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