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Did the university overhaul make a difference for NUS/NTU in international ranking?

with 8 comments

This post is written to address one specific line of criticism directed against these two previous posts here and here. Some may claim that the university overhaul initiated by DPM Dr Tony Tan then was necessary because they made NUS or NTU a world-class university where previously they was largely unknown and consigned to the lower ranks.

A commenter named Y phrased the objection as follows:

If NUS/NTU does not command international recognition and respect, then the locals who graduate from these universities would also suffer. Would Beijing University or Tokyo University or any of the ivy league universities open its doors to all and sundry in their respective countries regardless of the students’ academic qualities? Every reputable university will have their “cut-off” when selecting candidates.

But how does one prove such a claim? Were both NTU and NUS previously ranked fairly low on world university rankings? It turns out that proving this would be quite difficult, if not impossible and what little evidence I am able to garner is inconclusive.

Why? Two of the most prestigious international university ranking publications, QS and THE only started publishing their rankings in 2004, way after the university overhaul begun.  Take a look at their respective Wikipedia entries for this.


The Times Higher Education World University Rankings is an international ranking of the world’s top universities published by Times Higher Education (THE). A publisher of international education rankings since 2004, THE split from its original partner Quacquarelli Symonds in 2010, creating a new ranking methodology whose citation database information is compiled in partnership with Thomson Reuters.


The need for an international ranking of universities was highlighted in December 2003 in Richard Lambert’s review of university-industry collaboration in Britain for HM Treasury, the finance ministry of the United Kingdom. Amongst its recommendations were world university rankings, which Lambert said would help the UK to gauge the global standing of its universities.[citation needed]

Note: In 2010 both THE and QS split, each offering their own international ranking.

In 2004 according to THE-QS, NUS ranked 18th in the world, while NTU ranked 50th. Six years later in 2010, NUS ranked 31st in the world with NTU at 74th place according to QS, while THE ranked NUS at 34th, and NTU at 174th. It’s clear that both universities for whatever reasons have fallen since 2004. One reason for this is likely to be due to changes in the way THE/QS adjusted their ranking methodology.

But back to the point, the clearest indication or proof that the university review overseen by former DPM Dr Tony Tan would have been a marked improvement of local university rankings of the late 1990s compared to say in 2004, 2005 when the press began to boast about how the overhaul helped improved their ranking and image. But as far as I can discern, there is scant evidence to support such a contention since rankings didn’t exist back then.

In the absence of world university rankings, is there any other evidence one could draw upon to judge if the overhaul did indeed improve the international image of NUS or NTU? After searching for some time, I chanced across some old letters and articles back from 1996 and 1997, way before any major changes were initiated in local Singapore universities.

In 1996, both NUS and NTU wrote to the Straits Times forum in reply to a letter asking where the local universities ranked internationally. Here’s an excerpt from NUS’s letter:

There is no consolidated international league table which shows how, for example, Oxford University compares with Harvard University.

* The university’s established reputation for excellence has been a major factor in attracting top students and high-calibre teaching and research staff.

More than 80 per cent of the 1,400 full-time teaching staff have PhDs from the very best universities in the world, with trainees (on PhD programmes) making up most of the rest. The fact that our staff serve on the editorial boards of numerous international journals speaks highly of their international repute and academic standing.

* Research is strong in all disciplines in NUS, especially in engineering, science and medicine. According to the data based on the International Engineering Citation Index, our publication of engineering-related papers in reputable international journals exceeded 500 in 1995.

This puts NUS on par with some of the top universities such as Imperial College of Britain. Additionally, the number of such engineering publications per NUS academic staff in 1995 was 2.41, a performance comparable to that of the best universities in the world.

* Based on international Science Citation Index data, the annual publications of NUS in science (which includes engineering and medical sciences) have placed our research performance in the top 5 per cent of the world.

* NUS was ranked fifth worldwide in 1995 in the field of systems and software engineering research, in a study by the US-based Journal of Systems and Software.

Yes, even back in 1996 NUS could boast of all these achievements before the quota for foreign students was doubled from 10% to 20% or university fees for foreign students were slashed from 50-100% more than local students to a mere 10% more. NTU on the hand, had fewer achievements to boast of.

As early as in 1985, the engineering courses were noted by the Commonwealth Engineering Council to be among the best in the world.

This accolade was repeated in the December 1995 issue of The International Journal of Engineering Education.

In any case, the above letters show that contrary to what some might think, both NUS and NTU were not unknown universities little more than Singapore degree mills. They already had some international prestige even before the university overhaul overseen by DPM Tony Tan began.

As for rankings, while as stated above there was no known international rankings, in 1997, now-defunct Asiaweek magazine published a regional Asian ranking which placed NUS in 4th place and NTU at 15th in Asia.

Where do both NUS and NTU rank today in Asia alone? According to the latest 2010 rankings, THE ranked NUS 4th place and NTU at 23rd in Asia. In other words, neither NTU nor NUS had improved their ranking since then.

Now the big question after learning of all of the above, was the overhaul worth it? Did the practice of recruiting foreign students by advertising in their home countries (especially those who could not make it to their countries’ universities) make a difference in ranking? Did it help NUS/NTU to offer them scholarships with an easily fulfilled bond and a PR attached? Did it help NUS/NTU international image to double the foreign student quota from 10% to 20% while also depriving a number of polytechnic grads of local education?

The evidence is at best inconclusive since NUS and NTU were already somewhat well-regarded in Asia way before the overhaul was conducted.

Afternote: The 2010 THE ranking breaks down NUS and NTU’s ranking as follows. Note that both universities performed exceptionally well in the area International mix, which measures the proportion of foreign students and faculty staff.

By contrast, top universities at the very top do not fare as well as NUS/NTU did in that area:

Written by defennder

June 20, 2011 at 3:59 PM

Posted in Singapore affairs

8 Responses

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  1. Let’s not forget our local universities (and schools), given time, are very adept at gaming the scoring system.

    Also, you don’t want to be producing local graduates when your labour market cannot absorb them. You don’t owe this political duty to foreign student grads.But things turned around pretty quickly after the 1997/9 Asean crisis and as they say, Spore’s universities have not looked back since.

    only a statistical game

    June 20, 2011 at 8:08 PM

  2. It is amazing that NUS/NTU treat the THE and QS rankings like an altar. Academics from other unis dismissed those ranking systems as crap.

    Darth Maul

    June 20, 2011 at 8:32 PM

  3. Defennder,

    Yet another excellent piece of citizen reporting! Hats off to you!

    There is another indirect piece of evidence that the general reputation of Singapore’s universities has not increased much. Despite the recommendations by the International Academic Advisory Panel in the early 2000s to take in more full fee-paying international students, NUS and NTU have been unable to do so. International students are generally unwilling to pay a premium (at full fees) for a NUS/NTU undergraduate education.


    June 20, 2011 at 9:43 PM

  4. Hi Fox,

    Thank you, this is what I could come up with after some searching. Apart from this I’ve heard anecdotal stories among those who went abroad for their student exchange programme or work that few people in developed Western countries have heard of NUS/NTU at all. So I really began to wonder whether NUS or NTU has the prestige the university administration and Singapore government claim. It seems to me that the most they have achieved is to provide foreign students a fully-paid scholarship (sometimes with no bond) at Singapore universities. I’ve also heard about a number of cases of foreign grads who exploit this system and the PR which used to be offered freely to them at the end of their studies to jump ship and head over to the West. Singapore is really nothing more than a springboard for them.

    Somehow or another, this practice has gone overboard despite the fact it originated as merely a way for NUS/NTU to become well-known. Now it seems NUS/NTU is more well-known for providing heavily subsidised or free university education to those who fail to enter their own country’s universities. And despite all these efforts, it’s ridiculous to see that this has not born fruit in terms of university ranking.

    Also you referred to the International Advisory Academic Panel’s recommendations. I read somewhere that most of the local universities’ international students are on scholarships. Do they publish the proportion of foreign students who are fully subsidised anywhere? It appears that even today that despite the overhaul, and all the subsequent changes and reforms both NUS and NTU have had difficulty in recruiting full fee-paying international students.

    Darth Maul
    Apart from QS and THE there are other rankings available, though none of them appear to have begun in the 1990s for an appropriate comparison to be made.

    But it’s noteworthy that neither NUS nor NTU rank highly even in the other rankings


    June 21, 2011 at 11:24 AM

  5. From the point of a student, it also really doesn’t help that employers don’t treat NUS/NTU like a top university. Most MNCs/GLC/civil service generally treat local graduates as being one level below that of graduates from other similarly ranked universities overseas. This has a positive feedback effect whereby NUS/NTU are unable to attract top talent, thus reinforcing its reputation of being a second rate university among employers, and so on and so forth.


    June 21, 2011 at 12:58 PM

  6. not even Tony Tan can overcome the hypocrisy that has overtaken NUS – as it continues to pour resources endlessly into outdated and obsolete events.

    I used to be a proud student of NUS until recent events.

    If the government cannot press our local universities and be a beacon helping to develop people of mettle and ability for the coming challenges, then the people will need to slap some sense into them.

    Don’t forget the president is by (or dis-) honour the Chancellor of NUS – so who we pick matters!!


    June 22, 2011 at 3:00 AM

  7. @Defennder: “I read somewhere that most of the local universities’ international students are on scholarships.”

    From http://www.moe.gov.sg/media/parliamentary-replies/2006/pq20060213.htm#Scholarship

    “On average, about 14% of our undergraduates and 30% of our postgraduates in NUS and NTU in 2001-2005 were on scholarships. About one-third of the undergraduate scholars were local students. One quarter of the postgraduate scholars were local students.

    So, given that foreign students form about 20 percent of the undergrad population and that 2/3 of the 14 percent of undergraduates on scholarships are non-locals, I estimate that about half of the undergrad international students are on scholarships, at least as of 2005.


    June 22, 2011 at 4:58 AM

  8. Fox

    That 50% scholarship figure for half the proportion of international students seems to fit in with the bigger picture. I’ve come across additional material since I last posted on this which suggested what the university reforms did was more than just opening the doors of Singapore universities to foreign students. I’ll provide the sources and an article later to clarify this.

    It seems what was done was that the cap on foreign students in Singapore varsities was 20% all along (some dated articles from the 1980s proves this). But in 1997, the government reasoned that left to its own, the proportion of foreign students would stagnate at 10%. So the whole initiative to bring in more foreign students really started at that time. So from 1997 onwards, the 20% figure was not just a cap. It became a target. So it’s actually somewhat accurate to say that the government literally reserved 20% of places for foreigners since the recruitment effort was started to make sure they hit the 20% figure. So playing with the facts I guess one could say that the scholarship for foreign students thing was really started to ensure more foreign students would come to NUS/NTU.

    Now of course I was also wondering why they decided to massively expand intake in 1997. From a very cynical point of view it’s because of the 20% target. If intake had remained at its current level, then the only way to get more foreign students in would be to reserve more of those seats for foreign students (and correspondingly less for Singaporeans) but of course they couldn’t do that or risk a backlash. So I guess intake was expanded so that the amount of local intake would not be shrunk as they went from 10% to 20% for foreign students.

    The entire practice of offering scholarships to foreign students appeared to have started in 1997 as well. In my first post I mistakenly fingered 1998 as the starting year as I thought then that the university review panel was the starting step. It was not. Everything seemed to have started earlier in 1997. There are some sources (which I will post later) which says that they have had met their earlier target of 20% after extensive recruitment efforts.

    Some additional information: The panel went on to make some recommendations which were later discarded such as mandating SAT for university admission. The head of the panel was Prof Shih Choon Fong who later became NUS president. Guess where is he now? He’s at KAUST. Similarly Dr Tony Tan is also on the Board of Trustees KAUST:

    So I guess that pretty much settles the question of whether Tony Tan was responsible. He might not have been the one who came up with the idea, but as minister-in-charge of university education he was certainly the one which approved and oversaw it.


    July 18, 2011 at 11:41 PM

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