Friday, 31 October 2014

Seduction of World Universities Rankings

One University’s Journey From Greatness.

NTU’s Journey from Greatness to the TOP of a Bogus World Universities Ranking Standard.

On one particularly Summer day in 1987, I hired a fresh Engineering graduate (called him “James” here) from the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) for the Motorola factory where I was the HR Manager responsible for recruitment, among other duties.  James had graduated from NTU with a First-Class Honours Degree, which was truly outstanding during the 1980s. I vaguely remembered that he said he had actually topped his cohort. 

I had shortlisted James from some 400+ applicants, mostly recent Engineering graduates from NTU, Singapore’s top technological University which also boasted having the largest cluster of first-grade engineering schools in the world.  Together with some 30 other applicants, James was a candidate for Motorola’s embryonic Research & Development (R&D) Division, and where its pool of mostly Singaporean engineers would contribute significantly and developed many new Motorola products right through the 1990s and early 21st Century.   

“James” was just one of several truly remarkable engineering graduates continuously molded and refined by NTU Engineering Schools. 

NTU began as Nanyang Technological Institute (NTI) in 1981 before becoming a full-fledged University in 1991 with the vision “To Be The University of Business and Industry”.  By April 2001, NTU's research has resulted in 20 spin-off companies with many funded by venture firms, 150 disclosures, 76 patents filed and 30 patents granted. The research papers of its staff and students in refereed international journals had also won numerous awards in international competitions and conferences. 

At the turn of the 21st Century, NTU has truly earned its position through serving the needs of Singapore and poised to take Singapore and its economy to greater heights in the 21st Century. To Singapore, and the many leading edge technology companies like Motorola, Phillips, Hewlett-Packard, Sun and Oracle among other global corporations, NTU played a critical role and leading light to draw vital, life-saving investments to Singapore.

NTU’s Journey from Greatness began with the advent of “World” Universities Ranking, an essentially commercial profit-making venture by a British organisation.   

In 2008, NTU’s “World” Ranking plunged 16 places from 61 in 2006 to 77 in 2008, or 29 places from 48 in 2003, to join the ranks of relative unknown and undistinguished Universities. The subsequent shake-up of NTU appeared to be the inevitable effect resulting from these “world rankings”, which look at factors such as international outlook and how often other academics cite a faculty’s research.

To this day, it remained baffling and incomprehensible why none of the esteemed Professors in our Universities had bothered to examine the validity and reliability of the presumptuous “World Rankings Standard”. Many higher education experts, Professors and research scientists at that time had already questioned and condemned the dubious nature of the Standards and the spurious relationships of its various measurements.

“Not Good Enough”! so “decreed” an external foreign non-academic organisation on our Top NTU who has nurtured “James” and thousands of other Singaporeans into top-class engineering, science, business, social science and other professional graduates in great demand by renowned global corporations, and who contributed to Singapore’s economic and social development journey from 3rd World to 1st World. 

And we were somehow stupidly and mindlessly seduced by the “Emperor’s New Clothes” of World Universities Ranking!  

So, what exactly did NTU do wrong?   Here’s a brief list of NTU’s “wrongdoings in the early 2000s to be relegated:

1)    NOT ENOUGH FOREIGN Students - NTU had mostly (more than 94%) Singaporean Students.
2)    NOT ENOUGH FOREIGN Professors – NTU had NOT hired more Foreign Professors.
3)    TOO MANY STUDENTS – NTU had High Students-Staff Ratio.
4)    TOO MUCH EMPHASIS ON INVENTIONS AND SPIN-OFF COMPANIES – NTU had too many Research Papers with Low Citations.
5)    REPUTATIONAL SURVEY – NTU was Unknown to Many Academics Worldwide.

In the years that followed, so seduced were we by the New Clothes of “Global” Universities Rankings, a series of measures were embarked on to increase the number of foreign students (at the expense of local Singaporeans?), break various laws so as to reduce the number of Singaporean Professors, to hire even more Foreign Staff.  

By 2013, Foreign students made up 28% of the total undergraduate population from just 5% less than a decade earlier.  At the end of the Purge of Singaporean Professors and staff by 2010, NTU proudly announced that Singapore citizens including new citizens formed ONLY 44% of the faculty; 56% of NTU faculty are foreigners from 56 countries worldwide including Singapore PRs. Never mind the fact that most Universities in the World actually have a majority of local Professors.

Finally, by 2014, NTU was ranked as the Top Youngest University in the World by QS Ranker, and ranking just 39th Worldwide.  Indeed, what a “climb” from 77th in 2008!  

Never mind that QS Rankers themselves has cautioned against the use of its simple methodology by governments and university leaders to set strategic targets. They DID NOT build their “QS World Universities Rankings” on any solid or vigorous foundation that would withstand the penetrative scientific methodological scrutiny. Given self-confessed fundamental conceptual and methodological flaws, the New Clothes of “World Universities Rankings” is therefore irrelevant and immaterial for any serious educational policy purpose. “And WRONG”, added QS World Universities Rankers.

NTU’s Journey from Greatness to the “bogus” Top of World Universities Rankings has been remarkably as relentless as her early rise from NTI into a NTU as a Great University in just 20 years.  In her pursuit of the “bogus” world Universities ranking standards, we are reminded the Moral of Hans Christian Andersen’s story “Emperor’s New Clothes”.

Every child knows the Moral of the story is that one should not believe in every authority or in everyone who thinks himself to be better than you. The Emperor’s clothiers (“World Universities Rankings”) are not a better Judge of Universities because of their nationality, organisation or fine English manners; they are just human, fallible and commercially motivated. The important thing is to let other people think whatever they want, and not to lose one’s self-esteem by letting others diminish the accolades of our genuine acclaims and true achievements, so that we can lend them our excellent reputation of authenticity and honesty to cover up their lack of credibility, validity and reliability. 

A University’s contributions to society should be its sufficient measure.  The impact of NTU, since its birth as NTI, on Singapore students and society cannot be measured by the degrees of newly ascribed dubious excellence defined by “World Universities Ranking” Standards.  It can only be measured in terms of their contribution to the happiness and well-being of stakeholders and of the Singapore and global communities to which we belong and serve.

It is more important what we think of our own Universities and what they have achieved for our young people, our communities and our nation.  What foreigners think of us using irrelevant and bogus criteria should not make us unhappy.

This Post is painful to write, and I am saddened at how NTU has forsaken her destiny of national duty to develop our youth into top technical talents in order to pursue the empty accolades of world-class distinction defined by bogus ranking standards of dubious universities excellence. 

Unless we stop participating in these World Universities Ranking “Frauds” and “Scams”, we risk arriving at the ultimate shameful and tragic Discovery that the New Clothes of Top World Universities Rankings are made of the same fabric as one ancient Emperor’s.

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