NUS seeks to attract overseas Singaporean academics via grant — but many professors previously left due to high research output requirements

The National University of Singapore (NUS) is offering a S$200,000 grant to overseas Singaporean academics seeking to return to the country and to join the university as pre-tenure assistant professors, said Education Minister Ong Ye Kung on Tue (6 Aug).

Speaking at the inaugural Singaporean Researchers Global Summit held at the Regent Singapore, Mr Ong said that the grant, half of which will be funded by his ministry, will be an addition to the Singapore Teaching and Academic Research Talent (START) scheme.

While recipients of the bond will not be required to serve a bond, they will need to meet four years of service in total to receive the full sum of the grant in cash. The first S$80,000 will be paid halfway through the four-year service.

“If you are at the early stage of your career, this will get you started to do good research work,” Mr Ong told reporters, adding that the pre-tenure segment is not as strong as the tenured one, and that the government aims to “continue to have a strong core of at least 50 per cent” of Singaporean tenured faculty members in local universities.

Statistics from British higher education intelligence firm Quacquarelli Symonds (QS), however, show that the number of international faculty staff members make up two-thirds of the total faculty staff member at NUS as of today, with 3,022 international staff members out of 4,564.

NUS professor and senior deputy president and provost Ho Teck Hua, said that the university, being the first to offer the grant under the scheme, will “select as many academics as possible, and want to cast the net wide” for Singaporean academics particularly in the United States and Europe “to return home”.

“We are particularly excited in inviting humanities and social sciences academics to return to Singapore as well, and we would like to have a bigger ratio of humanities scholars in Singapore,” 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”: Former NUS associate professor Axel Gelfert, after taking on full professorship in Berlin — among other academics who left

Earlier this year, however, several former NUS and Nanyang Technological University (NTU) professors revealed the universities’ alleged fixation on KPIs and rankings as the reason behind the exodus of many academics from the two tertiary institutions, despite initially being able to initially attract a sizeable pool of qualified arts and humanities professors in particular.

Philosophy professor Axel Gelfert, who served as an associate professor at NUS for ten years, told TODAY in Jan this year that there appears to be “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,” he added.

Touching on his academic life after having taken up a full professorship at the Technical University of Berlin in late 2017, Prof Gelfert said that he feels that he is “at a university that is run by academics for academics, not a subordinate unit enacting KPIs it receives from the head office”, in contrast to his account of his tenure at NUS.

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

Other academics who spoke to TODAY narrated similar experiences as Prof Gelfert.

Historian John DiMoia, who left NUS in 2016, said that his experience there went ‘downhill’ after accepting a tenure at the university.

“There were people at my door constantly checking on how much I was producing and publishing,: said Dr DiMoia, who is now an 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.

TODAY article reporting on exodus of academicians from NUS removed four days after publishing date; NUS reminds mainstream media to be “impartial” in publishing articles about the university

The TODAY article was removed four days after it was published on 6 Jan, which a spokesperson attributed to the article being “the subject of a legal challenge”, and that TODAY‘s lawyers were “looking into the matter”.

TODAY reported that two universities allegedly 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 abroad instead.

The mainstream media news outlet also cited their previous report on the departure of eight lecturers from NUS’s communications and new media department, which had led to several modules being discontinued, and in turn caused apprehension among current students over the fate of their courses.

NTU and NUS, in response, 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.

Responding to the TODAY article itself, NUS said 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”.

NUS told The Straits Times in response to the statements made by its former academics that it “upholds the principles of academic freedom and open inquiry, which are central to our culture of academic excellence and continual improvement”.

However, the academics nonetheless reiterated their previous statements, as seen in a Facebook post by Jeremy Fernando, a fellow of Tembusu College in NUS, which contained a statement by five of the academics.