Ranking Singapore’s Universities: What Outcomes, And For Whom?

By Kwan Jin Yao

“At the minimum, Mr Ong said, a new metric should reflect three major focus areas: The value of a degree education, lifelong learning, and impactful research” (Global Ranking Systems Barely Reflect Universities’ Individual Strengths: Expert Panel, Louisa Tang)

That international rankings of universities are imperfect and that Singapore’s universities “would benefit from a ‘much more variegated approach’ in assessing how well they do, given that every institution has a different focus and distinctive objective” (TODAY, Jun. 29) are clearly defined problems. What is less clear, however, are not only the precise outcomes or indicators that the universities would like to measure instead, but also the target audience of these metrics and – by extension – the purpose of these measurements in the first place. Students and faculty members, for instance and in general, are likely to prioritise a school’s strength in teaching and in research differently, and furthermore comparing academic and vocational educational outcomes may not be as straightforward.

The perceived disjoint between the global ranking systems and the strengths of a university, in this vein, also stems from the methodology of the rankings, which reflect the biases of the respective institutions, of what they deem to be important traits of a “good” university. The Times Higher Education World University Rankings consider the five areas of teaching, research, citations, international outlook, and industry income, while the QS World University Rankings take into account the six metrics of academic reputation, employer reputation, faculty-to-student ratio, citations per faculty, international faculty ratio, and international student ratio. One could first argue whether or the extent to which these areas or metrics are fair indicators of good schools – and the likelihood that university administrators could be incentivised to game the system – and second question how the data was collected and aggregated.

And given that university administrators are still working to define and to operationalise appropriate “outcomes” – with Singapore Management University provost Lily Kong adding: “How do we assess outcomes? How do we know that an education is well-delivered and well-received?” – the “for whom” question should be emphasised. Education Minister Ong Ye Kung highlighted the three focus areas of the value of a degree education, lifelong learning, and impactful research, though it could be said that the first and the third areas are already covered by existing ranking systems, including the two aforementioned ones. Perhaps a more meaningful approach would be to find out what individuals expect from the university, before exploring how these expectations can be reconciled with a broader national agenda.

This post was first published over at the blog of Kwan Jin Yao on 3 July 2018. It is reproduced with permission.


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