THE reports on how well the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University ranked among Asian universities are enough to make one feel giddy with pride ("NUS and NTU among top four Asian universities"; last Wednesday, and "NUS, NTU shine again in Asian university rankings"; last Thursday).
There are, however, important caveats to consider.
First, in the Quacquarelli Symonds ranking, it appears that commitment to teaching excellence, which accounts for 20 per cent of the total score, is gauged by just one criterion: the faculty to student ratio.
This is inadequate as quantity does not correlate with quality.
Second, research performance is often predicated on the number of papers published per faculty member and how often a paper is cited.
Unfortunately, it is not specified how credit is shared among the various authors.
Do the main investigator and first co-author get more credit than the other co-authors, who contribute to the research in smaller ways?
The usefulness of such an indicator becomes suspect if a minor co-author is given far too much credit.
One may also ask how the ranking system handles schools which have a large number of adjunct, part-time faculty members.
These adjunct staff have a primary affiliation outside the university, but may list the university as their second affiliation on the papers they publish.
The rankings do not distinguish between such authors' primary and secondary affiliations, resulting in their papers being counted towards the total for the university.
Third, do the rankings consider a paper published in an influential journal to be more indicative of research excellence, as compared with one published in a less reputable journal?
Also lacking in the ranking systems is a strong indicator of whether the research conducted was meaningfully turned into innovation, for instance, in the form of patents granted and, subsequently, licensed out for commercialisation.
Lastly, the practice of ranking universities according to geographical region appears rather dated.
With globalisation, talent for education and research transcends geographical boundaries.
Surely the only ranking that matters for our universities must be the one in the international arena.
Unfortunately, NUS has not broken into the top 20 rankings for universities worldwide, and has been perpetually ranked outside the top 100 on the Shanghai Jiao Tong Academic Ranking of World Universities.
Hopefully, in 10 years' time, we will find at least one of our universities ranked among the top 10 in the world.
This article was first published on June 15, 2015.
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