Singapore’s publicly funded National University of Singapore (NUS) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU) have rapidly ascended the world university rankings. According to international journals, the two now rank among the best in Asia, and are in the top 20 to 50 in the world.

This has been achieved in part by the aggressive hiring of international faculty members with the desired publication credentials, part of an increasingly intense global arms race for scarce research talent.

But critics argue that the opportunity costs of this approach include the marginalisation of teaching in favour of research, and of local faculty and local scholarship, in a way that adds little benefit to Singaporean students, the national economy or society, and is unlikely to be sustainable.

At an international conference at NUS in September, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung called for universities to move beyond current research-based rankings to consider “the varied and profound roles of universities today” and their “diverse social and economic missions and objectives”. This was also the unanimous recommendation of Singapore’s International Academic Advisory Panel (IAAP) of global university leaders and corporate CEOs after their June meeting.

WHAT’S HAPPENING?

Yet NUS is instead ratcheting up its emphasis on global research rankings when it comes to faculty hiring and promotion, with its signature new President’s Young Professors (PYP) programme offering “outstanding young researchers and scholars with a strong research profile and trajectory” extremely generous pay packages for tenure-track assistant professorships.

Besides “attractive” salary rates (a top PhD graduate in the United States starts on around US$200,000 or more a year, which NUS matches), the extraordinary benefits include a start-up research grant of up to S$750,000 (US$550,000), scholarships for PhD students, S$250,000 for “discretionary spending”, and support to help spouses find employment. PYPs will have lighter teaching loads, and foreign hires will also be eligible for housing and other benefits.

This appears similar to NTU’s Nanyang Assistant Professor scheme, which offers a start-up research grant of up to S$1 million, and “other benefits including assistance with accommodation”.

In US research universities, start-up grants are common in sciences and engineering, where expensive laboratories and PhD student research assistants are often required. The NUS and NTU programmes appear unique, though, in unprecedentedly offering grants of such magnitude to faculty outside the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) sector, in fields such as business, law, social sciences and the humanities.

NUS’ scheme has had an immediate impact on this year’s faculty hiring and promotion decisions. In at least one non-STEM faculty, job candidates from reputable universities with promising publication records – who would have been hired for tenure-track positions in previous years – have been rejected by higher-level administrators after being selected by department search committees.

Assistant professors recommended for tenure (permanent positions) by their departments and external reviewers, including Singaporeans researching local issues, have been denied despite exceeding past research and publication standards.

The new standards themselves, and the distinction between standards for PYP and non-PYP hires, are vaguely defined and retroactively applied without notice, leading to concerns that this uncertainty will make it more difficult to recruit and retain tenure-track academic staff.

As with corporate investment incentives, where more must be provided to attract investors to a location lacking intrinsic advantages, non-STEM academics in other countries are already asking if there is something so deficient in Singapore that they have to offer such outsize packages to attract faculty.

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The PYP scheme also creates a two-class system within the tenure track, with PYPs receiving higher pay for less teaching and presumably favoured on a “fast track” to tenure.

This will damage departmental morale and the camaraderie necessary for a vibrant intellectual climate and productive scholarly collaborations, especially when non-PYP faculty find themselves burdened with heavier teaching loads that reduce their own time for research and thus chances for promotion.

Students will be affected as scarce resources diverted to search and pay for PYPs lead departments to hire more short-term, lower-cost instructors on lower-level tracks with heavy teaching loads, little job security and no opportunity for research. There will be fewer local faculty on the more prestigious, powerful and permanent tenure track from which senior administrators are selected, and less research-based local content in the curriculum.

WILL IT WORK?

Whether the NUS PYP and the similar NTU scheme succeed in maintaining or further lifting their rankings is uncertain. Few tenure-track faculty openings in areas like the humanities and, increasingly, law, are available. Individuals in these fields will jump at the opportunity.

However, PYP candidates are expected to have an “outstanding” research record, meaning they are probably already employed as tenure-track assistant professors in say, the top 30 departments in a particular discipline worldwide, with tenure expected within a few years. Serious scholars are unlikely to “jump ship” at this stage, disrupting family life and research trajectories that include collaborations with current colleagues and PhD students.

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The PYP scheme thus risks attracting “foreign mercenaries” with inflated views of their own talent, who consider themselves underappreciated or under-placed (in lower-ranked institutions), or are underperforming so need more time to burnish their research credentials. Such candidates are unlikely to include stand-outs who meet the PYP scheme’s stringent criteria.

Hiring assistant professors is also more risky than the past practice of hiring senior scholars with established publication records to improve an institution’s rankings. They are by definition “unproven”, having not yet received tenure at a top institution.

Enhanced research and tenure at NUS would improve PYPs’ chances of parachuting into coveted post-tenure jobs elsewhere, and from a higher salary benchmark – perhaps in their home country. Indeed, the prospect of having their careers cut short a decade sooner in Singapore than in the US, due to the earlier retirement age (65 years versus none), could deter them from staying.

Money is not the only attraction for science and engineering faculty, where success depends significantly on the quality of their PhD students, and top US universities still appeal to the best students from all over the world. The US is also still the centre for most engineering disciplines, and the home of major global corporations. In China, universities, governments, provinces and even cities are also investing heavily to lure back members of the overseas-educated diaspora, with generous funding matching or exceeding the NUS and NTU offers. Yet Chinese faculty colleagues say Chinese PhDs still prefer an attractive package from a US top-30 or even top-50 university to returning home, except for family reasons. Most who returned through the government’s “Thousand Talents” programme for young scholars are believed to have failed to secure attractive US positions, while high-profile senior professors who returned have “mostly passed their peak time for research”.

As The Economist recently noted, bonuses Chinese universities pay for publication in top international journals can reach US$165,000, or 20 times the annual salary of an average academic. Home-grown talent is abundant: in 2017 Tsinghua University awarded 1,385 doctorates (nearly all to Chinese nationals), compared with the 645 (including many foreigners) awarded at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

China also has the domestic market scale and home-grown mega corporations such as Alibaba – which owns the South China Morning Post – and Tencent, which, like the US’ Google and Amazon, compete with universities for research talent, often pushing up faculty salaries in Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Seattle and Silicon Valley.

In contrast, regardless of salary, Singapore lacks the scale, home-grown talent and world-leading local corporations to attract the best scholars to commit to staying in sufficient numbers to compete in the long term with the US and China in university rankings.

COLLABORATION IS KEY

NUS’ PYP scheme and others like it reflect the outdated belief that the exceptional individual is the prime mover in intellectual breakthroughs. But in both STEM and non-STEM fields, much of today’s influential and impactful research is collaborative, requiring multidisciplinary teams, as well as time, to make effective contributions. Non-STEM research is also inextricably embedded in place-specific economic, political, historical, social and cultural contexts, requiring deep knowledge of the local empirical context.

Even the best outcome for these schemes – recruiting young academic superstars to Singapore’s universities in the desired numbers, to achieve vague goals, using criteria the government and the IAAP say are too narrow – will do little for universities in the longer term, as they demoralise or alienate existing faculty, deter applications from others who meet established standards, discourage the few Singaporeans who consider entering academia, and short-change students.

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Singapore’s universities must reconsider their real long-term goals, not preoccupy themselves with yearly changes in position relative to others playing the rankings game, especially as brands may matter less over time in an era of disruption. To lavish so much on so few in return for so little is neither efficient nor equitable.

There are better ways of building academic excellence and developing lasting original intangible assets. Some costless but effective policies include ensuring academic freedom in non-STEM fields (an advantage over China), and guaranteeing visa security for foreign faculty (an emerging advantage over the US).

With greater strategic clarity, imagination and self-confidence, Singapore’s universities can meet their “diverse social and economic missions” and play “varied and profound roles” in the nation – and the world.

Linda Lim is Professor Emerita of Corporate Strategy and International Business at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business, University of Michigan. Pang Eng Fong is a former professor and dean at the Lee Kong Chian School of Business, Singapore Management University