In the last week, my colleagues and I have received emails and letters of concern and outrage from students and our alumni about recent media stories saying NTU has dropped 101 places in university rankings.
The NTU community is understandably upset, confused and alarmed and is right in asking what the NTU leadership is doing about this. As NTU’s President, I can understand your feelings and realise how our hard work and efforts in recent years to build NTU’s reputation have been damaged by these media reports.
Let me state categorically that NTU did NOT drop 101 places in university ranking.
This misperception came about because in The Straits Times article (17 Sep 2010), the results of two ranking systems based on entirely different methodologies were erroneously compared and highlighted in the headlines and opening paragraph.
To set the record straight, I wrote a 900-word commentary in Monday’s issue of The Straits Times (attached here) so the public and the NTU community can have the right perspective with which to view the rankings of universities, We initially wanted to address the concerns in The Straits Times’ Forum page but as there is a strict enforcement of space on that page which would have limited our explanation of such a complex issue thoroughly, I chose to write an editorial piece in The Straits Times’ Review page instead.
At the same time, NTU also sent letters signed by me to Lianhe Zaobao and Berita Harian explaining why their media stories which had mentioned that NTU had dropped in university rankings were incorrect, Let me give you some background to the rankings here so you can make your own intelligent conclusions.
Since 2004, Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) and Times Higher Education (Times), two commercial organisations, had been collaborating on the Times Higher Education-Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) World University Rankings. From this year, they parted ways and now produce their own separate university rankings.
The QS World University Ranking was released on 8 Sep 2010, The results of that ranking, where NTU came in 74th and NUS, 31st (both down by one position from 2009) were published in Lianhe Zaobao and TODAY, but not in the Straits Times. QS 2010 continued with the same methodology it had used since 2004 when it had partnered Times.
Times, together with their new partner, Thomson Reuters, designed a completely different methodology. They lean towards classical research parameters that advantages older, more established universities. The five areas measured include Citations (32.5%), Research (30%), Teaching* (30%), International Mix (5%) and Industry Income (2.5%). This ranking was released a week after QS 2010.
All that is fine, except when results from the two rankings based on different methodologies are compared. Doing that is highly erroneous because as I had written in The Straits Times’ commentary, it is like comparing apples with durians.
Let me give you an example. Suppose you are the top student in your school. But you emerged in the 200th place in the school’s debating contest. Does that mean you have dropped 199 places? There’s really no comparison at all.
The importance of not making comparisons between the two was stressed by Times’ rankings editor Phil Baty and reported in The Straits Times story: “Any movement up or down the ranking table cannot be seen as a change in performance by an individual country or institution, and it’s not relevant to make comparisons.”
Despite that, The Straits Times made that comparison in the headline and opening paragraph and said that NTU had plunged 101 places in ranking.
Many world-renowned universities have responded to the Times rankings, highlighting some bizarre results and advising the public to take the rankings with “a truckload of salt”. I attach below some hyperlinks to these articles so you can have a better idea of what the international university community is debating about on this matter.
Internationally, the QS 2010 Ranking is the more established of the two. University rankings don’t tumble overnight like stock prices. It takes years to build a university; so its standing does not swing wildly in a year or two. In the QS ranking, both NTU and NUS were both down by one position from last year. The performance of both universities has been consistent over the last four years and this shows the stability of the QS ranking.
On the other hand, Times’ 2010 rankings is entirely new and its criteria have yet to be accepted. A detailed analysis shows it is 88 per cent computed from research-related indicators and being retrospective, it favours the more established universities with longer histories in research.
For example, as the citations are for 2004-2008 and given that it typically takes 10 years or more from the time one starts on a research, gets it published to the time citations build up for that research project, this parameter is in effect measuring the performance of NTU and that of the other universities from as far back as 1995.
Although the roots of this university go back to 55 years ago, NTU really started as a practice-oriented, teaching university only in 1991. We ramped up our research intensity more recently, accelerating from 2006. In the past five years, NTU has been awarded $887 million in external competitive research grants. It will, however, take many years for NTU’s research efforts to make an impact in rankings such as Times’ that have retrospective parameters.
Despite that, NTU today is widely seen internationally as one of the fastest rising universities in the world. In fact, considering that we started out only in 1991, NTU is the youngest university in the Top 100 universities ranked in the QS 2010.
We are currently starting on a branding exercise for NTU and our position in the established QS ranking will be one of the pillars of NTU’s branding.
The NTU leadership is confident that we will continue to make great strides and that we will realise our potential to be a great global university. This is not empty talk but stems from the confidence bestowed on us by our world-class faculty and partners, our students, our alumni and their employers.
You would probably have read about our plans to partner Imperial College London, ranked among the top five universities in the world to set up Singapore’s third medical school.
The results of our good work may not be immediately captured in rankings such as Times'. But our students know the immediate benefits of our world-class facilities and being taught by outstanding faculty.
For example, Nanyang Business School’s MBA programme has consistently been ranked in the world’s top 30 by Financial Times and achieved its best score of 69th place worldwide in the annual ranking by The Economist this year, up two places from last year. The two use different methodologies but NBS’ performance in both rankings has been consistent. The NBS’ programme has been the number one MBA programme in Singapore for several years already and is regularly placed among the top four in Asia-Pacific.
Today, NTU is the choice university for the majority of young international researchers awarded scholarships by the National Research Foundation. In the recent L’Oréal Singapore for Women in Science National Fellowships 2010, NTU’s women scientists were awarded two of the three fellowships.
In last month’s Crowbar Awards, an international award for students to showcase their creative talents, NTU made a clean sweep of the Best of Categories and Best of Show awards despite stiff competition from 39 schools worldwide. In this year’s F1 Race held in Singapore, our engineering students, whose solar car took top spot in the inaugural Singapore Green One eco-car race, won the privilege of being the curtain raiser in this international race.
As I said in The Straits Times article, not many Singaporeans realise that in the more established QS World University Rankings, Singapore has two universities in the Top 100 universities worldwide. Aside from Switzerland, Singapore is the only other small country to have achieved this feat.
Besides cheering our sister university NUS on, all of us at NTU can hold our heads high. There are 14,000 universities worldwide and NTU is clearly within the world’s top 1% of universities.
NANYANG TECHNOLOGICAL UNIVERSITY