Parliament: MOE, unis will continue to build local academic core

Students at the National University of Singapore. In recent months, aggressive recruitment schemes initiated by NUS and Nanyang Technological University have sparked a debate on whether the two leading local universities prefer foreign academics and
Students at the National University of Singapore. In recent months, aggressive recruitment schemes initiated by NUS and Nanyang Technological University have sparked a debate on whether the two leading local universities prefer foreign academics and if they did so to chase rankings.ST FILE PHOTO

S'poreans make up half of faculty at unis here, with many schemes to boost local academics

Singaporeans account for half of the faculty at the six local universities, with the number remaining stable over the last 10 years, said Education Minister Ong Ye Kung.

He also pointed to several schemes in place to nurture Singaporean academics and build a local academic core in the universities.

Mr Ong was responding yesterday to 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, aggressive recruitment schemes initiated by the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU) have sparked a debate on whether Singapore's two leading universities prefer foreign academics and if they did so to chase rankings.

The schemes offer "internationally competitive" salaries and million-dollar research grants for young global academic stars.

Mr Ong said his ministry 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 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 languages and palliative care. He said 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.

Mr Ong also revealed that on average, MOE and the universities invested around $11 million per year on these three schemes since 2015.

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

When it came to building up the local faculty, there were other "practical steps" that MOE was discussing with the universities, he added.

In response to a question on academics who excel 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 (and) practice professorships are in fact very important too."

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

High rankings can help attract good talent, good students and "there's a whole vibrancy around the whole campus", he said.

But Mr Ong 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 universities fulfil their multifaceted mission and not just blindly chase rankings.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 15, 2019, with the headline 'MOE, unis will continue to build local academic core'. Print Edition | Subscribe