Singapore Joins World's Top University Nations

Singapore Joins World's Top University Nations

Posted on 12 May 2014 Views ( 1204 )

From an impoverished colonial outpost to a nation with a higher per capita gross domestic product than the US, Singapore has transformed itself within the span of few generations.

This is a nation in which around one household in every dozen boasts a US dollar millionaire (excluding luxury goods, businesses, and property), according to a report published earlier this year by the Boston Consulting Group.

Singapore’s two strongest research universities have leapt from the “Fourth Division to the Champions League” over the past decade, says Bertil Andersson, who is president of one of them, Nanyang Technological University.

In May 2013, Singapore became the first Asian nation to get placed into the top 10 of the Universitas 21 rankings. These rankings assess nation’s academies on the basis of their research output, international connectivity, gender balance, and their investment.

In two years, Nanyang University has climbed from the join position of 169 to 76th position in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings. Its main domestic rival, the National University of Singapore, rose from 40th to 26th over the same period.

On the other hand, remaining wealthy city states such as Qatar, Dubai, and Abu Dhabi have seriously failed in making an impact on the global research stage, despite invested huge sums in luring prestigious western universities to their shores.

Yet Singapore’s universities are facing number of concerns about higher education. The first one among these is the rising of a popular feeling that “Singapore is for Singaporeans”, which is making some International Universities feel unwelcome. Others include lack of land in the tiny island and limits on academic freedom.

From Singapore’s high-rise central district, it takes just half-an-hour on taxi to Nanyang’s main campus in the far west of the city. The tropical humidity and a Chinese garden dotted with pagodas and the tall lush ferns resemble a leafy, out-of-town campus in the UK.

Singapore still boasts to be one of the world’s busiest ports without having a single natural resource. For this reason, investment in higher education has taken a backseat says Lim Chuan Poh, chairman of the country’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research and former permanent secretary of the Ministry of Education.

Lim said that People are our only resource. This concept has forced the minds of the Singaporean government to concentrate on the importance of education.

Some might imagine it would be easy for such a wealthy state to spend its way to world-class universities.

But According to the surveys conducted by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, Singapore invests only 2.8 per cent of its GDP on education, compared with an average of 5.2 per cent by its member countries. This reveals that the education system runs on a “lean basis”, explains Lim. Competition for funding is encouraged between the two leading universities. Compare this to the United Kingdom, he consider it as having a “very sensible” system that distributes funding competitively.

Lim adds that Singapore has tried to create “sharp peaks of excellence” within the institutions. Five research centers have been founded over the past seven years in the Nanyang and National University studying areas ranging from earthquakes to quantum technologies. The question at the forefront of the funders’ minds was: “Will this centre becomes one of the top three or top five across the globe in the next five to seven years’ time, will this centre…be one of the top three, the top five in the world?”

Regardless of the “lean basis”, Singapore is inarguably spent lot of money at its universities’ research capabilities. To improve innovation, technology, and science, Singapore has rolled out five five-year plans since 1991. The first was worth $2 billion; the second, S$4 billion; the third, S$6 billion; the fourth, S$13.9 billion; while the current 2011-15 plan is worth S$16.1 billion (around £8 billion).

Majority of the fund has been invested into attracting international scholars and at Nanyang; academics from other countries far outnumber local staff: seven out of 10 faculty members are non-Singaporean and an assortment of accents can be heard on campus. About half of the academic staff is locals at the National University.

The government has also set aside S$4 billion for match funding. The joint grants of the Nanyang University and National University doubled to $3.4 between 2005 and 2012.

Apart from money, the official language of English is also considered to be a “tremendous advantage”, says Tan Chorh Chuan, president of the National University.

Its school system also reflects the same. According to the most recent survey of the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment that measures 15-year-olds’ maths, science and reading skills  Singaporean schoolchildren are some of the best educated in the world. They are the second best in the world in maths. On the contrary, Qatar comes last but five out of 65 – in all three subject areas. Dubai did better, but its school pupils still performed below the average.