Thursday, May 13, 2010

University rankings -- following the wrong star?

Today, it was reported by Channel Newsasia that, according to the latest Quacquarelli Symonds Asian University Rankings, the National University of Singapore (NUS) is ranked third amongst the leading universities in Asia.

Initially, being an undergraduate student at NUS (or at least until my commencement ceremony in July), I was understandably excited and proud about the news above.

However, that was before I looked at the website of the organisation/company which computed the rankings and briefly examined the methodology which the organisation used to compute the rankings.

Specifically, I found out that, from the organisation's website, the rankings were determined through essentially looking at the four main indicators of "research quality", "teaching quality", "graduate employability" and "internationalisation", with the indicators being given a weight of 60%, 20%, 10% and 10% respectively.

I am not sure about you all but to me, from the viewpoint of an undergraduate student, the method employed to determine the rankings would appear to be rather skewed and incomprehensive.

Four factors only?

From the perspective of an undergraduate student, I would think that besides the four main factors mentioned above, other important, if not more important, factors that should also be taken into account would be, for example, the quality of the physical amenities and environment available, vibrancy of student social life and intellectual environment. I am sure there are many more factors which you all can think of which should be included but are not included.

Research quality = 60%, Teaching quality =20%?

Of course, incomprehensiveness of indicators is perhaps not as serious a deficiency as having a skewed measurement. Evidently, the measurement is heavily skewed towards "research quality", with it being allocated a hefty 60%.

And notably, only 20% is allocated to "teaching quality". And curiously enough, this is measured through the proxy indicator of student to faculty ratio. Admittedly, with a lower student to faculty ratio, more attention can be given to individual students by faculty staff, thus potentially increasing the quality of teaching experienced by the students. This, however, may not necessarily always be the case; if you have a faculty member who is highly incompetent at teaching, it will not help even if that faculty member is teaching individual students in one-on-one sessions. In the end, it is a flawed move to use a quantitative indicator, in this case "student to faculty ratio", to determine a qualitative measurement, in this case "teaching quality".

In addition, speaking from the viewpoint of a student, I suppose the more, if not most, important factor I would consider would be the quality of teaching provided and not the research quality/output of the university as the former would evidently be a major part of my experience at the university.

Without belittling the research work done by universities, I would say, as a student, it would matter more to me that my university faculty members are good teachers rather than good researchers. I mean, how would it matter to me, as a student, how many academic papers are written by the faculty and how many times these papers are cited by others?

On that note, I would like to just say that from the limited exact information I have about the situation, it would appear that my university or department has recently decided to not renew the contract of one of its faculty members supposedly because that faculty member did not manage to meet the stipulated research quota. While I personally have not taken any classes with this particular faculty member, several of my friends and many other students have and from the amount of support expressed by them for this particular faculty member and their indignation at the decision to not renew the contract, a good, if not excellent, teacher this particular faculty member is.

In fact, one student was provoked enough by the decision to not renew the contract of this particular faculty member to write the following letter (in italics) to the New York Times/International Herald Tribune:

"Richard Levin (“The rise of Asia's universities,” Views, April 21) rightly noted the importance of a well-educated citizenry. But he neglects the fact that in this mad dash for prestige, certain Asian universities have embraced the bizarre logic that a faculty that publishes frequently is more valuable than a faculty that inspires students. Too often students rank low on a professor’s list of priorities.

The focus in Asia on competing with the finest institutions in the West is legitimate. But Asia’s universities must not lose sight of the bigger picture, the true aim of education: the betterment of society as a whole. More than quality research, it is the ability to attract and retain quality educators that matters most.

Tan Wei Kee, Singapore"

Hear hear.

Research-centric or student-centric?

In the end, while I do not begrudge my university or any other university, for that matter, to put in effort to improve its research quality and output, I, as as student, would nonetheless prefer a more student-centric approach to be adopted. In the final analysis, a university should, besides serving the important function of producing knowledge through research work, also serve the critical function of educating students. To borrow the words of a Chinese saying, education and research are the two legs which a university will need to be able to stand up and become a truly world class university; to neglect either of them will make the university no more than a cripple.


Anonymous said...

A bit of history. In the old days, by that I mean pre-70s, Universities were seen as store of knowledge not teaching institution. The role of Universities is primarily to expand that store of knowledge hence the emphasis of research.

An undergaduate as such is not really a student -- i.e. to be taught. It's more like an internship, where an undergraduate go in to learn to learn. Hence, in those days an undergaduate is often ask "what are you reading" not "what are you taught" at University. The Professors are facilitators, maybe mentor, not teachers. So teaching don't rank high.

Maybe times has changed, so maybe ranking should reflect such changes and not stick to such "old fashion" roles. Who knows?

Anonymous said...

NUS employs a lot of profs for their research portfolio whose research they did outside of NUS gets computed into the rankings for NUS' advantage.

And it is not true that teaching ends in university. There is still a strong teaching component. It has been said that professor spend more time teaching than actual research work, so some critics feel teaching evaluations should be taken more seriously in assessing a professor's promotion track. You can call it facilitation or whatever fancy word, but at the end of the day, its still teaching, and it is important.

Fox said...

I think it really depends. If you are a good student who is deeply interested in your field, then it would serve your interest to have professors who are active researchers.

From my experience as an undergraduate in NUS, professors who are not active researchers tend not to be very good teachers because their knowledge of the subject matter often become obsolete. If they do not attempt to keep up with research, it is very easy for their command of the subject matter to atrophy. Very often, the best to learn something is to actually apply it in research. If they are not doing research, then it is likely that they do not know it as well as someone who constantly hones his knowledge through research.

Speaking for myself, I would have benefited much more from my NUS education if my lecturers had been active researchers from whom I could have learnt more before going to graduate school.

Anonymous said...

I am curious. What then do you propose to be a better measurement to reflect the true standard of an University?
What shall he percentage weightages be? Or do you think that its better to scrap the "weighted factors" methods and use different scales for various factors? Say, this University scores xx% for student satisfaction, xx% for papers published, etc?

Anonymous said...

All of you are seeing it from the surface. Only when you work there as a professor then you would appreciate what actually happen there. A good professor (whether in research or teaching) may not be retained for some reason. Good professor often resigns. Those asked to leave or whose contract not renewed are not necessarily bad professor. Student is not important for NUS except to make money. Foreign students have a different story. Here the quota of foreign students is most important to score higher ranking. If you believe ranking like this or other, you only see the surface. It is always easy to put up a good face. Albert Einstein could only study in a 3rd class university and he was denied by his professor to join the university as teacher. This is the fact but Albert Einstein won his Nobel prize.

Fox said...

Uhmmm, Einstein was a graduate of ETH Zurich, which is widely regarded as the MIT of Europe.

LCC said...

Firstly, thanks for all the comments!

Well, allow me to clarify that I am not against university faculty staff who are good researchers, I am however of the opinion that faculty members who are designated to be lecturers/teachers for the university students should ideally also be competent teachers. In the end, if the focus is only on research, then the university may as well just be a research lab or facility.

As for Anonymous'(16/5/2010, 0309h) question, I would say that although I do not have a comprehensive alternative evaluation system in mind, I would think that an alternative system, as was discussed in my post, should take into account more factors for a more comprehensive evaluation.

This alternative evaluation system should also be less skewed towards research and allocate more weight to teaching quality. And as for measuring teaching quality, perhaps it would be better to, besides just looking at student to faculty ratio, also canvass for student feedback about the teachers.

In fact, it would appear to me that the element most conspicuous by its absence would the lack of student feedback in the QS evaluation system. I mean, if they are able to canvass feedback from academics in other universities and employers, why not do so also for the students?

Anonymous said...

I have graduated from NUS with B.Eng in Elec. Engr. IMO, teaching and research should be given equal weightage. Universities are not just stores of knowledge; if you want knowledge only just go to the library or go IEEE Xplore to download journal papers. Look at MIT's opencourseware and their emphasis on education and it should be obvious that teaching is just as important as research. Look at Richard Feynman, and many other world-reknowned researchers. Most of them are authors of textbooks! (afaik, as an EE is concerned). Having good teaching methodologies (see Walter Lewin) from MIT ocw, can also boost the unversities reputation and inspire the next generation of innovators & scientist.

To be a good researcher, you have to be a good teacher. To be a relevant teacher, you have to do research. Teaching benefits both student and teacher. The research done in the field of electrical engr is very diverse, and sometimes when you do pure research you tend not to use alot of important things you learn as an teaching helps to keep the professor on his toes.

Fox said...

So, how would you measure teaching quality? It seems to me to be a lot more difficult than to measure research quality which at least can be quantified in terms of quantity and quality of research.

Anonymous said...

Yep. Though I said the teaching quality is important, I agree that it is more difficult to measure compared to research. But when thing I think everybody can agree on, is that institutions like MIT and Stanford (afaik) has very good teaching, although there is no unit of measure. Just go attend their free online lectures that is available to on the WWW. I can say first hand that its way better than NUS's engineering faculty teaching staff (although there are some good NUS Profs.

All I can say is that NUS should invest in quality teaching. Although you cannot quantify it, people will still be able to differentiate which is better if there is a comparison to be made. One way for NUS to do this is to make some of its lectures available online so that the teaching staff will make an effort improve its teaching methodolody/syllabus and not embarass themselves for the whole online community to see. There needs to be some ownership on the part of the professors for the courses they teach. I say this because there was one core module at NUS where the instructor was some new Prof (from China) whose conversational english is worst than a Primary 6 kid. I couldnt believe that the EE dept would appoint someone like that. A group of us informed the dept (including me), and the next term, he wasn't teaching anymore :)

Anonymous said...

LCC said: "Well, allow me to clarify that I am not against university faculty staff who are good researchers, I am however of the opinion that faculty members who are designated to be lecturers/teachers for the university students should ideally also be competent teachers. In the end, if the focus is only on research, then the university may as well just be a research lab or facility."

Well what exactly do you mean by a teacher? What is a teacher? Is a teacher someone who instruct -- i.e. tell the student what to learn -- or a guide, someone who share his/her experience?

Well why shouldn't universities be just "research labs"? If universities are "research labs" than, as the first comment noted, then clearly an undergraduate should be treated as an intern in the world of research. Shouldn't it?

After all, to reach Universities, an undergraduate would have at least undergone A-level or Polytechnic diploma, the question is why progress to Universities if all you want is a glorified A-level/Polytechnic course? What value is added for such glorified degrees?

Anonymous said...

MIT, Standford, Oxbridge Universities, etc are basically "research lab".

People don't go there to be taught. They go there to experiment and then become entrepreneurial or future national/business leaders. Not future workers!

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