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Asia: Singapore best in Asia for higher education

National University of Singapore

Singapore has come out tops in Asia, according to a new ranking that rates countries on how good they are at providing higher education. The Republic took the 11th spot in the ranking of 48 countries and cities, commissioned by Universities 21, a global network of research-intensive universities which include the National University of Singapore (NUS).

The United States tops the list, followed by Sweden, Canada, Finland and Denmark. Other top Asian locations were Hong Kong in 18th place, and Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and Malaysia in 20th, 21st, 22nd and 36th place respectively. The U21 study rates the overall quality of higher education systems, which sets it apart from other ranking systems such as that of the Times Higher Education Supplement, which rates each university on its own.

The findings were presented this month by the Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research at Australia’s University of Melbourne, which conducted the study.

Four broad areas were considered:

* Resources (expenditure on tertiary education);

* Environment (such as how funds were used and how autonomous universities are);

* Connectivity (for instance, the intake of international students and links with other foreign institutions);

* Output (such as research output, availability of university places and the employability of graduates).

Singapore fared well in the first three categories, but lagged behind in the last, which made up 40 per cent of the total score. Besides NUS, the study also looked at other universities such as Nanyang Technological University and Singapore Management University. The low participation rate of young people in tertiary institutions is one area the Republic needs to work on, said Simon Marginson, professor of higher education at the University of Melbourne.

But its performance is expected to improve, as more pursue higher education at both public and private institutions, he pointed out. ‘As Singapore educates more young people, it will move up the ranks,’ said Marginson, who is part of the team of researchers behind the new ranking. The Government will add another 2,000 university places by 2015, so that 30 per cent of Singaporeans from each cohort will have places in them, up from 25 per cent now.

A high-level committee headed by Minister of State for Education Lawrence Wong is also looking into how the number can be raised beyond 30 per cent from 2015. In terms of research papers, Singapore does well on publications per head. But it does not fare as well on total publications – as expected – because of its small size, said Ross Williams, another researcher on the ranking system.

Marginson said that by taking into account these broad areas, the new ranking hopes to move away from the emphasis on individual universities. ‘The downside of ranking based on single universities is that it tends to say that only the top universities are important, so we want to re-balance this to look at the broader picture,’ he said.

By recognizing countries with a spread of high-quality universities, the researchers hope to come up with a comparison of national education systems across the board. Doing so would help governments benchmark their country’s performance, said Prof Williams. Such a ranking system could also help students decide which schools to enroll in, he added.

‘This is useful for potential international students in choosing which countries to study in.’ The ranking is set to be an annual exercise, as the team has funding for at least three years of annual publications.

With the publication of the first rankings, the researchers hope it will encourage more countries to provide more data. For example, the team could not find information for private expenditure on higher education and had to approximate in calculating resources.

Meanwhile, universities here welcomed the new ranking system. Tan Eng Chye, deputy president (Academic Affairs) and provost at NUS, said: “This is a strong endorsement of the high quality of Singapore’s unique brand of education, and it is also an affirmation that an NUS education today is of top quality, affordable and transformative.”

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