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NTU ranking: Its roots and what is the next step forward?

A young star on the rise

It seems to be a trend among many nations that creating universities of global status has become an important task of higher education. Countries such as South Korea, China and Saudi Arabia are all boasting their young universities-tertiary institutions with less than fifty years of history-that attract international recognition. Singapore has also joined the league. Nanyang Technological University, which marks its 22nd anniversary this year (2013), has been climbing the ladder for global young university ranking. It comes in eighth this year, jumping from last year’s sixteenth position. It is an achievement that students, parents, educators and the government should all relish and be proud of. There are few important factors that contribute to the continuous rise in global ranking of the university. But at the same time, there are also potential pitfalls that a young university should avoid.


Firstly, since its rebirth from Nanyang University, Nanyang Technological University (NTU) has strategically adopted English as the medium of communication, despite its strong Chinese background. The use of English has enormous implications on the development of the university in various ways. The English environment makes it easy to attract academicians from other countries, particularly America and Britain, the traditional higher education powerhouses. The influx of foreign professors contributes to the diversity of teaching staff, which is measured under the International Outlook criterion in the Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) ranking methodology. As Singapore is a city-state with a small population, the lack of talents in tertiary education is a real problem. Hence, it is almost inevitable that the university has to import professors from overseas, especially those specializing in less popular disciplines. For example, in NTU most of the professors in the linguistic department are of foreign origins. Hence, English makes NTU a hub for international brainpower for a variety of majors and disciplines.


Secondly, NTU has been improving its research capability substantially. Strong academic backgrounds have become a critical criterion in recruiting new professors while generous salary has attracted a large volume of applications from all over the world. Tenure is based on academic output and one’s promotion from assistant to associate and finally to full professorship is reviewed under strict guidelines. The incentive system is in place for professors to publish quality papers, the most important assessment of a university’s ranking. Money from the government and other sources also support the research effort on campus and joint adventure between the university and other organizations in Singapore is not uncommon. Interestingly, the rising research culture also spillovers to the undergraduate students who are encouraged to participate in a year-long research project URECA under the direct mentorship of a professor. With the university generating more academic output, it is in a good position on its way to achieving its global ambition.

Not all about research

However, there are some potential problems that young universities such as NTU should be aware of. Some young universities come under the public criticism of focusing too much on research, neglecting teaching as a result. Because publishing more papers in tier-one journals and getting more citations is the most efficient way to increase one’s ranking, many universities verge on the extreme of compromising teaching for the sake of research. In response to the problem, the QS has decreased the weightage of academic research, so that other aspects become more important in contrast. However, academic activity is still the most important criterion. A university must resist the obsession with ranking, which does not mean anything without a vibrant environment for learning. In reality, NTU generally strikes a good balance between the two. The URECA program can be one good example. The Koh Boon Hwee Scholars Awards encourage students to identify inspiring teachers for recognition. It is important that NTU stays long term in perspective, as its reputation through words of mouths by students and alumni can be a better promoter than a mere ranking by an agency.

Where is the identity?

Moreover, it is important that NTU creates its own culture and identity. Many western universities are well known not just for their world-class learning environment; they are also famous for their unique history, their architecture and peculiar student cultures and festivals. To be fair, it takes hundreds of years to develop an identity. Young universities have a harder time to compete with established ones for hardware as well as the intangible software of culture. What is the first word that comes into people’s mind when they hear NTU? How are students in NTU different from students in NUS and other local institutions? Will the unique NTU spirit be a reason for high school students to place NTU as their first choice? In such aspects, NTU has a longer way to go. But it is also not ideal to wear multiple hats at the same time. If improving international status is the priority now, the administration can try to explore cultural creation at a slower pace. Perhaps the Chinese heritage is something NTU can take advantage of? Perhaps its combination of business and engineering can produce batches of technopreneurs who can make Singapore into the Silicon Valley in the East? The possibilities are endless.

While we need to appreciate the recognition from QS, we should not forget that the highest recognition is from students themselves. We are still observing the phenomenon of many talented Singaporean students going overseas for education given the chance and ability. If one day we can retain more local talents to educate locally and even attract students from the other part of the hemisphere, we will know that NTU and Singapore has truly become a hub for global education.




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