10 November 2017
The mainstream press in Singapore frequently celebrates university rankings published by Quacquarelli Symonds and Times Higher Education, giving positive coverage whenever our local universities move up in the league tables.
However, university rankings published by educational research houses have serious drawbacks.
They place an undue emphasis on academic research that has an international impact, but fail to measure whether such research benefits local communities or even the nation as a whole. Prioritising research-focused rankings also diverts scarce institutional resources from teaching to research.
University rankings also give a high weight to diversity of student population, particularly, in terms of international diversity. The more diverse the student population, the better the score. However, this does serious injustice to the aims of local universities, which must necessarily place the needs of Singaporeans first. Our autonomous universities are government funded and are fostered with the duty of achieving national-level educational objectives. This conflicts with the emphasis placed by university rankings on having as internationally diverse a student body as possible.
University rankings also do a poor job of measuring lifelong learning and lifelong employability in an ever-changing economic landscape. They do not measure the quality of students’ educational experience and whether this effectively translates into long term job prospects.
Most Singaporeans who study abroad (including Government scholars) choose universities that are lower-ranked than NUS and NTU, such as those in Australia, Canada and many US state universities. They are not penalised by employers, including the Government, for that.
Conversely, many international students do not appear to favour highly-ranked NUS and NTU over SMU and the other unranked universities. Instead they choose universities for a range of reasons, including costs, scholarship availability, field of study, word-of-mouth reputation, and likelihood of a work visa and employment after graduation.
In short, pursuing high university rankings as a goal in itself is unlikely to benefit Singapore and Singaporeans.