“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).
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
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.