Open Day at the National University of Singapore (NUS). Pic: NUS.

The recently released Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) Asian University Ranking put Singapore’s oldest university, the National University of Singapore (NUS), at number 1, dislodging long time occupant Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and close rival the University of Hong Kong. The other major research university in Singapore, the 23-year-old Nanyang Technological University (NTU), rose to seventh in the listing, its highest position in the rankings tables. The other big winner was South Korea.

Analysis by QS indicates that Singapore and South Korea have emerged as the new leaders in higher education in Asia, with their main competitor Hong Kong experiencing a slump due to the change in the education system in the Special Administrative Region from three-year to four-year programmes. QS put Singapore’s success down to government investment in a SG$16.1 billion (US$12.9 billion) scheme to improve STEM research in the two universities.

The QS ranking awarded marks in the following manner:

  • 30% from a global academic reputation survey;
  • 10% from a global employer survey;
  • 20% from student-faculty ratio;
  • 15% from citations per published paper;
  • 15% from papers published per faculty;
  • 2.5% each to international faculty, international students, inbound and outbound exchange students.

Back in Singapore, the results met with a mixed reception. A significant number of locals responded by congratulating the two universities. Goh Swee Khiang summed up the sentiment from these commenters: “It’s a good day to be Singaporean!”

Cynics, though, were not far away.

KS Wong remarked that the Universities should, “stop blowing [their] trumpet, until they have Nobel [winners]”. CP Yang echoed the view: “Do we have any renown scientist or [Nobel] prize winners in NTU/NUS? Do we have great physicist in NUS [as compared to the University of Adelaide, Beida or Tokyo University]?” One Phyllis Seah dismissed the results saying, “they compare with Asian Uni of course will be top… (sic).”

NTU and NUS have had success in attracting top international scientists to join their universities, including Daniela Rhodes (structural biologist from Cambridge), Kerry Sieh (Caltech geologist), and Anthony Leggett (Nobel winning physicist, visiting at NUS). Among their senior local faculty are Lim Chong Yah (economist at NTU), Kishore Mahbubani (one Prospect Magazine’s Top 50 world thinkers and dean of the public policy school at NUS) and Tommy Koh (NUS).

Most reaction to the QS results in Singapore focused not on the ranking itself but on other issues associated with higher education.

Many detractors set their crosshairs on the barriers to entry for local students. Darryl Kang remarked, “it is useless to be top, when locals can’t get in”. Muthu Krishnan asked rhetorically, “is NUS proud [about] this? NUS is not for Singaporeans.”

This arises amid a backdrop of rising demand for higher education. Government ministers have tried to encourage Singaporeans not to over educate themselves but focus on gaining work experience instead. National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan commented in 2013 that a university degree was “not vital for success”. “If they cannot find jobs, what is the point? You own a degree, but so what? That you can’t eat it. If that cannot give you a good life, a good job, it is meaningless (sic),” he said. Khaw’s remarks were not well received by the Singaporean public.

The demand for higher education in Singapore shows no signs of abating in a society that prizes education as a way to improve one’s life.

Notice how every person in the video works hard for their children to study because of the belief that a good education and a degree will give them a good life.

A parliamentary question posed by opposition member Yee Jenn Jong in 2013 on which programmes had the highest foreign student enrolment in NTU, NUS and Singapore Management Universsity* (the third autonomous University), prompted a response from the Education Ministry that 16% of all undergraduates in the three universities combined were foreigners and computing, science and engineering courses had the highest number of non-locals at 26 % due to lack of local interest. According to the NUS annual report, the percentage of international undergraduates at NUS has progressively fallen from 22.3% in the 2010/11 academic year to 20% in the 2012/13 academic year**.

Australian Colin Clarson wrote, “good universities at home yet thousands of Singaporeans head to Aussie universities.”

There are about 10,000 Singaporeans studying for degrees in Australia. One of the most prominent alumni is Lim Wah Guan who was rejected by NUS but was accepted at the University of New South Wales. He has since completed a Master’s degree at Oxford University and is presently a PhD student in the Department of East Asian Studies in Princeton University.

Another well-known local university reject is MP Chen Show Mao who was accepted at Harvard to read Economics, subsequently Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship and finally a law degree at Stanford.

It is not just students. A Member of Parliament from the ruling party recently expressed shock at the number of foreign faculty in certain departments. MP Seah Kian Peng said in parliament: “I agree that our universities need to be competitive and internationally well recognised. I know it that in our universities, as in other professions, there needs to be open competition. But the percentages are surely astonishing — only a bit more than one quarter of the professors at the Political Science department in NUS are Singaporeans!”

NUS Associate Professor and opposition WP Exco Member, Daniel Goh, wrote in response: “I am for Singaporean-first hiring practices in the general economy, but I think some sectors should be exempted — the university sector should be one… To keep our culture renewed and our connection to the values of a shared humanity alive and well, we need open and diverse universities — diversity not in terms of nationality per se, but the divergent viewpoints and research interests [faculties] of different nationalities and schools of thought would bring to an open debate. Having a ‘Singaporean first regardless’ policy will only encourage the politics of patronage, discourage free debate, and erode our self-confidence — we will turn inwards and forget about our shared humanity.”

The movement of academics has gone both ways. Top local academics have left Singapore. Michael Hor, has recently been appointed to head the law faculty at the University of Hong Kong after being passed up as Dean of the NUS Law Faculty in 2009. Journalism academic Cherian George has been appointed as Associate Professor in International Journalism at the Hong Kong Baptist University after being denied tenure at NTU in 2012. Top Singaporean scientists can also be found in top universities, such as Rockerfeller University (Chua Nam Hai) and MIT (Jackie Ying, who has since returned to Singapore).

Another question was the employability of local graduates. Mark Chan said: “I think a graduate from an unaccredited [foreign] university is better than from NUS or NTU. Look at how many of them we employ in Singapore!” A 2013 graduate employment survey released by the Education Ministry showed that Sociology graduates from NTU obtained 55.8% permanent employment six months after final examinations, the lowest in that university. In contrast, 65.1% of Life Sciences graduates from NUS were on permanent employment as were 60% of bioengineers and 70.1% of arts graduates.

Prof Tommy Koh writes: “The hunt for foreign talent [was] a national obsession. As a result, Singapore was in danger of overlooking its own talent…I am glad that there is a more balanced attitude today. This is the result of two developments. First, Singapore discovered that some so-called foreign talent was not really very talented. Second, there was the discovery that, in some cases, when a foreign chief executive officer was hired, he or she discriminated against Singaporeans when hiring staff…vMy conclusion is that Singapore should continue to welcome foreign talent. But it should do so to complement Singaporean talent, not to supplant it. Everything being equal, Singapore should give priority to its own talent.”

The Manpower Ministry has since introduced Fair Consideration Framework in 2013 to ensure that Singaporeans are considered fairly for jobs.

QS may have answered which university topped the academic rankings in Asia, but the debate on higher education rages on in the Lion City.


* SMU does not compete in global university rankings as it is a specialist university.

** Data calculated by this writer as follows: total undergraduate population, minus exchange students to give regular undergraduate population. Stated international students divided by regular undergraduate students gives percentage.