Sunday 11 October 2015

Universities can excel when they are freed from politics, both internal and external.

How did Singapore universities (NTU, NUS) become world-class and climb up the university rankings in a relatively short time?
Answer by John Gustafson, Visiting professor at National University of Singapore

I have been a professor at NUS for only a few weeks, and I keep asking myself the same question. How did they do it? I have some theories, and I should wait until I have been here a year and answer this question again once I have more perspective. Here’s a start:

When the Singapore government decides to do something, it never goes halfway. They figure out what resources it will take, and they spend them. And if something simply takes time, no matter what the resource cost, then they (the government) also has a lot of patience. Having consistent political leadership for 50 years will do that. They decided they wanted NUS and NTU to be world-class universities, just the same way they decided, say, that they wanted a subway system that was second to none. There is so little corruption in the Singapore government that it is possible to allocate money to something and not have most of it siphoned off by bureaucrats with bad comb-overs and incredibly generous pension plans. So when the government decides to spend money on education, it (gasp) actually goes to education.

Also, I have noticed some quality controls on the teaching that go beyond what I've seen at other universities. They treat education the way they would treat a manufacturing process. Use quality control; measure everything; fix problems as soon as they are discovered; please the customer; show zero tolerance for lousy teaching; treat course descriptions as a legally binding contract for what will be learned by those who take the course and apply themselves.

  • When professors create final exams, their exams are scrutinized and approved by independent reviewers before they can be given to students.
  • When they decide which courses to offer, they have one faculty member decide what needs to be taught, and a different faculty member decide who should teach that course, like a separation-of-powers principle.
  • They bring in external review committees to look at what they teach and how they teach, and solicit critical input that they take to heart. I know other universities use external review committees as well, but when NUS does it, they pick reviewers whose academic credentials have earned them biographical entries in Wikipedia.

I spoke to one such reviewer, Ed Lazowska, when he was here recently to review the NUS Computer Science Department. He told me he could not believe the resources available at NUS. When they decide they need something, they simply go and get it. The endless quibbling over budgets and “turf” that pervades universities in the USA is nowhere to be seen here.

There is also a culture throughout Singapore that being in a STEM (science/technology/engineering/mathematics) field makes you normal, not a geek. They don’t even make jokes here about nerds and geeks, and if you did, people wouldn't understand the humor.

It’s amazing how fast universities can excel when they are freed from politics, both internal and external. I think that is what has happened at NUS and NTU.

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