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Universities In Singapore: Address The Research-Teaching Conundrum

Mr. Wong also noted that in France, not every institution of higher learning can be at the same level. The way to go, he said, is to push for quality in a few institutions, while others will have to find their own niches of excellence” (Building Bridges, Finding Niches, Mr. Tan Weizhen).

Already, the purported disproportionate attention given to research endeavours has given rise to anecdotal sentiments about the supposed drop in the quality of teaching, as a result of diffused approaches and misplaced focuses.

Progressive plans to expand university opportunities by the Ministry of Education (MOE) – in the news report “Building Bridges, Finding Niches” (October 29, 2011) by Mr. Tan Weizhen) – are well-intentioned and immensely important. Nonetheless, as our educators and administrators continue to look abroad for inspiration and improvements, they must remain cognisant of the inherent research-teaching conundrum that has plagued our local colleges, and introduce relevant adjustments to address concerns perpetually raised.

Overemphasis On Research And Ranking?

In recent times, local universities such as the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU) have premised their publicity efforts almost-exclusively upon their performance in various ranking exercises, and also on the basis of having world-class research faculties in-house. Unfortunately, these pedantic concentrations not only obscure the significance of developing good teaching pedagogies or frameworks within institutions, but also overshadow the need to mould undergraduates beyond their solitary academic or scholastic dimensions.

Already, the purported disproportionate attention given to research endeavours has given rise to anecdotal sentiments about the supposed drop in the quality of teaching, as a result of diffused approaches and misplaced focuses. The conflict between research and teaching is certainly not limited to Singapore’s landscape; in the United States, it was noted that while the research university model enhanced post-graduate courses and heightened the school’s stature through writings and publications, undergraduates tended to be at the losing end. Lowering teaching loads for tenure track faculty meant that inexperienced graduate students – some who even struggle to communicate fluently in English – taught more; learning outcomes may be inadvertently compromised, since externalities from the research products do not necessarily benefit across the board.

The Next Step Forward

If unhappiness over the research angle is allowed to manifest, the ramifications might be detrimental in the long-run.

With these shifting paradigms, ushering new changes to the status quo will help our universities stay ahead of the international education game.

In the immediate future, it would be constructive for the MOE to create viable feedback channels – such as focus group discussions, qualitative sessions et cetera – for present undergraduates to articulate perspectives on the aforementioned research-teaching concerns. Administering quantitative surveys, through representative student bodies, would also give the authorities a gauge of the present challenges, and ascertain aspects that require greater attention or involvement.

On a broader scale, Singapore could possibly emulate France’s plan to form clusters from the various institutions, in the sense in which the respective research and teaching colleges are made distinct and clear without compromising quality. In this sense, parents and prospective students would be able to make more informed decisions on the type of education track and model that would be most suitable for themselves. Such customisation and specialisation would allow stakeholders to comprehend the assorted comparative advantages, make good choices, and increase the levels of productivity.

Transparency and clarity are crucial considerations; if unhappiness over the research angle is allowed to manifest, the ramifications might be detrimental in the long-run.

A version of this article was published in TODAY.

About guanyinmiao

A man of knowledge lives by acting, not by thinking about acting. Carlos Castaneda.


8 thoughts on “Universities In Singapore: Address The Research-Teaching Conundrum

  1. I think what needs to be identified is not so much the research-teaching conundrum, but the quality of teaching. The emphasis on research in universities makes it an ideal environment for researchers who would like the happy title of Professor at some point. Oh, have to teach ah? And they grudgingly do so.

    There are some academics I’ve met in my current short time at university who are amazing: they love teaching students and do a great job, and from the looks of it, are also actively engaged in research. My main worry however, are the grudging profs, those who would rather do research and are attracted to research, not teaching. And when press-ganged into teaching, do a crappy job of it.

    I think what needs to be done is to promote the teaching track in the universities. I have full respect for a few of my lecturers who aren’t exactly the greatest teachers around: they stumble on English, tell corny jokes about their subject and we don’t exactly learn thatttt much. But it is evident that they are passionate about their subject and teaching it. And despite being hamstrung by their linguistic abilities, they choose to buck the trend of going the easier route to tenure (that’s my impression) and take the road less traveled by teaching students.

    Posted by Yingjie Lan | November 2, 2011, 8:48 am
    • Is there a way to evaluate teaching? I mean how students react to different pedagogies and methodologies can be quite different; but would feedback sessions or discussions be of any use?

      What I feel is that if a substantial number of students feel that their lecturers or professors are inapt, are there ways we can reflect these perspectives constructively? And would this be productive?

      Jin Yao

      Posted by guanyinmiao | November 3, 2011, 12:22 pm
      • I think that is highly subjective, you’re looking at a very very subjective thing. I think what you mean is “inept professors”, so I’ll respond to that.

        Different people have different expectations: some in uni like profs who spoonfeed, some like those who make them think, others like slack ones and some like crazy taskmasters (the students in question are almost certainly crazy too).

        So it’s really really hard to figure out.

        Posted by Yingjie Lan | November 3, 2011, 2:10 pm
  2. The insiders will know that ANUS is lost in direction and at the cross road of research and teaching. There is also the service (like HOD, or program director, etc) the academias need to provide. The faculties are assessed on 3 official areas, i.e. research, teaching and service. The unofficial area is the academia’s political affiliation, i.e. boot or ass licking extent on those in power and management. Without the correct political affiliation, no matter how well an academia does in all three areas, he/she will never have any advance in career and income. On the other hand, those with correct political affiliation but without satisfactory performance in any or most of these three areas will still get career advancement and increase in income. There is a real mess there. Outsiders will never know if the book remains closed to the them. This is the reality, unfortunately. ANUS and like will not be up to the mark at the end of the day. Good luck to them.

    Posted by Daft Singaporean | November 3, 2011, 12:33 am
    • I can’t comment objectively, but if these issues (especially on the quality of teaching) are present, are there avenues for their clarification or expression? Are they adequate and useful?

      Jin Yao

      Posted by guanyinmiao | November 3, 2011, 12:30 pm


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