Could this be Asia’s first world top 10 university?

If Asian universities are going to break into the world’s top 10, at least according to the new QS World University Rankings 2018, the most likely candidate is Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, or NTU Singapore.

NTU Singapore achieved 11th place in the new rankings published on 8 June, up two places from last year, the highest place ever achieved by an Asian university in the QS – Quacquarelli Symonds – rankings.

Its achievement is made more remarkable for its young age. Established in 1991, NTU Singapore has topped the QS Top 50 Under 50 ranking – for the world’s best universities under 50 years old – for the past three years running, an unprecedented performance.

NTU Singapore’s rise in the QS rankings has been rapid, jumping 63 places since 2010, and climbing 26 places in 2015 to 13th, a position held last year, before edging to the brink of the top 10 this year.

Judging any university by one rankings position comes with a health warning, of course, because different rankings use different methodologies and even change their own over time.

In the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2017, released last September, NTU Singapore ranked 54th, behind six other Asian universities – the National University of Singapore (24th), Peking University (29th), Tsinghua University (35th), Tokyo University (39th), the University of Hong Kong (tie 43rd), and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (49th).

In last year’s Academic Ranking of World Universities 2016 – the Shanghai ranking – NTU Singapore failed to make the top 100.

According to Richard Holmes, editor of the University Ranking Watch blog, one factor in its rise may be a change in QS’s methodology.

“We have to take a look at the separate indicators,” he told University World News.

If you compare NTU Singapore's scores in the QS rankings for 2014-15 with those for 2017-18, they are very similar for most indicators but with one exception, he says. Between 2014-15 and 2017-18 NTU's score for citations per faculty rose dramatically from 42.6 to 83.3.

“This was not because NTU Singapore was publishing more or being cited more but because QS introduced subject normalisation in 2015 and this hurt universities strong in medicine (NTU has only had a medical school since 2013) and favoured those strong in engineering and technology such as NTU.

He says: “You could say that NTU is one of the top three or five Asian universities, maybe even the top, for research in engineering and technology but for everything else it isn't even the leading university in Singapore.

“For subject groups QS puts the National University of Singapore ahead of NTU for every other subject. I don't think you can say it is the leading university in Asia when its range of expertise is so narrow.”

Mindset of change

Nevertheless, NTU President Professor Bertil Andersson – winner of the 2010 Wilhelm Exner Medal – points to the 11th spot in the QS World University Rankings being the highest position any young university has attained in those rankings and this has been achieved with a “mindset of change”.

He said last week that the institution has been “in hyper drive – ramping up research, designing innovative academic and research programmes and building new facilities” in a short space of time.

Set in a lush campus, named one of the top 15 most beautiful in the world, the university is home to about 33,000 students as well as 5,000 faculty and researchers. In addition, NTU has a campus in Novena, Singapore’s medical district.

The iconic architecture of its main campus reflects both its green ambitions and its commitment to innovation.

The School of Art, Design and Media, for instance, is housed under dramatic sloping green rooves that range from two to five stories in height curving around a tranquil courtyard with fountains and a pond.

And the university’s Learning Hub South – known as the ‘the Hive’ – with rooftop gardens above eccentric concrete towers, with a tiered interior enveloping an atrium, and an innovative passive displacement ventilation system saving energy on air conditioning – has been described as a master class in green architecture.

Institution in ‘hyper drive’

Andersson says NTU’s rise in the rankings has been fuelled by its success in attracting “top faculty, promising, upcoming investigators and the brightest students”.

He said: “Today, young and upcoming scientists make up 8% of our faculty but they account for almost 40% of NTU’s citations in top research journals. The future looks very positive for NTU.”

In this latest QS ranking, NTU’s international faculty continued to rank 19th worldwide, while its academic reputation improved by three positions to 50th, and citations per faculty by seven places to 57th. NTU made its biggest improvement in employer reputation, rising 10 places to rank 38th internationally.

Ben Sowter, research director at QS, said NTU’s ascendency is a testament to a “concentrated, selective funding model, strong and consistent leadership, sticking with an ambitious tactical plan and a radical approach to international partnerships and collaboration”.

The university has 400 academic and research partnerships with institutions across the world. The latest, announced in recent weeks, include tie-ups with the Smart City World Labs, a Danish consortium, Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, and Canada’s University of British Columbia.

Andersson said Singapore is a country that firmly believes in the importance of education and research, and investing in it. The government’s move to corporatise the university in 2006 allowed it the flexibility to chart its own strategic directions as an autonomous university.

Today, NTU Singapore leads Asia’s top universities in normalised citation impact in research, according to data by Clarivate Analytics’ InCites and is also ranked fourth worldwide in engineering and technology by QS.

Strong reputation for innovation

Boasting one of the world’s largest engineering colleges, the university has built up a strong reputation for innovation in its short 26-year history, and strong industry ties. In the past five years, NTU Singapore has established joint labs on its sprawling 200-hectare campus with leading international players such as Rolls Royce, BMW, Johnson Matthey, Lockheed Martin and Singapore’s ST Engineering.

The university has some of the world’s first self-driving vehicles already navigating the campus. It has made frequent forays into space, with seven of its satellites orbiting earth, the most recent satellite launched from the International Space Station in January this year.

In another first, NTU scientists announced recently the development of new solar cells made from the ‘wonder material’ Perovskite that could potentially transform the renewable energy industry.

One of its students summited Everest last month, the first from a Singaporean team to reach the peak since 2009.

In addition, NTU boasts of having strengths across subjects – in engineering, science, business, education, humanities, arts and social sciences.

The Nanyang Business School is regularly featured among the leading business schools in Asia, with its MBA programme consistently rated top in Singapore since 2004 by The Economist.

As the sole teacher training institute in Singapore, all of the nation’s leading teachers are educated at NTU, in a country that has become one of the leading performers in international comparative tests in school-level education.

Commitment to studying abroad

One of its strengths is its commitment to study abroad, with a goal of ensuring 80% of students have at least one overseas study experience as an undergraduate, whether it involves an exchange, internship, field trip or summer school.

Its flagship Renaissance Engineering Programme includes one year of studies at the University of California, Berkeley, Northwestern University, Imperial College London or the University of British Columbia, and internships in Silicon Valley and other parts of the United States and Europe.

In 2010 it set up a joint medical school with Imperial College London to alleviate Singapore’s shortage of doctors. NTU’s first batch of medical students will graduate next year.