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Education, Singapore

Wanted: Local talent in varsities

The Straits Times | Monday, Apr 7, 2014

Students on NUS' U-Town campus. The issue of foreign faculty members outnumbering local ones at Singapore's universities was raised in Parliament last month. It sparked a discussion on whether the nationalities of faculty members matter, and whether there is a dearth of local dons.

SINGAPORE - Political science graduate Wee Shi Chen, 27, recalls being taught by a non-Singaporean whose accent was so thick the students only realised after several weeks that the lecturer's points on Mauritius had actually been on Malaysia.

The 2013 figures for the National University of Singapore's (NUS's) political science department, from which Mr Wee graduated, throw up this startling fact: 18 of its 25 faculty are foreign.

Only seven, or 28 per cent, are Singaporean.

One Member of Parliament found this so worrying he raised the issue during the recent Budget debate. Marine Parade GRC MP Seah Kian Peng highlighted the fact that fewer than half of the faculty in political science, communications and public policy - which he described as "some of the most important and context-sensitive fields of endeavour in any country" - are Singaporean.

In doing so, he shone a spotlight on a longstanding source of unhappiness among local academics. The high number of foreign colleagues has been such a sore point for some that they have aired their grievances to ministers, several said in interviews.

Last year, a small group of local academics had closed-door meetings with Law and Foreign Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam, Senior Minister of State for Education and Law Indranee Rajah and civil servants from the Education and Manpower ministries, sources said.

Ms Indranee had said in Parliament last May that she has heard the call, and that the Education Ministry (MOE) strongly supports and encourages such universities to get more Singaporeans on board for all their tracks.

But the universities have a large degree of autonomy in the way they recruit and in the way they structure, she added.

This was in reply to Nominated MP Eugene Tan, an associate professor of law at the Singapore Management University (SMU), who has raised the issue six times in Parliament since 2012.

He says: "The disproportionate presence and importance of foreign faculty members is a cause for concern."

Associate Professor Alan Chong from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies agrees. Prof Chong, who used to teach at NUS' political science department, says: "My impression is that many of the foreign faculty are here for the higher salaries and expatriate perks, relative to those in North America and Europe. They have no abiding interest in helping Singapore establish itself as a long-term hub for good social science research."

Besides the NUS political science department, locals are also the minority at the university's Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (38 out of 82 faculty) and at NTU's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (12 out of 29 faculty). And at NTU's Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information (WKWSCI), 21 of the 48 faculty are Singaporean.

All the figures were given by MOE in Parliament last May.

That raises the question of whether the current ratio of local to foreign faculty is worrisome in its impact on teaching and research in what Mr Seah has described as "context-sensitive" fields, within the local public universities.

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