Asia University Rankings 2016: The pillars of National University of Singapore’s success

To rise rapidly, institutions should consider a four-pronged strategy for growth and development, says Tan Chorh Chuan

June 20, 2016
Gardens by the Bay, Singapore
Source: Alamy

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In the Confucian Temple of Literature in Hanoi, there is a forest of stone steles, each mounted on a carved stone tortoise and inscribed with the names of leading scholars through the ages. They stand as enduring symbols of the central role of – and high value placed on – education in much of Asia.

This culture persists today, but in a higher education landscape that is much more complex and in a state of flux.

Around the world, universities are coming to terms with sweeping trends such as the dramatic “massification” of tertiary education, particularly in China and India; the profound impact of novel technology and business models on the nature of work; the proliferation of educational providers and new modes of delivery such as online learning; and increased benchmarking of some aspects of their output and impact against a global field.

There are also rising expectations that universities should contribute more to enhancing national growth and competitiveness, promote entrepreneurship and innovation, and address major societal challenges.

At the National University of Singapore (NUS), we have reflected considerably on how to proactively create, identify and seize new opportunities within this shifting landscape, to excel and to add value.

Based on NUS’ experience, I believe that there are several key factors critical to attaining a steep trajectory of development.

1. Agility and drive are paramount

First, in a fast-changing and complex environment, institutional agility and drive are of paramount importance. NUS is fortunate that Singapore has a far-sighted government that has, over the past decade, allowed the public universities high degrees of autonomy but with enhanced accountability and continued strong funding support, including research funding, which has to be secured almost entirely through competition.

NUS has taken full advantage of these to position itself strategically as a global university based in Asia – one that has pioneered notable international educational innovations, created distinctive global academic experiences for students, has world-class research strengths and also deep expertise and understanding of Asia and its opportunities and challenges.

Our experience is consistent with literature that supports the view that to thrive, universities require autonomy and adequate resources to pick and quickly execute their strategies and goals. However, they must also be honed by the need to compete for resources, which sharpens the drive for constant improvement, and operate in a national higher education framework that promotes global excellence.

2. Recruit and nurture top-class talent

Second, it is absolutely essential to recruit world-class academics and provide the infrastructure and environment to enable them, alongside home-grown scholars, to do their best research and educational work.

For most of our history, NUS was part of the public service sector, obliged to follow its rather inflexible rules and procedures. But around the year 2000, we were able to move from a seniority-based to a completely performance-based human resource system – a change that was to prove critical in the institution’s development. This change gave us the human resource flexibility to compete internationally for talent, and to incentivise and reward strong performance differentially across and within disciplines.

In 2006, when NUS became a company limited by guarantee, we had even greater freedom to set our own goals and strategies, and to deploy resources in new programmes. Changes to the capital funding system also enabled us to plan the enhancement of our physical infrastructure in the long term. We have made full use of these positive developments over the past decade to nurture and hire a strong critical mass of highly talented academic staff in a broad range of strategically chosen fields.

3. Innovate and differentiate

The third key to rapid development is the need for universities to continually ask how they can innovate in order to differentiate themselves and to create distinctive new value.

NUS is in a constant state of constructive dissatisfaction. I view this as a good thing as it creates a strong impulse to excel, and to do better for our students, alumni and the broader community.

For example, while an NUS education is well recognised for its rigour, we have also made our programmes global, with deep Asian perspectives. Experiential learning was enhanced as a central thrust, with the successful piloting of new programmes such as residential college living and learning.

We pioneered experiential entrepreneurship education in 2001 with the NUS Overseas Colleges (NOC), a unique programme that enables undergraduates to undertake internships for up to a year in start-ups overseas while continuing to take classes at a partner university at one of seven global hubs.

The programme has been highly successful, with NOC students and alumni creating more than 250 start-ups to date, with five alumni making it on to the Forbes 30 Under 30 (Asia) 2016 list, and one company named in Forbes 20 Startups to Watch in 2016.

In research, our goal is to have several research areas where we are among the leaders globally, and to facilitate the translation of our research for economic, health and societal benefit.

4. Global partnerships are springboards

The fourth factor to consider is that deep global partnerships are valuable platforms for academic leapfrogging.

NUS has successfully developed a series of deep global partnerships spanning nearly two decades with major institutions such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Johns Hopkins University, Duke University and Yale University.

In the two most recent collaborations, the Duke-NUS Medical School developed the outstanding “TeamLEAD” (learn, engage, apply and develop) learning model; while the Yale-NUS College is pioneering a new form of liberal arts and science education for the future.

Moving forward, I believe that our strategies would need to be even more adaptive and anticipatory, given the quickening pace and unpredictability of change.

As an amateur painter, when I start a new painting, I often don’t have a fixed idea of the exact way it will look when finished. Instead, as one part of the painting is completed, it creates new possibilities that shape the way I will paint the next section, and eventually, how the completed work will appear.

In the same vein, for universities to excel and contribute in deeper and more enduring ways in the future, we need to increase our ability to adjust and reinvent, to both pioneer and lead while becoming increasingly relevant to the communities that we serve.

Tan Chorh Chuan
National University of Singapore

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