ASIA: How to soar up the world university rankings

Bertil Andersson (pictured), president of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, is one of several non-Singaporean university leaders in the city-state. YOJANA SHARMA spoke to him as he headed for the QS-APPLE conference in Manila, on Singapore's attractions as a higher education hub, its willingness to import the best from the West, and whether Asian institutions might eventually overtake the West.

UWN: Why did you move from Europe to Singapore?

Andersson: I had been head of the European Science Foundation in Strasbourg and first came here as provost of Nanyang Technological University (NTU). At the time the media asked why I was leaving a prestigious job in Europe. My answer was: maybe in Europe we talk too much, in Singapore they act.

Now I've been here in Singapore almost five years and that statement to a journalist, which then was partly a joke, I now believe is actually true. It's fantastically rewarding to work in the Singapore higher education system because it is doing a quantum leap. If you have ambition to do good academic research and education, you can do it here in Singapore. Unfortunately we cannot do as much in Europe.

UWN: Singapore sees building up its higher education system as a national mission. How do you fit into that mission if you are not Singaporean or even from Asia?

Andersson: Singapore is open for people coming here from all around the world, from other parts of Asia, from Europe and the United States, to contribute to building the knowledge society here. And Singapore is a small country - five million people - but it has such a huge ambition.

We know that building academia in the UK, in Sweden or the United States, has been done over hundreds of years in a very systematic and slow way. But Singapore wants to do this very fast and the pace of change is very impressive.

I lived in many countries before coming to Singapore: Sweden, UK, France, Australia, Israel, and it has never has it been so easy as to come and work here because the country is so open to international inputs and the culture is very global. We talk a lot about being international but here in Singapore we really feel that this is a global hub.

UWN: You are one of the keynote speakers at the QS-APPLE conference in Manila. What's the message you want to get across?

Andersson: I want to say how fast NTU been able to change in the last five years. Five years ago NTU was not a research-intensive university. Today it is very high ranking in the QS rankings and we made a very big leap this year into 58th position, and we have been emulated by others with evaluation teams coming and saying NTU must be one of the fastest developing universities in the world.

What I want to do in Manila is give a picture of how this happened, what have we done in a very systematic way: how we've been able to get a lot of money from the Singapore government, how we have invested that in very interesting research areas, how we've been able to recruit really top-notch scientists from all over the world, how we've been strategising, how we are setting up a new medical school, how we are changing the education for our students, how we work with industry.

But I also want to say: are the international university rankings systems really fit for these fast-moving universities? I feel the rankings are very much aligned to the established universities.

UWN: What does it take to move as fast as NTU?

Andersson: You must have governmental support and I think you need determination. I always say you have to walk the talk and change really means change.

Even as provost before I became president, and the previous president running NTU, we were determined to change NTU. We knew we had to be a university for the coming century, and not for the past century. And so we have really looked under every stone at the university and said, 'how can we modernise this, how can we change that'?

This is what we have been doing and many people who come here are amazed that we could do so much in a short time. But I think if you are determined, and you have the resources, you can do it fast.

It is also very encouraging. If you look at Europe you would say academics are so slow, they can never change. On the other hand, we have shown that academia can move fast, it's not only the private sector that can move fast. The public sector and universities can also move fast, so I'm quite proud about that.

UWN: Was there a model you could follow in this modernisation?

Andersson: I don't think we have followed any special university. What partly we have done is we have introduced the best international practice. I have been shopping from the best universities in the UK, the best universities in the US, and also from my Swedish and European experiences. I had experience from all around the world so I had the opportunity to make a synthesis of this and take the best from each system.

UWN: If you bringing in so much talent from the West, are countries like Singapore following something that they can't do better? Is there a major indigenous strength that is not copied from the West?

Andersson: It has to do with culture. In Sweden we say we should do it our way, we know best. But in Singapore they don't say we know best, but what they do is take good examples from everywhere and learn from that and then move fast. That I think is the strength of the system. Not only copying but being inspired by others and then remolding.

I'm looking at Malaysia through the window, it's very close [to Singapore]. Malaysia and other countries in the region have not come that far in terms of economy and development as Singapore. But many of these countries, like Malaysia and Vietnam, are doing quite well at the moment and I think that actually they are inspired by Singapore.

I've also been invited to give talks in India because many politicians and academics in India are quite inspired by the progress of NTU and they say: 'Look, here is an Asian university that can move very fast, we also want to move fast and learn from these Asian universities in Singapore how to move fast'. I get many invitations to give such talks. I can't accept all of them but this is a trend.

UWN: How can Singapore's education system become great when it is such a small system, compared to much larger countries like China and India?

Andersson: More Singaporeans need to do higher education and go into research, but Singapore is open to recruit top talent that is willing to work here. One should never confuse the issue, that small countries cannot make an impact.

The Financial Times recently had a ranking of the three smartest economies in the world. Number one is Switzerland, number two is Singapore and number three is Sweden. These are all countries (with a population) below 10 million. We can make a much bigger impact. Finland may be another country in that category. So we see that small, smart countries can have an impact far bigger than their size.

UWN: Will ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) harmonisation lead to a movement of Asia's talent to Singapore?

Andersson: That has already started. We used to have from the UK a brain drain to the US. But I can see already today how this is changing. We have been looking at a bipartite movement of brains to the US. But what we are seeing today is a tripartite movement or brain circulation between the US, Europe and Asia.

One of the success stories for NTU and Singapore as a whole is how we have been able to attract a lot of top researchers from all over the world. When I talk about this at home [in Sweden] they tend to think it's the guys who did not make it in Europe, who did not get tenure, and who cannot do anything else so they go to Singapore. That's absolutely wrong, it's the crème de la crème that comes to Singapore because they see the opportunities.

Maybe scientists who are very ambitious, maybe they went to Europe and the US in the 1970s and 1980s. Today people with the same mindset are going to Singapore and Hong Kong. Instead of moving west, they are moving east.

The same with students, so many students want to come to NTU and many governments want to send their students to Singapore because they realise that the future will be Asia-dominant. Many leaders want to send their university students who are going to be the leaders of tomorrow so that from an early age they can build an Asia network like my generation went to the US to create a US network.

UWN: With such rapid change, will we soon see Asian universities overtake Western universities in research?

Andersson: It's only a matter of time. Asia has only been on the research map for 10, maybe 15 years, with the exception of Japan. If you build a Google or Microsoft company it can go very fast in the business world. In the academic world things happen much more slowly and it's an evolution rather than revolution.

That's what I'm saying about NTU. We have jumped up to place 55 in the rankings in just five years and that's an enormous achievement. I would predict in 10 to 15 years we will see several Asian universities in the top 20 ranks. I hope NTU will be one of them.

* Q&As are edited for length and clarity.

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