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photo: nus.edu.sg

Singapore’s obsession with rankings will ultimately hurt academia more than it helps

The South China Morning Post (SCMP) published an article discussing the US$200,000 starting salary offered by Singapore's national university and the effects that will have on education and research in Singapore overall.

The National University of Singapore (NUS) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU) have been rapidly ascending the global university rankings, now in 11th and 12th respectively based on the QS World University Rankings 2019. This is attributed in part to the aggressive hiring of faculty members, often international, with glowing publication credentials.

NUS, with the intention of strengthening their global research rankings, is offering their new President’s Young Professors (PYP) programme to ‘outstanding young researchers and scholars with a strong research profile and trajectory’ for a tenure-track assistant professorship. This packages includes a generous salary rate of US200,000 a year, a start-up research grant of up to $S750,000, scholarships for PhD students, S$250,000 for discretionary spending, and support for spouses in securing employment.

On top of that, PYPs will also have lighter teaching loads, while foreign hires will be eligible for housing and other added benefits. NTU’s Nanyang Assistant Professor scheme offers a similar package with a start-up research grant of up to S$1 million and other benefits including assistance with accommodation.

The generous schemes are similar to offers in US-based research universities in terms of start-up grants which is common in the scientific field, but NUS and NTU stands out in that they offers these high level grants to faculty outside the STEM sector as well such as business, law and humanities.

These are highly generous schemes being offered up, which isn't common at all in academia, certainly not in this region, especially not from the institutions themselves. It's no secret that most of the funding for research usually come from non-government and private sources such as the World Health Organisation, drug companies, and other cause-driven foundations. So where is NTU and NUS getting their funding for this? Especially considering that the government hasn't increased it's subsidies for universities?

Read: Why increase university tuition fees when universities have huge annual surpluses?

SCMP pointed out that critics have argued that this package marginalises teaching in favour of research which in turn will affect the morale of local existing faculty members. Consequently, it will bring little to no benefit to Singaporean students, the national economy and society, and is likely unsustainable in the long run.

In their article, SCMP noted that NUS’s PYP programme has impacted the faculty hiring and promotion decisions this year with at least one non-STEM job candidate from a reputable university with promising publication records having been rejected for a tenure-track position. Similarly, current assistant professors in line for a tenure with excellent research and publication achievements under their belt are being side-lined in favour of new hires under the PYP programme.

Not only that, the distinction between standards for PYP and non-PYP Hires are only vaguely defined, which leads to concerns that it would be more difficult to retain academic staff who are already on the tenure track. Why would they stay on and risked being passed up for tenure in favour of a new hire that will receive an impressive starting salary and start-up grant to boot?

This then creates divide within those on the tenure track, with PYP hires receiving higher pay, a lighter teaching load, and probably a fast-track to tenure. This instantly impacts morale within the institutions faculty as well as the camaraderie required for a lively intellectual climate that is also productive. This is especially striking when non-PYP staff are saddled with heavier teaching loads which will reduce their time for research and chances for promotion.

In terms of the effects on students, SCMP suggested that the diversion of resources into the PYP programme could lead to the hiring of more short-term, lower-cost instructors with heavy teaching loads. In the end, students are the ones who would have to bear the brunt of this superficial race to the top of the ranking.

Without more subsidies from the government and funding being channelled into the PYP and similar programmes, students will find that their best lecturers are too busy with research to properly educate them. This then leaves students with an overburdened teaching staff who will likely not be able to perform their best. Surely this isn't what these students expected from Singapore's best institutions.

Whether or not this scheme will work is still uncertain. The PYP could attract foreign talent who have yet to receive tenure in their own institutions which in itself is a testament that they have yet to really prove themselves as an asset. As SCMP pointed out, these academicians are also likely to use the PYP programme as stepping stone into post-tenure jobs somewhere else, probably in their home country, with a higher salary benchmark – this is especially likely with the lower retirement age in Singapore at 65 compared to the US which would deter PYP hires from staying on and continuing their contributions.

Another point SCMP made is that Singapore also lacks the scale, home-grown talent and world-leading local corporations to attract well-established scholars to stay. Compared to the US which is still the hotspot for most engineering fields and is home to many major corporations, Singapore has little to offer foreign researchers apart from an attractive salary.

Perhaps the most significant criticism of the programmes offered by NUS, NTU and other similar programmes is that these are all based on the belief that intellectual breakthroughs are achieved by exceptional individuals. But that’s not the case. Some of the best breakthroughs in science have been collaborative, multidisciplinary efforts between institutions and nations.

By recruiting rising young academics to bolster research rankings, these institutions are alienating existing faculty, deterring applications from established researchers who don’t fit the criteria, and discourage Singaporeans from entering academia. All at one, it also decreases the likelihood of positive collaboration between faculty members and departments. In the long run, this can only hurt not help.