Good governance in Singapore risks being undermined by a higher education system that is skewed toward hiring academics unwilling or unable to engage with important public policy research.
One reason for this is the pursuit of rankings. The key metric that most rankings utilise is a so-called citation count – a tally of research associated with any given university that has been published in select international peer-reviewed journals.
Research-focused universities can thus effectively game the system by taking on more academics who meet said criteria, and many aspiring institutions will consequently hire, fire and promote academic staff on the basis of how much research they have had published and where.
Yet because top-ranked journals favour research of theoretical significance and universal applicability in the fields of science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine, this system disproportionately disadvantages Singaporean scholars, who are more likely than foreigners to have the motivation and capacity to pursue local research in fields such as the humanities, social sciences, business and law.
Foreigners form the majority of permanent academic staff at Singapore’s two best-rated institutions – Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and the National University of Singapore (NUS).
This reality could leave the government short-handed when it needs academic help to research a public policy issue in the local economy, for example.
Even if there is someone – local or foreigner – qualified and interested in researching the issue, the work is unlikely to find a place in a top-ranking academic journal and may not be publishable at all if it uses confidential data. It will, therefore, not count towards any evaluation of performance and pay.
A laser focus on pursuing research that counts towards university rankings also discourages academics who are employed by top universities from engaging in other activities. Take NTU Associate Professor Teo You Yenn’s recent book This Is What Inequality Looks Like, for instance, which was published by a local commercial press for a general audience.
It sparked tremendous civic interest and wide-ranging discussions of poverty, inequality and social mobility, yet will do her few favours in any future evaluation of her academic performance – so geared as they are towards global university rankings.
Nearly all research universities outside the United States rely primarily on public funds, particularly budgetary allocations from education ministries and affiliated science, technology and industry agencies.
In Singapore, public funds account for two-thirds of all university personnel and research expenditure, with the remainder coming from student tuition and endowment returns. This is therefore a taxpayer funded social subsidy that needs to be justified in the national interest.
Singapore’s Education Minister Ong Ye Kung and others have called on universities to reduce their focus on global rankings, extract increased benefits from research findings and train and hire more local staff. In this way, universities can – in the minister’s words – play “varied and profound roles” in society.
In response, some institutions have implemented a multi-tiered approach to how they hire academics, with the role of pure educators such as professors and lecturers predominately being filled by local PhD holders who are burdened with heavy teaching loads and little research support.
These universities can thus claim to be hiring more local staff, and offering more courses with local content, while continuing to employ research-focused scholars who meet the rankings-driven “global standards” of “academic excellence”.
The downside is that these local hires lack the resources to conduct high-quality local research that can also engage with global theoretical concerns. Policy-relevant research of national interest is therefore outsourced to a range of publicly funded specialised institutes or think tanks, including research units within government ministries.
As a solution, this is less than desirable, because it creates unproductive divides between research and teaching, theory and practice, academia and government or industry. Interdisciplinary insights are missed and university students are deprived of teaching that is informed by local research and policies. It also inhibits the sharing of knowledge across organisational and national borders, limiting the extent to which research on or about Singapore can contribute to global academic discourse and vice versa.
HOW OTHER COUNTRIES COPE
Other countries confront some of the same quandaries in seeking to avoid the potential weakening of local scholarship that can be caused by overzealously zeroing in on global rankings. For most, the problem is less acute than for Singapore, given their bigger populations, more numerous and diverse research universities, and more mature academies. It is also usually citizens, including permanent immigrants, that form the vast majority of both their students and academic staff. But most also have institutional structures that encourage local research.
Japan, Korea and Taiwan have independently run foundations that support research on domestic issues, whether undertaken by local or foreign scholars, at home or overseas.
The UK, Australia and Canada have publicly funded research councils that do the same. All also have private foundations, like the US, which fund research in particular fields. Grants are competitively allocated by committees of independent academics. These systems both support local research and ensure that it engages with international themes, scholars and standards.
Singapore’s Social Science Research Council, established in 2016, is a step in the right direction, though it favours the model of group research found in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine at the expense of the individual research more common in the humanities and social sciences. It is also unlikely to overcome the institutional constraints which make the country’s research universities relatively inhospitable to local scholars and local research.
Singapore is a well-educated and high-income country which has invested heavily in its research universities. But it faces many challenges – including low productivity growth, rapid demographic ageing, large income disparities and barriers to greater social mobility, as well as the challenge of finding new economic engines amid technological disruption and geopolitical realignment.
In response, its fourth generation of political leaders in May 2018 identified their national priorities as: “Securing a place in the world for Singapore, building a world-class city, developing a vibrant economy, forging a caring and inclusive society, and nurturing a distinct Singapore identity.”
Meeting these priorities will require collective effort, political leadership, public trust and a deep understanding of local institutional constraints. It is difficult to see how they will be met by individual superstar researchers incentivised by global academic rankings.
Linda Lim is Professor Emerita at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business, University of Michigan. Pang Eng Fong is Emeritus Professor and former Dean at the Lee Kong Chian School of Business, Singapore Management University.