Singapore has powerfully transformed itself from an impoverished colonial outpost to a country of higher per capita gross domestic product compared to the US. Similarly, its academic research is greatly improving. But despite all this success, education is lagging behind proving to be a matter of great concern.
Bertil Andersson, president of Nanyang Technological University, says that Singapore's two strongest research universities have leapt from the "Fourth Division to the Champions League" over the past decade with Nanyang being one of them. Singapore became the first Asian nation to break into the top 10 of the Universitas 21 ranking, which assess countries' academies on the basis of their investment, gender balance, international connectivity and research output, in May 2013. According to the Times Higher Education World University ranking, Nanyang has risen from 169th to 76th in 2013-14 within two years. The National University of Singapore, which is Nanyang's main rival rose from 40th to 26th over the same period. Sadly, for other wealthy cities such as Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Qatar, which have invested huge sums in luring prestigious Western universities to their shores, have conspicuously failed to make the same impact on the global research stage.
According to David Matthews of Times Higher Education, there are a number of serious concerns about Singapore's higher education system despite the outwardly gleaming success of its universities. These include limits on academic freedom, the challenges posed by the lack of land in the tiny island state, and a rising popular feeling that "Singapore is for Singaporeans", a stance that is making some foreign universities feel unwelcome.
Singapore has almost no natural resources but still boasts one of the world's busiest ports. And for this reason, investment in education is an imperative not a choice according to Lim Chuan Poh, chairman of the country's Agency for Science, Technology and Research and former permanent secretary of the Ministry of Education.
"People are our only resource," Chuan explains – a fact that has concentrated minds in the Singaporean government on the importance of education.
Some might imagine it would be easy for such a wealthy state to spend its way to world-class universities but this is not the case. Singapore spends only 2.8% of its GDP on education, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found in 2010, compared with an average of 5.2% across the body's member countries. The system is therefore run on a "lean basis" as Chuan explains. Competition for funding is encouraged between the two leading universities. He compares this to the UK – which he sees as having a "very sensible" system that distributes funding competitively. Chuan also says that Singapore has tried to create "sharp peaks of excellence" within the institutions and since 2007 has established five research centers of excellence in the National University and Nanyang studying areas ranging from quantum technologies to earthquakes.
However, Singapore unarguably has thrown a huge amount of money at its universities' research capabilities despite the "lean basis". Since 1991, it has rolled out five five-year plans to improve science, technology and innovation. The first was worth S$2 billion; the second, in 1996, provided S$4 billion; the third, started in 2001, was worth S$6 billion; the fourth, begun in 2006, was worth S$13.9 billion; while the current 2011-15 plan is worth S$16.1 billion (around £8 billion). Much of this has gone into attracting international scholars and at Nanyang, academics from other countries far outnumber local staff. According to Tan Chorh Chuan, president of the National University, it is not just money that has bred success but also the fact that English is the official language in Singapore.
The government explicitly plans Singapore's education system to serve the needs of the economy in a way that would be unthinkable in the UK. One current concern for policymakers is that the city state's graduates too often get stuck in the middle ranks of multinational corporations because they are seen or are stereotyped as hardworking yet lacking in creativity.
"You will not find many Singaporeans in top-level international positions," says Arnoud De Meyer, president of the Singapore Management University, an institution founded in 2000 in part to address this problem. "Our ambition is to be successful in business, management and government."
He predicts that within five to 10 years, the institution's alumni "will start to reach chief executive positions".