April 29, 2017

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Photo by Shawn Danker. Shared Copyright.
A corridor at the campus of NUS Yale.

by Ong Lip Hua

UNIVERSITY admissions season looms again, and as a university admissions professional with over a decade of work experience (in NUS and SIT), I get plied with questions from would-be students and their parents.

What I’ve come to realise is that the questions that potential students ask are usually off the mark. Perhaps it has to do with the media’s fascination with rankings (which reflect research, not teaching quality), graduate pay, and employment numbers.

While these may form a part of the answer to the question “why should I choose this university”, most of us go to the university to pave the way for a future career and the career prospects of a graduate are not sufficiently represented by these metrics.

A successful career is sustained more through a university’s “after sales” service, which most applicants are not aware of. This “after sales” service is performed by several offices in the university that often go overlooked.

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Here’s what else you might want to ask about at the next admissions talk:

The Placement Office: This is the department that organises career fairs, gives you job advice, and teaches you how to write your resume. They are known by many other names. How strong is the University’s Placement Office? Which sector do they have hiring partners in? What type and amount of assistance does the Placement Office provide?

Internship programmes: The Faculty Office or Placement Office typically handles internship placements. There is only so much you can learn about the working world and an industry from the safe confines of a lecture hall or tutorial room. Before we graduate, we need to be “inserted” into the industry network. An early foray into the environment where you’ll be spending the next 40 years of your life can pay off more than an impressive Grade Point Average.

Internships get you into the network and industry lingo so you can better know what and why is that thing on page 1905 of the reference source number AI76. Great internships put you in the same office as industry leaders and key personalities: distinguish yourself there and you’ll have the makings of a priceless industry network.

The Alumni Office: Getting our first job is only the first step in what we hope will be a long career. Good pay prospects and employment ratios are good to have, but the more important question is: where do I go from there?

Strong Alumni Offices are also good after-sales service centers. They provide you with the network to get into higher level positions, make business connections for you to start or expand your businesses, and can give you access to ideas, funds and links for your project or research break-through.

How active or strong are the university’s Alumni Offices? What events or activities are held? How committed is the alumni community? What are this office’s beliefs and objectives?

One more question: What is your student profile? This is a question especially for universities abroad, or for locally-awarded degrees from overseas institutions. This tells you who you get to network with while you are in school. If you can’t get a straight answer, spend some time roaming the campus talking to, or observing current students.

At some point in life, co-operation becomes much more valuable than competition. The friends and frenemies you have made during your school years can translate into doors that are open or shut to you later in life.

These “after sales” functions of universities will become increasingly important as the world churns out even more graduates, as work/jobs become more transnational, as technology, mergers and acquisitions reduce number of jobs and increase competition.

So at your next university admissions talk or open house, don’t just ask about cut-off points, or why this course is better than another. Ask questions that span 40 years into your future, because that’s probably what you are getting an education for.

Ong Lip Hua was in University Admissions for a decade and being passionate about the career of students he admits, decided to pursue a career in HR Recruitment. He was a minor partner in a recruitment firm before going in-house. He is still crazy about providing education and career advice.

 

This article is part of a series on SkillsFuture, in collaboration with MOE and SSG. Read the other pieces here:

Featured image by Shawn Danker.

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Obaku watch on a wrist with clock faces pointing at 8:30.

MORE graduates are taking on freelance and part-time jobs, as a result of changing workplace demands and of the mindsets of employees. Of the 89.7 per cent of local graduates who found work within six months of completing their examinations – according to the 2016 Graduate Employment Survey (GES), released last week – 80.2 per cent secured full-time employment. This is 2.9 percentage points lower than the figure in the 2015 GES. On the one hand, given the advent of technology and the emergence of the “gig” economy, these alternative work arrangements allow the companies to respond quickly to changing economic needs, while on the other, freelancers and part-timers may enjoy the flexibility.

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In parliament earlier this month, Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say said that about eight per cent of Singapore’s working residents are freelancers. And because they fall outside the employment protection and social safety net framework, the need for regulation has also been mooted. This same protection could, moreover, be extended to internships, which are become more popular among young Singaporeans. In the private universities, for instance, students use internships to gain work experience. Internships allow to-be graduates to ascertain their work interest, to interact with industry professionals, and to even secure a full-time role upon their graduation.

From the workplace to the classroom: More Singaporeans are choosing to do degree programmes overseas. And in at least four of these countries – Austria, France, Germany, and Norway – tuition is free or marked down.

Public universities in these four countries have been attracting Singaporeans for some years, who are drawn by affordable higher education as well as the opportunity to stay and study abroad. In Norway, for example, the number of Singaporeans enrolled in full-time programmes increased from just 17 in 2007 to 150 in 2014. But before students pack their bags for enrollment, they must have mastered the foreign language, and hope that regular tuition fees – given a potential climate of protectionism in Europe, and the high taxes paid by the locals to subsidise the cost of education – will not be introduced in the near future.

And finally, back in Singapore, three of the four autonomous universities – the National University of Singapore (NUS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), and the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) – and searching around the world for new deans. In the next phase of growth for NUS, NTU, and SUTD, the hope is that the new deans will be able to revamp curricula and to better prepare graduates through work-study programmes and other innovative policies.

 

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PSB's new city campus at Marina Square, which will host more than 6,000 students.
PSB's new city campus at Marina Square, which will host more than 6,000 students.

by Daniel Yap

DEGREES from private education institutions (PEIs) are inferior to those conferred by “local” universities. At least that’s what a recent Graduate Employability Survey commissioned by the Council for Private Education (CPE) seemed to suggest: PEI grads had lower employment numbers and lower median salaries compared to NTU, NUS and SMU grads.

But the survey has provoked protests and probing questions. What the survey didn’t take into account and didn’t mention is as important as what it headlined.

For example, no other figures were announced, meaning that there was very little context. CPE said that it did have a breakdown of figures for the nine schools it surveyed, but would leave it up to the schools to announce them. Will they ever see the light of day?

Even if those numbers eventually get published, what remains missing is the very simple question of how prospective students should approach the decision to further their studies.

Is it just for the attraction of a higher salary? Is it to simply have that cert on the wall so that you don’t lose face? Or did you really want to learn something and challenge yourself? Or embark on a career that contributes to society?

Then maybe median graduate salary is not the best measure (it is certainly not the only one). Not all PEI students are holding a fresh A-level certificate or diploma, and not everyone is doing it for a fatter pay package. About half of the students at PSB Academy, for example, are studying part-time while working. CPE’s survey only covered full-time students.

PSB Academy was not one of the institutions covered by the CPE survey, which was released last week.

Its own graduate and employment survey last year found that about nine in 10 students found employment within six months of graduation, while six in 10 students enjoyed pay increments and/or improved prospects in their careers.

“Students need to be equipped with industry-ready skill-sets to thrive in our future economy,” said Marcus Loh, who is Vice President, Corporate Communications at the PSB Academy. He also said that the reputation of the institution and university, depth and relevance of the course and “practical, not just theoretical experience” that they can transfer to their jobs are key criteria for deciding whether and where to pursue a degree.

Mr Ravi Mehndiratta, who is Assistant Director of Sales & Front Office Operations at the London School of Business and Finance (LSBF) in Singaporesaid that industry recognition, robust curriculum, programme management and faculty are the most important factors when considering private education. The school also values industrial attachments for real-world learning.

In other words, if you don’t know exactly what you will be learning, and how it will develop your skills, then there’s a high chance you will not be benefiting fully from your course.

If you have a diploma from a good polytechnic course, then you have to look for further education that really upgrades your skills and knowledge, not one that, at great expense, simply upgrades your “last attained educational level”. You may end up wasting time and money, as two years in your industry may be more relevant and valuable, as long as your employer values your skills (and not merely your paper qualification).

As employers are forced to reckon with productivity challenges, the future seems to lie with skills-based learning, which is an area that PEIs can add value in. One good example is the professional development pathway offered by the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA). Modular, skills-based frameworks like these allow students to get a focused education on industry skills that they can choose depending on their personal development needs (and the needs of their employers).

Prospective students would enrol in an ACCA accredited school such as LSBF in Singapore and take the certificates or papers they need (and are qualified for). These would be recognised by other educational institutions and employers. Could similar frameworks be developed for other professions and be updated frequently enough to match technological change?

Prospective students need more data and they need better data. Judging what CPE’s “better employment outcomes” really means needs deeper metrics than mere salary levels and employment figures, especially in the move towards recognising skills.

Sometimes, employers, the biases they hold and the red tape they have to deal with, are as much a part of the problem to a lack of recognition for skills-based learning as students and educational institutions are, so employment-side metrics will never be sufficient.

But until we can sort out how best to measure how well students have learnt skills, it is ultimately up to the learner to prove that he or she possesses them – industry-specific skills that make a candidate a productive part of a team, as well as soft skills like negotiating with and convincing employers to give you a job or a bigger pay check.

 

This article is part of a series on SkillsFuture, in collaboration with MOE and SSG. Read the other pieces here:

1. Poly vs Private degrees: It’s not the money that matters

3. 5 new jobs that didn’t exist a decade ago

4. SMACK IN THE MIDDLE: Keys to success

5. 5 skills employers want you to have in tomorrow’s job market

6. Don’t underestimate ‘soft skills’ in your career

7. 50 Faces: What is success to you?

 

Featured image courtesy of PSB Academy. PSB’s new city campus at Marina Square will host more than 6,000 students.

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NUS Orientation, re-orientating the orientation programme

by Bertha Henson

I WAS on the National University of Singapore (NUS) campus for a few hours yesterday. It was deserted despite a banner pronouncing the Freshmen’s Inauguration ceremony outside the Central Library.

When I was there on Friday, it was bustling with people. There were groups of students clad in identical tee-shirts being shown around the area or going through some activities on the green. Then again, maybe that was because I was in University Town, a “hip” area with restaurants and a Starbucks cafe.

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NUS University Town. Image from National University of Singapore’s Facebook page.

Was it the area or the timing that accounted for the gloom? Because the clampdown on orientation activities was announced on Friday and probably took effect over the weekend. Or maybe the orientation activities weren’t conducted “on site”, but somewhere else. (I have always wondered about orientation activities that aren’t on campus. Surely that must be a key objective – to help students get around?)

There’s so much said about the orientation fuss and the sexual overtones of some activities that I only have this to add: What is the objective of an orientation programme, and do the activities contribute to this?

I left uni some 30 years ago and my own orientation programme was a sleep-deprived, exercise-driven three weeks.

It was the norm in a hostel. There was a segregation of the sexes among freshmen, who were supervised by seniors who were more like drill masters in ensuring that we knew all the hostel songs, as well as names of the seniors we would be spending the year or two with. If there was anything sexualised, it was never part of the organised programme, more like a few seniors taking the mickey out of some freshmen.

In fact, it also happened the other way around.

When I became a senior, an extremely foolhardy freshman decided to get “fresh” with me during orientation. He sent me a note filled with sexual innuendos and even illustrations of a lewd nature. At age 19, I was mortified. I handed the letter to a bunch of fellow male seniors and asked that they “handle” this.

(Don’t worry. That freshman is still alive.)

When I was briefed by a senior on what to expect and how to behave during that period, I asked her “why”. She replied that it was the way the hostel got its freshmen initiated into the environment and culture as quickly as possible so that life after orientation will be simpler and happier. She asked if I had a problem with that, and I said no. I just wanted to know why I had to go through this.

Thirty years on, I bore witness to a different type of orientation programme in the residential college where I lived.

She was right. The changeover came immediately after orientation. You got sucked immediately into a comforting circle of friends and mentors who all had a strong attachment to the hostel. We were never lonely. We became a tribe, determined to be the best of the best.

Thirty years on, I bore witness to a different type of orientation programme in the residential college where I lived. It was a mock United Nations-style assembly where freshmen had to argue about how the college should be run along which ideological line – autocracy, democracy, socialism and so forth. It was a far cry from my old days of sit-ups and roll calls. But it was part of the ethos of the college, to stimulate critical thinking and public speaking.

Which brings me, after such a long-winded way, to this: Do undergraduates have a clear idea of what they aimed to achieve at the end of the programme besides having fun themselves? Sure, a lot of time was spent organising the programme, but that’s the fun part too, no?

Do they look at each component of the programme and ask themselves how each part is relevant to the whole? I’ve heard of elaborate scenarios drawn up for freshmen to role-play during orientation: like moving from slave to freedman and surviving in a post-apocalyptic world. Do they ask for feedback so that future seniors can improve on the programme? Or would this take all the fun out of orientation and make it all nit-picky?

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NUS Sports and Recreation Centre field. Image from National University of Singapore’s Facebook page.

I think the nature of the orientation depends on the ethos of the club, society, hostel, or faculty, and the culture they hope to perpetuate that should go beyond “bonding” games. A sporting society or faith-based group would have different aims like building a culture of good sportsmanship or leading a prayerful life.

All orientation programmes, however, should have some key elements:

First, it must be “useful” to the freshmen starting on a new education path, whether in terms of picking courses or making their way around the university. (This should be the case for Faculty clubs.)

Second, there should be a mentoring component so that the freshmen have some seniors to turn to post-orientation.

Third, seniors should prepare freshmen for a different type of education which isn’t about mugging and taking copious notes. This is a higher plane of learning.

Fourth, anything to do with activities that are SDN-like (I’m glad it’s no longer funding this) should be done away with, simply because seniors will always be the dominant player during orientation, and despite all this talk about consent from adults (the girls are 18 by the way), it’s not so easy to say no to a senior. There’s plenty of time for social interaction in the four years at university.

Fifth, undergrads should have minimal supervision of their orientation programmes by NUS staff. At most, it should be an approval process for basic features of the programme, which organisers will ultimately be held responsible for.

The orientation programme shouldn’t be just about the freshmen, but the organisers as well.

It’s really strange to have the NUS President apologising to freshmen for the shenanigans of a few seniors. Those who conducted those risqué programmes know who they are and should subject themselves to discipline if complaints arose. That’s about being an “adult”. That’s about being accountable. My hope is that the university authorities would be wise in distinguishing between legitimate complaints and the yammerings of the pampered.

The orientation programme shouldn’t be just about the freshmen, but the organisers as well. It’s not about how wonderfully planned the programme is, but how the seniors behaved and conducted themselves in the process.

Looking back, I had a stressful time during my orientation, but it’s a memory I treasure. It was tough, but it was tempered with plenty of wisdom from the seniors who calibrated their interactions with freshmen even as they initiated us into hostel’s culture.

I thank the generations of seniors for it.

PS: This article is dedicated to the alumni of KE Hall at Kent Ridge.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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Youth Unemployment Rate

by Wan Ting Koh

WHILE readers might have focused on the rising costs of having a university degree in the news two days ago, the figure that jumped out at us was the youth unemployment rate in Singapore. The result of a study published on Saturday (May 21) by the Economic Intelligence Unit (EIU) said that the latest youth unemployment rate in Singapore stands at 10.9 per cent.
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Hmm. Double digits? Isn’t that a bit high?
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The study conducted from January to March this year looked at future trends in education across 25 economies including Nigeria, Indonesia, Australia, India, and China. It focused on five indicators: public expenditure on education, youth unemployment, affordability of education, number of graduates in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, and the access to Internet in schools. For its data on the youth unemployment rate, the study cites the International Labour Organisation and EIU forecasts as their sources.
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MSM dwelt mainly on how the cost of a four-year university degree programme in Singapore will make up 70.2 per cent of the individual’s average yearly income come 2030, a rise from 53.1 per cent last year. And that’s what makes everyone worried.
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But both TODAY and ST also added the data on youth unemployment, defined as “the share of the labour force aged 15-24 without work but available for and seeking employment”.
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Now at 10.9 per cent, Singapore’s youth unemployment rate is on par with South Korea, which reported a 9.5 per cent youth unemployment rate as of January, according to ST. South Korea, however, includes those between the age of 15 and 29 in their youth unemployment rate. The youth unemployment rate is higher in Taiwan, where it stands at 12.73 per cent as of last November for those between the age of 15 and 24.
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Then we looked at Manpower ministry statistics. According to a table – labelled “Annual Average Resident Unemployment Rate by Sex, Age, and Highest Qualification Attained” – which is available on the MOM website, the youth unemployment rate for those between 15 and 24 was 6.7 per cent last year. In fact, the data, which dated back to 1992, showed that the figures never exceeded 10 per cent, the record being 9.3 per cent in 2003.
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We asked MOM about the discrepancy and its spokesman declined to comment on the EIU study.  EDIT: MOM was unable to comment on why there was a discrepancy between its figures and EIU’s because it is unaware of how EIU gets its data. MOM’s data conforms to ILO standards.
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So, what gives?

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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A Casio digital watch showing 8:30 by Shawn Danker
A Casio digital watch showing 8:30

IT’S a hazy, lazy Saturday morning, with the 24-hour Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) at 74-81 as of 7am… and trending upwards.

Greece will likely join Singapore in having its Elections soon after Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras quit his post in a bid to strengthen his anti-austerity coalition. The coalition began to fragment as the Prime Minister signed off on a new bailout programme, seemingly breaking his promise to end austerity. He nonetheless remains popular and will be seeking a fresh mandate from the people, after just seven months in the Prime Minister seat, to continue his plans for Greek reform.

North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un has mobilised his military for war after an exchange for artillery fire with the south. According to Seoul, the North fired four shells on Thursday in protest of the South’s propaganda broadcast towers, which are set up on the South’s side of the demilitarized zone (DMZ). South Korea returned fire with 29 shells.

There’s blood on the trading floor, as the Straits Times Index (STI) drops 1.2 per cent of its value to close at 2,971.01, falling below the psychological 3,000 mark. This caps off a week-long slide of 4.6 per cent following a string of bad news from China. Global markets were in the red too yesterday: Wall Street lost 2.06 per cent and the Shanghai Composite Index (SCI) fell by 4.27 per cent, while Australian equities took a 1.4 per cent fall.

There will be more places for polytechnic graduates to go to university soon as the Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) and SIM University (UniSIM) are set to expand their offering of degree courses over the next few years. A central campus has also been mooted for SIT, which currently operates out of satellite campuses in five polytechnics. Full-time university entrants increased from 30 to 32 per cent of the cohort last year, and Education Minister Heng Swee Keat hopes to hit 40 per cent by 2020. Including part-time degrees at UniSIM, the rate is probably going to hit 50 per cent by 2020. Will this mean an expanding paper chase or a race for better skills?

 

Featured image by Shawn Danker.

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https://www.flickr.com/photos/teddy-rised/3389932823/

by Kwan Jin Yao

I WANT to start my working life in a Singapore where ambiguity is embraced, and consequently a place where younger Singaporeans are given more time to ascertain our aspirations, and where individuals – maybe those from the older generations, in particular – are less eager to dispense advice on what we should do, or be doing.

Because these days, everyone has something to say about the millennials. Besides oft-cited generalisations such as the “Peter Pan generation” or the “strawberry generation”, there are also less-than-flattering stereotypes of fresh graduates or young employees. In the minds of critics, we are choosy, unwilling to work hard, even lazy. At the workplace, they insist that plans for work-life balance are unrealistic, that young individuals take opportunities for granted, and that we – with greater technological access – are far too opinionated.

Just two weeks ago, Devadas Krishnadas – co-founder and CEO of consultancy Future Moves – bemoaned that young Singaporeans need “to have the hunger to create value, rather than simply access it” (ST, Jul. 24). His commentary was based on an encounter with a young woman who was being interviewed to join his “indigenous, small, but growing” firm. When she asked for a much higher remuneration, a market premium she argued was justified by the “the great risk to work for a small local firm”, Mr Krishnadas was disappointed.

I had a few disagreements. In an environment characterised by pragmatism, why should we not make decisions with the risk-return heuristic, with so much of our future at stake? Moreover, the compensation for risk does not necessarily take the form of generous benefits or salaries. And it would appear that accessing value is useful for its creation, since many in the past – as I noted – “started off with careers in the public service on bonded scholarships or fast-paced openings in multi-national corporations” before taking their leaps of faith.

Like me, many of us had no idea what jobs entailed. Or where we should start our working lives, in the first place, or perhaps what these careers might be. So we experiment, in the face of such ambiguity. Right after my National Service in 2012 I worked at an enrichment centre till 2013, where I thought crafting English curriculum would be up my alley. In the summer of 2014 it was global banking, since in the business school the finance sector held all the money and prospects. Then for six months in 2015, a little tired of school and its routine, I joined a local tech startup as an intern, where I organised projects and penned articles.

Across three years these were companies of different sizes and industries, and in each my roles and responsibilities varied. The fit is not always right, though as a close friend mused, “these stints are the most productive, because now you know what to avoid”.

And at the same time we are acutely aware of the privileges the previous generations never enjoyed. We still have debts to deal with, yet the financial pressure to meet basic needs – and therefore, to get a stable job quickly – is not as strong. The low unemployment rate has created more options for job openings. New industries have emerged too. Some are unhappy about the fact that 40 per cent of Singaporeans will get a shot at a university education, though I reckon greater competition is a boon, boosting productivity rates in the process.

These privileges explain our determination to make the best of opportunities, amidst constraints. Whenever I speak of work-life balance for instance, others mumble about entitled millennials demanding personal time even before we start. Yet more of us also see a third dimension – the society – and wish to contribute as a citizen. I want to continue blogging, organising conferences for students, and volunteering my time. When I am at the workplace I am committed to doing my utmost, and when the office hours end I am committed to my other undertakings.

In her commencement speech at Tulane University in 2011, American comedian Ellen DeGeneres said: “Don’t give advice, it will come back and bite you in the ass. Don’t take anyone’s advice. So my advice to you is to be true to yourself and everything will be fine”.

So stop telling us what we should do, or give us grief for what our generation should not be doing. Advice is often well-intentioned, from people who care. But resist these temptations. Instead, give us time to make sense of the uncertain years ahead, time to accumulate some missteps and moments of despair, and ultimately time to forge our own, diverse pathways.

 

This post is the first of a four-part series for Singapore’s golden Jubilee. You can read the other articles here:

My Singlish Jubilee wish

My Jubilee wish for my children’s Singapore

My Jubilee wish for Singapore’s next 25 years while I’m still alive

 

Featured image At the NTU bus stop, a pseudo HDR  by teddy-rised. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

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Photo By Shawn Danker. Shared Copyright.
The National University of Singapore campus.

by Kwan Jin Yao

Earlier this week, two sets of university league tables were splashed in MSM. In a country obsessed with academic results, the scepticism of Singaporeans towards university rankings might seem odd at first glance. It could be the oft-cited criticism – especially from undergraduates – that the quality of teaching does not feature in these rankings. It depends on whether the universities place a premium on research or teaching responsibilities of the faculty, some might argue. It could even be the inadequacy of the ranking indicators, detailed by a ST forum writer: how credit for research performance may not be specific, the implications of staff affiliations, as well as the effectiveness of research (Jun. 15).

Recognising that most would be bamboozled by complicated methodologies, the presentation of these rankings is often reductive. “#1: First in Asia” was splashed across its website, when the National University of Singapore (NUS) announced it had topped the latest Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) University Rankings.

NUS celebrates as it tops the QS rankings (Image screen capture from nus.edu.sg).
NUS celebrates as it tops the QS rankings (Image screen capture from nus.edu.sg).

“On a rapid rise”, the banner proclaimed on the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) website, since it is now fourth in Asia. In fact, all nine featured images on its front page highlight one ranking after another.

NTU celebrates as it rises in the QS rankings (Image screen capture from ntu.edu.sg).
NTU celebrates as it rises in the QS rankings (Image screen capture from ntu.edu.sg).

Yet it could be the sheer proliferation of such rankings – not just their methodologies – and the varied performance of the autonomous universities, which fills many with doubts. How do the league tables match up against each other, and how reliable are they in the first place? Some of the most common rankings publicised in Singapore are based on different factors:

Academic Ranking of World Universities. By the Shanghai Ranking Consultancy, it considers rigorous academic and research performance, such as the number of Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals won – significant international awards for cultural, scientific, and mathematical advances – and high-quality citations or publications. The indicators may be objective, but social sciences and the quality of teaching are neglected.

QS World University Rankings. Nine indicators are used: academic and employer reputation, faculty-to-student ratio, citations per paper and papers per faculty, as well as the proportion of international faculty, students, inbound and outbound exchange students. The use of surveys means results are likely to be more subjective, and the quality of teaching is again overlooked. The rankings also do not check for the quality of scholastic journals which citations or publications are submitted to.

Times Higher Education World University Rankings. Thirteen indicators across five areas are used, though teaching, research, and citations are each worth 30 per cent of the overall ranking score. While the teaching-learning environment is evaluated, the use of the reputation survey may not provide the best insights.

NUS and NTU do not rank well in the first table, but do much better in the second and third.

To what extent do these rankings influence the day-to-day experience of the average student and their parents? Not too much. Some pragmatic ones may – while browsing the Graduate Employment Survey, scouting for a school or degree which guarantees high employment rates and starting salaries – use these rankings to make decisions.

In this vein, rankings matter more for the university administrations, who are accountable to more stakeholders – including the government. As erroneous as they may be, the university league tables are quantitative gauges for year-on-year comparisons. Perhaps a more meaningful application is whether the schools actually use findings to improve pedagogies or processes, besides using them to plaster their marketing collaterals.

And will schools also do more to aggregate student sentiments about classroom experiences? Feedback exercises may be ubiquitous, yet it is less clear if these perspectives do improve the quality of instruction. Universities are obsessed over how they are perceived from the outside, though maybe it is the perceptions from the inside that they should be more concerned with.

 

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Photo By Shawn Danker. Shared Copyright.
The SMU campus at Stamford Road.

All six local universities have raised their tuition fees for the new academic year, largely to pay for rising operating costs, including that of creating online learning systems, they said” (Local Universities Increase Fees, Citing Rising Operating Costs, Calvin Yang).

With persistent inflationary concerns and other cost pressures, this ritual of universities increasing tuition fees appears reasonable at first glance (ST, Apr. 4). Yet the dissatisfaction of undergraduates often stems from the poor communication of announcements, and the corresponding lack of clarity. Even with generous government subsidies college remains an expensive undertaking, so administrations should entertain demands for further substantiation.

Even with generous government subsidies college remains an expensive undertaking, so administrations should entertain demands for further substantiation.
Even with generous government subsidies college remains an expensive undertaking, so administrations should entertain demands for further substantiation.

Therefore besides the generic justifications of “rising operating costs” and “creating online learning systems”, there should be supplementary information to justify hikes in tuition fees. The request is not necessarily for comprehensive financial statements which may be sensitive or tedious to produce, but for more exposition on how the respective schools intend to use the additional funds – if any. As a student of the Business School at the National University of Singapore (NUS) I would for instance appreciate more useful explanations on costs for “the faculty, equipment, and operating costs” that Professor Tan Eng Chye of NUS spoke of.

These aforementioned details do not need to be made public, and could be disseminated to students through internal circulars or sharing sessions. Questions about how different degree programmes determine their fee hikes can thus be raised, with appropriate scrutiny of these methodologies. Faculty members and undergraduates could also quiz administrators on the efficacy of new pedagogies or infrastructure, besides feedback exercises per se.

Another assurance that universities often cite is the availability of financial help in the form of “scholarships, bursaries, and loans”, though they should quantify these schemes. In other words, what is the total amount made available to prospective students from low-income households, and has this amount increased in tandem with the fee hikes? Along this tangent how many students have been awarded scholarships or bursaries, and when adjusted proportionately has this number grown? To ascertain how aware students might be of such financial help, have there been more applicants to these schemes over the years? Pragmatically one might even wonder whether starting salaries aggregated from the Graduate Employment Survey matches up to these fee increases.

These endeavours of accountability might seem pedantic at the moment, yet in another light providing greater clarity could strengthen relationships with stakeholders. No one in Singapore should be denied access to higher education because of an inability to pay.

A version of this article was published in The Straits Times.

 

This article was originally published at guanyinmiao.wordpress.com.