Singapore has been rising in international university rankings, spurred by strong research and an international outlook. That comes down to a will to attract academics and students from overseas to its shores.
However, with growing local disquiet over immigration generally, the rising proportion of foreigners in the city-state – including academics – is becoming highly political. Some Singaporean academics are talking of an ‘imbalance’ being caused by hiring many international academics and researchers.
And some young Singaporean doctoral students and faculty members fear they are being passed over for academic jobs and promotions in favour of professors from abroad.
“Local faculty members do express concern about the huge number of foreign faculty members, because they do feel they are a minority. They seem pretty upset,” said Jack Chia, a PhD candidate in Southeast Asian history at Cornell University and co-author of a paper on the lack of local academics in Singapore’s universities.
The paper entitled “Where are my Country(wo)men?” published by the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies of Kyoto University in Japan in March, cited one Singaporean PhD student pursuing his degree in Singapore as saying: “Singaporean PhD graduates aren’t valued. I’d apply [for an academic post in Singapore] but chances of being shortlisted are bleak.”
Attention has been drawn to the issue in the past. Eugene Tan, a nominated member of parliament and an associate professor of law at Singapore Management University, posed questions in parliament last year on the proportion of foreign faculty hires.
Last March Seah Kian Peng, a member of parliament from the ruling party expressed “shock” at the number of foreign academics during a parliamentary budget debate.
“I agree that our universities need to be competitive and internationally well recognised,” he told parliament, and that in “universities, as in other professions, there needs to be open competition. But the percentages are surely astonishing – only a bit more than one quarter of the professors at the political science department in National University of Singapore are Singaporeans.
“In political science, communications and public policy, some of the most important and context-sensitive fields of endeavour in any country, less than half of the faculty are Singaporeans,” he said.
Asking the ministry of education for exact figures, he found that Singaporean faculty members were in a minority in some departments in the National University of Singapore, or NUS, and Nanyang Technological University, or NTU – the two main public universities.
The ministry said 28% of 25 faculty members of NUS’s political science department were Singaporean. At the university’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, 46% of the 82 faculty members were local citizens.
At Nanyang Technological University’s S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, 41% of the 29 faculty members were Singaporean. And at the university’s Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, 44% of the 48 faculty members were Singaporean.
Local academics have been complaining privately for some time, in particular suggesting that public funds should not be used to hire overseas staff, some of whom also receive ‘expat perks’ not available to local academics.
According to Singapore’s The Straits Times newspaper, a group of local academics last year held closed-door meetings with the Minister for Law and Minister for Foreign Affairs K Shanmugam, the Senior Minister of State for Education and Law Indranee Rajah and civil servants from the education and manpower ministries on the issue.
Carissa Kang, a Singaporean PhD candidate at Cornell University in the United States, carried out a small-scale survey on the academic prospects for Singaporean PhD students and found that 44% of respondents believed Singaporean universities had a preference for hiring foreign faculty members.
Some respondents believed that this had to do in part with an obsession with world university rankings and a desire to hire ‘big names’ to produce publications, win prestigious grants and be recognised internationally, Kang said.
Some Singaporean universities are so concerned about university rankings that they hire people who are already established. Respondents said they would rather “have people who boost their rankings than young Singaporean graduates”, Kang told University World News.
There may be a residual ‘inferiority complex’ at Singaporean universities, in the eyes of the respondents. “There is a perception that foreigners are a little bit better than us,” she said.
Survey responses also suggested that Singaporean universities did not put enough effort into hiring back Singaporeans studying abroad or in cultivating and retaining academics already working in Singapore, Kang found.
“The problem may not just be a preference for hiring foreign academics but also that Singaporean PhDs who are studying overseas don’t think of going back to Singapore. It’s not that these Singaporeans are not good, in fact they are studying at some of the best universities overseas, but that they are hired elsewhere before they can go back home,” according to Kang and Jack Chia whose paper was published in Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia.
“The problem might be a supply side issue – the number of Singaporean PhD students who want to apply for an academic job in Singapore is rather small to begin with,” Kang noted.
“The survey reveals that many Singaporean PhD students are pursuing their degrees in prestigious universities around the world and many Singaporean PhDs have done exceedingly well on the job market, and have received tenure-track job offers from leading research universities and liberal arts colleges.
“Therefore, it appears that Singaporean PhD graduates do have the choice of deciding where they want to work, live and raise a family.
“Oftentimes, a foreign faculty member is hired not because the university prefers foreigners, but simply because no Singaporean has the matching research interests to apply for the position in the first place.”
Kang added: “In some fields it is good to hire foreigners because in some universities in Singapore, as anywhere else, you can get ‘intellectual inbreeding’ and it is good to have new perspectives from outside.”