The rise of the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU) to the top 13, in an annual ranking of the world's best universities, is certainly a source of pride to Singaporeans generally. A change in how research citation is evaluated partly resulted in a substantial improvement in the universities' performance on the index of excellence drawn up by London-based education consultancy Quacquarelli Symonds. However, NUS and NTU would have bettered their rankings even without the change, according to an official of the consultancy. This endorsement lends credence to the belief that they are on track to greater success.
The latest rankings vindicate the almost devotional pursuit of quality at both universities. They avoided going the way of many institutions, not only in the Third World but also in the West, which churned out an increasing number of graduates to accommodate the public clamour for greater access to tertiary education. Countries, universities and ultimately the most important of all stakeholders, students themselves, suffered when tertiary education was viewed as an entitlement to be achieved through political pressure if necessary. In the end, all that the demand produced was educational mediocrity as the social norm. An expansive meritocracy - locating a wide range of talent to be tutored and mentored - that should lie at the heart of educational selection was lost in acceding to the triumph of quantity over quality.
Singapore managed to find a different route, where it attuned its universities to meeting market demands. As a result, Singapore graduates are employable and readily employed. In this context, it is a happy dampener of sorts that the lot of local graduates will not rise appreciably as a result of ratings such as the latest one. Employers regard Singapore's universities so well already that their latest global positions are unlikely to come as much of a surprise.
However, the rankings could effect a change in the perception of local universities among young Singaporeans. There is much to be said for a foreign education - it opens up young minds to the competing cultures of the world, each believing that it possesses a special pathway to the truth. What such an education gives students is a way of navigating between alternative visions of reality. However, there is no reason why local education cannot do this as well. At much lower cost, it could bring the world home to Singapore. Indeed, foreign faculty and students, whether from the rest of Asia or farther abroad, are contributing to that effort already. Such a holistic education with its feet firmly planted in Singaporean values and concerns and the needs of the economy is far more important to attain than just ratcheting up one's position in global rankings.
This article was first published on September 23, 2015.
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