Explaining the dearth of Singaporean academics in our universities

By Singapore Armchair Critic

One oft-cited argument in defense of a high percentage of foreign faculty and students in Singapore universities is “global competitiveness,” which is, presumably, measured by the ranking of our local universities in the world.

Our top local university, the National University of Singapore (NUS), currently ranks 22nd in the 2013 World Reputation Rankings published by the Times Higher Education (THE).

Let’s look at how much the internationalization of NUS’s faculty and students contributes to its 22nd position.

THE ranking uses 13 indicators grouped under five categories. You can see from below that “International outlook” is worth only 7.5% out of the overall score of 100% (see methodology).

  • Teaching: the learning environment (worth 30 per cent of the overall ranking score)

  • Research: volume, income and reputation (worth 30 per cent)

  • Citations: research influence (worth 30 per cent)

  • Industry income: innovation (worth 2.5 per cent)

  • International outlook: staff, students and research (worth 7.5 per cent).

Out of the 7.5%, the ratio of international to domestic students is worth only 2.5%; same for the ratio of international to domestic staff. This means no matter how “internationalized” the university is in terms of its foreign faculty and student community, the university can only get a maximum score of 5 percentage points out of 100.

Here’s how NUS scores in comparison to Harvard which takes the top position and the University of Tokyo which is 9th in THE ranking. Harvard scores full marks, i.e. 100 points, in all three categories of the ranking criteria – overall reputation, reputation in teaching and reputation in research. The University of Tokyo scores 32.9, 29.8 and 34.4 respectively in the three categories.

NUS scores 15.5, 16 and 15.2 respectively in the three measures. The scores are pretty much nothing to shout about despite the university’s overall 22nd ranking.

In another university ranking by QS stars, which places NUS in the 24th position, an university can earn the maximum points as long as it has faculties that are 25% international and students that are 25% international (see “Internationalization” under methodology).

From the above, therefore, we can see that “global competitiveness” in terms of the percentage of foreign faculty and students is neither heavily weighted in the overall measurement by THE (only 5% maximum), nor requires a disproportionately high ratio of foreigners (a reasonable 25% will do) in the QS stars ranking.

What, then, explains the high proportion of foreigners in our universities?

First, not many Singaporeans pursue the path of academia. Besides the tedium of doing a PhD which takes at least four or five years to complete, pragmatic Singaporeans may also shun this path in favor of others that offer more attractive remuneration and career prospects.

The latter has to do with my second point, i.e. the limited vacancies, perceived or real, that are open to locals in our universities. Discriminatory hiring, in which a foreign recruiter hires his own kind, cannot be totally ruled out based on anecdotal evidence, and is already a social malaise that has spread to many sectors in Singapore. I myself have encountered a bizarre academic institution here that wears a “global” tag and yet was entirely staffed by Indian nationals.

Furthermore, while many have also spoken of the diverse makeup of faculties in Western universities, I also know, based on my job hunting experience, that Canadian universities openly state their preference for Canadian citizens and permanent residents in their recruitment advertisements. This begs the question: Is some form of “protectionism” a norm in universities in general? It may also be instructive for Singapore to dissect the faculty makeup in universities in East Asian societies such as Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea for comparison.

Besides these two factors, the biggest contributor to the dearth of Singaporean academics, especially those in social sciences and humanities, is perhaps the climate of fear, or the lack of academic freedom in conducting research on Singapore.

For decades under the PAP’s one party regime, we Singaporeans have witnessed how academics, both foreign and local, came under fire from the PAP government for speaking up on local issues. The 2003 study by NTU economists on how “three out of four new jobs in Singapore were taken up by foreigners,” and a recent NUS study on housing affordability are some examples, not to mention the case of Stanford- trained Cherian George being denied tenure twice by NTU.

Your field of training and study – history, economics, or politics – does not really matter because everything can be politicized under this one-party regime (think the discourse on poverty in Singapore or the revisionist history of Operation Coldstore). As long as your research findings are not music to PAP’s ears, there is the risk that your academic career may be jeopardized.

The ratio of foreign to Singaporean faculty in our universities, therefore, cannot be recalibrated overnight. Only with a more liberal environment and fair hiring practices can more Singaporeans be encouraged to take up academia as a career. While an international faculty no doubt adds to the intellectual vibrancy of a university, we must also consider the role that Singaporean academics can play, if given a chance, in nation-building and the betterment of our society.

This article was first published over at the blog of the Singapore Armchair Critic on 8 April 2014. It is reproduced with permission.


Being educated is more than just about knowledge and qualifications

Limited job options for pure Chemistry degree holders

The Singapore Education System is Quite Beyond Repair