Parliament: Half of faculty at local unis are Singaporeans, says Ong Ye Kung, as he stresses importance of nurturing local academic core

There are several schemes in place to nurture Singaporean academics and build a local academic core in the universities, said Education Minister Ong Ye Kung.
There are several schemes in place to nurture Singaporean academics and build a local academic core in the universities, said Education Minister Ong Ye Kung.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Singaporeans account for half of the faculty at the six local universities, with the number remaining stable over the last 10 years. There are also several schemes in place to nurture Singaporean academics and build a local academic core in the universities, said Education Minister Ong Ye Kung in Parliament on Monday (Jan 14).

Mr Ong was responding to questions from Mr Seah Kian Peng (Marine Parade GRC), Nominated MP Walter Theseira and Dr Intan Azura Mokhtar (Ang Mo Kio GRC) who asked about the foreign-local divide in the universities.

In recent months, schemes initiated by the National University of Singapore and the Nanyang Technological University offering "internationally competitive" salaries and million-dollar research grants for young global academic stars have sparked a debate on whether Singapore's two leading universities prefer foreign academics and if they have embarked on these aggressive recruitment schemes to chase rankings.

Mr Ong said the Ministry of Education (MOE) started the Singapore Teaching and Academic Research Talent (Start) Scheme to develop Singaporean academics and to supplement existing schemes at the various autonomous universities.

Under Start, 91 scholarships have been awarded over the past four years. As it is relatively new, most of the scholarship recipients are still studying. Of the 16 who have completed their studies, 13 are holding faculty positions at the universities, with the rest slated to return to join these universities later this year.

Mr Ong said the recipients have already demonstrated involvement in impactful, locally relevant projects in areas such as language and palliative care.

He said the NUS' Presidential Young Professorship Scheme and NTU's Nanyang Assistant Professorship Scheme aim to attract top local and foreign academics to the autonomous universities (AUs). Thus far, NUS and NTU have granted a total of 91 awards.

"Together, the three schemes provide different forms of support for aspiring and young academics at different stages of their studies and careers," said Mr Ong revealing that on average, MOE and the AUs have invested around $11 million a year on these three schemes since 2015.

Mr Ong said MOE and the local universities will continue to build a strong Singaporean academic core, stressing that this was especially important in the arts and social sciences as it was important to understand the regional and local contexts.

He added that when it came to building up the local faculty, there were also other "practical steps" that the ministry was discussing with AUs.

In response to a follow-up question on academics excelling in research being preferred over those who excel in teaching, Mr Ong said: "It is also very important we recognise that the primary mission of our AUs is actually to educate the young and develop them, and teaching professorships, practice professorships are, in fact, very important too."

On another follow-up question on chasing rankings, the minister said ranking has its uses and said Singaporeans should be proud of the high rankings achieved by NUS and NTU.

"If you ask most governments if they wish to have a university that is ranked high... they will say, I wish we have NUS and NTU, because when you're ranked high, you can attract good talent, you can attract good students and there's a whole vibrancy around the whole campus."

But he was quick to add that international rankings fall short because of the rubrics used.

They are too focused on research and not so much on teaching, and even within research, there is too much focus on publications rather than translational research.

He said it was important that the university leaders keep in mind these shortcomings and ensure that the AUs fulfill their multifaceted mission and not just blindly chase rankings.