“But organisations that rank universities have been criticised for focusing too heavily on research prowess, which privileges large broad-based universities” (Stepping Out of the Uni-Ranking Race, Amelia Teng).
While it has been agreed upon that international rankings of universities are imperfect, little has been said on the specific measures or outcome indicators that Singaporean universities would like to hold themselves accountable to and how they would like to communicate that information, and even less on how stakeholders beyond the administration and the academics – such as students and their parents – would be consulted. In other words, if the current rankings are problematic because they privilege broad-based universities with research prowess and are biased towards old legacy universities in the West (ST, Jul. 19), then universities which point to the importance of other abstract factors need to not only identify these factors, but also define and specify how they can be measured.
Take for instance the emphasis on teaching and career readiness. The universities interviewed argued that faculty-to-student ratios and the number of staff with PhDs did not accurately reflect the quality of the teaching environment, yet did not elaborate on how they would quantify and qualify indicators such as the learning experience of students, internships, and career preparation. Tangentially, it is not enough for universities to mention the student feedback or peer reviews they use to evaluate teaching quality. Data on aggregate and average performance – made available to both the educators and their students – ought to be benchmarked and shared. Professor Cheong Hee Kiat of the Singapore University of Social Sciences is right to posit that beyond the creation and dissemination of research knowledge, universities also “educate graduates who can contribute to the economy and society”, and these statistics ought to be tracked over time.
Put otherwise: It is tempting, easy, and convenient to get away with lacklustre instruction, for the system allows for it. And unless the universities are more specific and open about their measurements, most will revert to the status quo of international rankings.
Because central to this discourse are incentives, which in turn are shaped by the measures or outcomes specified by the universities. The quality of teaching, for instance, may be mooted by the administration as an important measure or outcome indicator, though around the world – in the research universities, in particular – research endeavours take precedence for the academics, since the criteria for academic tenure are more often than not weighted disproportionately in that direction. Talk of change or reform is gaining traction, though unless changes are implemented or the incentives match the desired outputs the discourse will remain in a tired, generic loop.
A version of this article was published in The Straits Times.