Several former National University of Singapore (NUS) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU) professors have spoken out about the fixation of universities, these two in particular, on KPIs and rankings which have led to the exodus of many qualified arts and humanities academics from tertiary institutions.

In an article published by Today Online on 6th January and subsequently removed on 10th January, several academicians pointed out the opaque policies of NUS and NTU in terms of progression, promotion, and the offering of tenure to their academic staff.

According to the article by Today, NUS and NTU do well to attract talented faculty members but fail to retain them in the long run due to the institutions’ incessant pursuit of rankings and the lack of academic freedom for certain projects and research initiatives.

The article in question was removed a few days later. A spokesperson for Today said, “the article was taken down as it is the subject of a legal challenge and our lawyers are looking into the matter”.

In response to these strong statements made by their former faculty, NUS said to Straits Times, “NUS upholds the principles of academic freedom and open inquiry, which are central to our culture of academic excellence and continual improvement…Therefore the university also wishes that any article about us published in our mainstream media should be impartial and factually accurate, so that the public can come to its own conclusions in a fair and objective manner.”

The academics, however, stand by their statements. In a Facebook post, Jeremy Fernando, a fellow of Tembusu College, The National University of Singapore, shared a statement by five of the academics who asserted that they stand by their statements as quoted in the original article.

Comments made in the article by TODAY

The Today article quoted several former academicians from NTU and NUS who shed light on the inner workings of these universities, highlighting their fixation on the pursuit of higher international rankings.  As such, these institutions place enormous burden on their faculty to maintain a high research output – thus negatively impacting the time spent actually teaching. The academicians themselves had decided to move to universities overseas instead.

Today recalled their recent report that eight lecturers have left NUS’s communications and new media department, leaving some modules to be discontinued and not to mention worrying the current students.

However, NTU and NUS denied that the rate of turnover is high while still failing to disclose the exact numbers. NUS said that the number of academic staff at both its science as well as arts and social sciences faculties have been stable over the last three years. While NTU said the turnover at its College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences is comparable to other faculties.

The academics that spoke to Today said that there were deeper issues affecting faculty members in the field of arts, social sciences, and communications in particular.

Philosophy professor Axel Gelfert said “There is an eagerness on the part of some middling university managers to second-guess which policies the Education Ministry (MOE) might come up with next, and try to meet those KPIs before they even emerge. This means an ever-shifting maze of policies and guidelines which can literally change overnight.”

Prof Gelfert had been in NUS for a decade – mostly recently as an associate professor – but decided to take on a full professorship at the Technical University of Berlin at the end of 2017. He added, “I now feel I am at a university that is run by academics for academics, not a subordinate unit enacting KPIs it receives from the head office.”

He’s not alone in his sentiments. Historian John DiMoia who left NUS in 2016 said that his experience there went ‘downhill’ after being offered tenure. “There were people at my door constantly checking on how much I was producing and publishing,” said Dr DiMoia, who is now Associate Professor of Korean History at Seoul National University.

Dr DiMoia added that “life turned into hell” when he tried to fight for more teaching opportunities after being asked to focus on research upon his tenure. “The managers did not take ‘no’ for an answer. Someone from the department even defaced my door in the office during my sabbatical,” he said.
The incessant focus on research output is not surprising since international university leaderboards place strong weight on that factor when deciding on rankings. In the higher education marketing firm Quacquarelli Symonds (QS), academic peer review and citations per faculty make up 60% of the annual ranking. As for the ranking by Times Higher Education, 30% is based on citations while another 30% is based on volume, income and reputation of research.

NUS and NTU are placed 11th and 12th, respectively, on the QS rankings.

Unfortunately, this fixation on numbers have left faculty members with little space for proper education and has actually driven away faculty members who are more devoted to the teaching aspect of their professorship.

Another faculty member who left NTU in December 2018 was political scientist Woo Jun Jie who said, “The real problem is a systemic overemphasis on research outputs over other forms of innovative academic activities, be they pedagogical innovation or community service.”

Speaking to TODAY, Emeritus Prof Linda Lim from the University of Michigan added that high faculty turnover makes it difficult for universities to build a distinct “scholarly identity” that can be recognised globally, which will make it challenging, in the long run, to attract new faculty and graduate students. “Nobody wants to invest scarce time and effort in developing relationships and partnerships with people who are likely to leave within a few years,” she said.

Opaque policies

The policies at these institutions do more to perpetuate the brain drain. The academics told Today that the KPIs are constantly changing, resulting in tenure and promotion policies executed in a haphazard and random manner.

Dr Gelfert added that the standards of promotion and tenure are not made clear, and even when they are clarified at the time of appointment, they can change a moment’s notice.

Noting how the higher-ups at the universities often overrule recommendations made by specialist panels, he said: “While no tenure and promotion procedure is perfect, the level of internal distrust at NUS is astonishingly high. As a result, erratic and unpredictable decisions get made.”

Dr DiMoia recounted incidents involving former colleagues whose promotion and tenure prospects were reviewed for up to two years “for undisclosed reasons”. In a Facebook post in December, Dr DiMoia commented that NUS’ history department — which he referred to as a “certain department in (the university’s building) AS-1” — saw a “double digit” attrition of faculty members between 2014 and 2017.

An anonymous humanities professor also commented on the provost, noting his ‘warped’ view of research excellence. “His manner of conveying what he thinks is ‘excellent’ to the rest of the university is counterproductive and smacks of poor leadership… (he) is bent on improving NUS’ ranking through a haphazard approach of gaming various ranking systems as quickly as possible,” said the professor in his mid-30s.

In response to these claims of a lack of transparency, NUS and NTU maintained that their promotion and tenure reviews are a rigorous and multi-level process that has remained consistent across all faculty members. They said that education and research are both important considerations and that assessments involve both internal reviewers and external referees.

“This is in line with best practices adopted by top universities around the world. A candidate’s education performance is judged by student feedback for courses taught as well as through peer assessment reports. In addition, each candidate is evaluated on the impact of his or her research achievements compared with academics of a similar standing from peer and/or aspirant institutions,” said the NUS spokesperson.

NTU offered a largely similar response, adding that information on promotion and tenure policies is available to staff via the university’s intranet system. “The provost also conducts dialogues with faculty members, together with deans and chairs, to discuss promotion and tenure matters and facilitate in-depth understanding of the processes and expectations,” said the university’s spokesman.

On top of that, the MOE asserted that autonomous universities “make their own decisions and policies regarding staff recruitment, promotion and tenure”, taking into account the individual’s contributions across teaching, research and service. In reviewing these policies, they adopt best practices from established universities worldwide,” said the MOE spokesperson.

The now-unavailable Today article also highlighted the thoughts of these academicians on the kind of research that gets the limelight. The rush to climb the international rankings has led to a fixation on specific types of research, typically in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) fields which inevitably means the side-lining of other research. A former member of NUS’ Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences said it was challenging to research on systemic social issues in Singapore because the work was “under scrutiny”.

Apart from that, they also highlighted the mental toll of working in high-pressure conditions with little flexibility of academic innovation. Dr Andrew Quitmeyer, who left NUS’ communications department in December, said he was a “nervous, paranoid, depressed wreck” towards the end of his two-year stint there.

He added, “(The university) had plenty of money, what they wanted was ranking-bait. They just wanted to game metrics…I grew incredibly depressed and wouldn’t be able to leave my bed for whole days at a time.”

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