities.

“Universities know that their rankings do not tumble overnight.

“It takes years to build up a university; its standing will not swing wildly within a year or two,” Dr Su said.

Dr Su’s explanation placated some people but it failed to satisfy the public’s general concern about Singapore’s declining academic ranking in recent years in the face of an improving outside world.

The achievements of colleges and universities here have been substantial given their short history, but others are moving even faster.

Stronger rivals are emerging in many countries, especially China and India, that will make it very hard for Singapore to hold on to its global position. Others like Japan, South Korea and Malaysia are also moving up the ladder.

As in my media friend’s experience, they could also be facing another obstacle – Singaporeans who truly believe their institutions are better than even premier universities in the West that they never read about.

To its credit, NUS is regarded as comparable to a second or third level premium university in the West, depending on who you ask.

NTU, despite its fast track, has a long way to go.

As foreign universities get better and competition gets hotter, Singaporean expectations have moved higher than the realities on the ground.

Some analysts believe that part of the decline is Singapore’s rapid demographic – and in turn, tertiary – expansion.

From two, the number of universities here has grown to four (total enrolment: 78,000) with a fifth being planned. The proportion of foreign students in university is capped at 20%.

With its goal of attracting 150,000 international students by next year, recruiting enough PhDs with good quality has been a strain.

Without mentioning names, some graduates wrote of their personal experiences with poor quality foreign lecturers, whose English was so poor that they could hardly comprehend them.

One anonymous critic said some blame must be put on entry relaxation of foreign students, especially in English.

“Having more, bigger, faster – whether recruiting professors or students – must invariably mean a drop in standards.”

The other cause could be the relaxed entry requirements for foreign students – especially in English, a few critics said.

So far the hardest hit, psychologically speaking, are former NTU students.

“We hope they can quickly work to pull the rankings back up or else it may affect our effort to get a job outside Singapore,” one former NTU student said.

It is obvious there is no such thing as a perfect ranking or a flawless assessment system.

But like it or not, the credible or larger ones will continue to have an impact in Singapore – of universities and students assessed.

What is important is how credible these rankers are regarded in the world employment market.

On the other hand, blogger Kelvin Teo cautioned against taking the competitive culture too seriously.

“An obsession for ranking can be unhealthy from the social and educational perspectives.”