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Varsity rankings: Do they really matter




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As Singapore’s two oldest universities rise up in international university rankings, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong recently joined the debate on relevance of such rankings

Singapore’s publicly-funded universities are unlike other top universities in bigger countries, and besides maintaining good international rankings, also have important national and social roles, noted PM lee during the opening ceremony of National University of Singapore’s (NUS) University Town – the first residential college here.

nuslogoThis has initiated a discussion, which has been going on around the world for a while now, about the relevance and limitations of international university rankings in Singapore as well.


In the highly-cited book, Quality assurance and university rankings in higher education in the Asia Pacific: challenges for universities and nations, the writers noted limitations in the international university rankings methodology.

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Firstly, due to differences in the national educational systems, it is difficult to find internationally comparable indicators and obtain reliable objective data. Secondly, institutions without disciplines related to the awarding fields of Nobel Prizes do not have a fair chance. Also, as English is the language of international academic community, any ranking based on academic performance could be biased towards institutions in English-speaking countries. Thus, most rankings systems rest on a dominant idea of a university grounded in the comprehensive English-speaking Anglo-American science-intensive institutions. Finally, it has also been found that large institutions have relatively high positions in the rankings, raising questions whether indicators should be looked at a per capita basis.


Another question is of the money involved.

ntu_logoThe New York Times in an article last year highlighted the potential “conflicts of interest” with some of the ranking agencies. “When Quacquarelli Symonds, the London-based company behind the QS World University Rankings, announced ‘a new initiative that gives universities the opportunity to highlight their strength’ by paying a fee for the chance to be rated on a scale of one to five stars, the business case was obvious,” it said.

Most recently, a five-member committee formed by the Government of India alleged that the some of the ranking agencies criteria is not the standard of teaching, research and job placement, but rather it is based on the paying capabilities of the institutions. “They (a ranking agency) charge US$150,000 per institute. One agency proposed that we pay US$450,00 to be evaluated. It was quite a large sum,” told Indraneil Manna, director of world-renowned Indian Institute of Technology – Kanpur, and a member of the committee to the local media.


Some critics have also pointed towards the shortcomings in rankings based on reputational surveys. Those rankings, which are based purely on scholarly outputs, don’t see much change in relative positions of the elite universities on an annual basis. Such changes can take decades. This is the paradox. “The more important the thing you’re measuring, the less useful it is to measure it on an annual basis,” they point out.

Critics have a problem with such rankings. Why?

  • Because of the methodology used
  • Because of the choice of indicators and weight attributed to them
  • Because of their [indicators] use as quality ‘proxies’
  • Because of the quality of data

Furthermore, such rankings are

  • biased towards science, engineering, medical and technology related disciplines
  • biased towards English-language publications

Singapore’s Global Schoolhouse initiative

The Global Schoolhouse initiative was launched in 2002 to develop Singapore into an education hub offering a diverse mix of quality education services to the world. Under this, the Economic Development Board has tied-up with world’s leading institutions such as the French business school INSEAD and the Technical University of Munich. It also saw collaborations between foreign and local universities to offer joint academic programmes, such as the joint Executive MBA between Shanghai Jiao Tong University and the Nanyang Business School, as well as the Waseda-Nanyang double MBA. As at July 2012, there were approximately 84,000 student pass holders in Singapore. The majority of these students, or about 68%, are in tertiary institutions, with the remaining 32% in pre-tertiary institutions. As at December 2011, the education sector contributed 3.2% to Singapore’s GDP, and its share of total employment was 2.7%, equal to 86,000 jobs.

Source: Ministry of trade and industry
Credits: Newzzit

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