Of degrees and dice and the luck of the draw

One Singapore university has just tumbled headlong in the world university rankings. Meanwhile, the government is doing its best to stop Singaporeans from taking the plunge into the myriad attractions of the two new casinos. Tourists, however, are welcome to take their chances there.

You think it’s unfair to encourage foreigners to visit places where you don’t want your own citizens to go? Then you are not attuned to the economics of a tourist destination.

Tourism is a major industry in Singapore. It welcomes visitors, who check into the hotels, dine at the restaurants, go shopping, visit the zoo and the bird park and Sentosa, ringing up the tills all over the island. The Singapore Tourism Board keeps an eye on the business. It gives monthly reports on visitor arrivals and hotel revenue – one million and S$173 million (almost Rs 600 crore) in July. The tourist flow has gone up since the casinos opened, it notes.

But the authorities have stopped the free bus services run by the casinos to attract local residents. The government knows what the odds are when you gamble, running a lottery monopoly itself.

Now what has that to do with education? That’s a business, too. Singapore universities recruit not only local students. They also welcome international students, luring the best and brightest with scholarships and student loans.  In exchange, they have to serve a bond working for a Singapore company for a limited period after graduation. It’s a good deal. The students get a good education and valuable work experience.

And what’s in it for the universities?

Hey, those Indian, Chinese and other foreign students saved a Singapore university from sliding even lower down the world rankings.

Nanyang Technological University (NTU) dropped a hundred places to finish 174th in this year’s Times Higher Education World University Rankings, announced last week. Who knows where it might have ended up without its “international mix”? That counted in the rankings.

Harvard was first, followed by Caltech, MIT, Stanford and Princeton with Oxford and Cambridge sharing the sixth spot.

The National University of Singapore slipped only four places, to 34th. But NTU plunged abysmally. To rub salt into its wounds, NTU was found “below average” in teaching.

That’s what the editor, Phil Baty, told the Straits Times when asked to compare the two Singapore universities.

But education standards don’t slip so drastically overnight.  What happened was something else, which I have written about.

Last week, I wrote that Singapore was the world’s third most competitive economy – and India 51st – in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report released earlier this month. I mentioned then it was a matter of perception. That report was largely based on what the business executives in each country said. Singapore received a more positive assessment from business executives in Singapore than India did from their counterparts in India.

While it’s true Singapore is richer, safer, cleaner and more business-friendly than India, there can be disagreements on other issues.

That’s what led to the downfall of NTU. The Times Higher Education now says previous rankings were inaccurate. They certainly invited controversy. So it turned to Thomson Reuters to help with the rankings and new measures were used. Until last year, the rankings were partly based on employers’ assessments of university graduates. That was dropped this year; more emphasis was laid on education.

However, the rankings still give some weight – though less than before – to how cosmopolitan a university is. That was NTU’s strongest point. It scored 93.6 out of 100 for its international mix but only 43.6 for teaching.

The Enquirer, an NTU online student newspaper, is taking the fall with good grace. “The truth is, past ranking criteria have been too kind to NTU, and the new ranking criteria reflects the quality of institutions better,” it says.

No doubt, the university will try to do better. Education is prized in Singapore for economic reasons. The government has just announced plans to spend S$16 billion over the next five years on research, innovation and enterprise.

One quality, however, in which Singapore has been found wanting is generosity. The Straits Times reports Singapore ranks 91st on the World Giving Index. The index is based on three things – giving money to charity, volunteering time to an organization, and helping strangers. Australia is first, New Zealand second, Canada third, Ireland fourth, America and Switzerland fifth, Holland seventh and Britain eighth out of the 153 countries surveyed. India is 134th and China 147th.

India, of course, is inured to poverty and Singapore has the highest paid ministers and civil servants in the world because the government believes you have to pay top dollar to get the best talent. Implicit in that is the recognition of a lack of public-spiritedness and self-sacrifice. That’s being realistic and Singapore is all the better for it.

The government cares. It doesn’t want Singaporeans to throw away their hard-earned money on the turn of a wheel or the roll of a dice. The tourists, of course, aren’t Singaporeans.

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