Are Global Rankings Damaging Universities?

Article that disappeared (and that has attracted more attention since disappearing) raises questions about Singapore's emphasis on rankings.

January 28, 2019

By many measures, the National University of Singapore is considered to be among Asia's best. If you doubt that, you can check out the university's webpage devoted to tracking its rankings. The university wins many reviews of Asian universities and also fares increasingly well in global comparisons. The same is true for some of its academic departments. International admissions experts say that such rankings are valuable in attracting top students and researchers from all over the world.

In the last 10 days, however, an unusual debate has broken out over whether international rankings may not actually be making the university better -- for prospective students or others.

A newspaper in Singapore, Today, published an article this month with the headline "Opaque policies, fixation with KPIs, rankings: why arts and humanities academics quit NUS, NTU." The article suggested that some of the most talented instructors -- especially outside the physical and biological sciences and technology fields -- leave National University of Singapore and the Nanyang Technological University (which also boasts of its rankings). The article quoted academics who had formerly worked in Singapore as saying that the "fixation" on rankings and key performance indicators means a narrow focus on education, too little emphasis outside the hard sciences and not enough consideration of the relationship between academic freedom and true excellence.

Then the article disappeared. The newspaper said that the article had been subjected to legal challenges, and the website no longer features the piece (although snippets are on Reddit and elsewhere on social media).

Five professors quoted in the article -- now at places such as the University of Michigan, Seoul National University and the Technical University of Berlin -- issued a joint statement on Facebook saying that they stand behind the quotes they gave for the newspaper article. They say that the removal of the article illustrates their point that great universities -- whatever the international rankings say -- operate in environments in which they can be criticized.

"As academics with collective experience in many countries besides Singapore, we believe that freedom of expression and active public debate are foundational to scholarly excellence and the advancement of human knowledge," the statement says. "We are unaware of situations where media reporting responsibly on the opinions of faculty have been subject to legal challenges from a university."

Indeed, the methodologies for the various university rankings on which institutions in Singapore are excelling do not factor in freedom of expression, on campus or off.

The odd situation of people in Singapore debating the value of rankings -- based on an article that was removed from the web -- has raised eyebrows elsewhere.

An essay in The South China Morning Post notes that the methodologies used in international rankings do not care if the research coming out of Singapore focuses attention on important issues that face Asia, only on whether articles appear in prestigious journals.

"The message often being sent to junior academics is therefore, 'Stay away from engaged work.' The implicit understanding is that it is professional suicide to conduct socially impactful scholarship, especially community-engaged scholarship. This in turn translates into a paradox in which social science scholarship becomes disconnected from society," said the essay, by Mohan J. Dutta, director of the Center for Culture-Centered Approach to Research and Evaluation at Massey University, in New Zealand.

The debate predates the disappearing Today article. In December, another article in the Hong Kong-based Morning Post, by Linda Lim, professor emerita at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business of the University of Michigan, and Pang Eng Fong, an emeritus professor and former dean at the Lee Kong Chian School of Business of the Singapore Management University, was titled, "How Singapore’s Obsession With University Rankings Only Serves to Hurt It."

In response to questions from Inside Higher Ed, the National University of Singapore released a statement defending criticism of the Today article and the university's view of rankings.

"We welcome diversity of views, constructive feedback and robust discourse. Therefore the university also wishes that any article about us published in our mainstream media should be impartial and factually accurate, so that the public can come to its own conclusions in a fair and objective manner," the statement said. The article in Today "fell significantly short of our expectations. It also did not adequately represent NUS’ position on the matter."

As a result, the statement added, the article "has unfairly affected the reputation and standing of NUS locally and internationally," leading the university to seek "legal advice regarding these allegations."

Faculty members are not promoted based on rankings, but based on peer review, the statement said.

"Ranking is not a driver of change at NUS. Specifically, the university does not chart its program and talent management policies to influence rankings," the statement added.

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