Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Universities - a stressful environment? Increasingly so...

After the recent tragic stabbing - suicide incident at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU), schools and universities have come out with a flurry of reassuring statements, highlighting the extent to which they have been equipped to deal with student stress etc. The NTU's support services kicked it commendably as soon as they were aware of the tragedy. But NTU President Su Guan Ning pointed out in TODAY, that "We need to reach out a bit more, because sometimes (students) don't reach out at all." Quite obviously.

My take on this is that many of such services are largely cosmetic and are good only after the fact. They are really important as in this case, after the incident and when staff and students, plus their families need support. Unfortunately though, they are pretty useless as a preventive measure. Few students will spontaneously approach a counselling centre, or a counsellor to seek help. Worse, if it is to do with problems associated with their course, or the university itself. But there isn't much anyone can do to induce troubled students to come forward to seek help.

Universities have become simmering cauldrons of unresolved stresses. And it is getting worse. The student intake has screamed upwards to stretch current university resources. Coupled to this is the universities' relentless push towards academic excellence. High grade expectations, high rankings, high impact publications...all contribute to the pressure cooker environment that the students are placed in.

Underpinning this deteriorating situation is the universities' diversion of much needed student educational resources towards meeting its research/academic agenda. (I understand only a fraction of the education subsidy and student fees go to educational needs ... a significant portion go to high salaries of researchers and research infrastrcture). No one wants to admit this but it seems to be a formenting problem in the universities. Staff are recruited primarily to meet research missions (not teaching). Many high performing new staff have no interest in teaching, and are often 'excused' from teaching because of their research track record.

A final year NTU student I encountered volunteered that she has to complete an FYP (final year project) to graduate well. She was allocated a staff to supervise the project but her repeated attempts to meet the supervisor had been rebuffed or ignored. Time is running out for her, and now fraught with anxiety, she is forced to undertake the project without supervision. Woe betide her should her 'absent' supervisor fail her project. But what can she do?

Unless the universities become accountable to the public for the proper use of educational budget, to meet proper educational needs (not the public relations ranking nonsense....not the high visbility research nonsense), this problem will not go away, and will predictably, just get worse.


Anonymous said...

Very well said, you have hit the nail on its head with the accurate depiction of what is driving the universities and what is sorely neglected in the rat race to achieve world class ranking by the universities.

The public is woefully ill-informed on how the striving of excellence in Singapore universities has very little to do with ensuring high quality of education. In fact, the two are pretty independent matters. It has every bit to do with the search for glory and world-class ranking to fulfill the ego and also to advance the career of the very few people at the top.

When university raises school fees, they go towards hiring of high profile researchers and no attention is paid on how students could benefit from such hiring and whether the person can teach adequately or his willingness to do so.

I write this based on personal experience as an academician in a local university.

gigamole said...

Thanks so much for your comments. All I can say is you're not alone because many people have expressed the same sentiments. It is somewhat tragic that the powers that be appear to be so blinded to this sad reality because of this headlong rush towards their moment of glory.

What I have noticed is also that it is not just the commitment to teaching that is being degraded, but the staff's commitment to being a teacher. Once the student was the raison d'etre of the school,now the student is a necessary evil,an obstacle almost, to the school's mad rush to fame.

It is a telling sign of the times when students prefer to be posted to TTSH instead of NUH because at least there some remnant of the old teaching ethos remain.

Anonymous said...

I have to concur with Anonymous...even at a lower tertiary level, the reality of ego related research exists.

Working a lecturer in a local polytechnic, I have to say the same issues which plague the local universities also exist at polytechnics. As a previous industry practitioner before making a career switch, I was stunned at the lack of focus on quality education.

Despite constant feedback from academic staff that there should be more student-lecturer interaction time, the only constant response is for us to focus on research projects which may not yield much discovery at any level.

I truly believe students are receiving the losing end of this no-win bargain.

gigamole said...

hmmm....yeah...I know. The problem is actually quite pervasive. I am actually quite saddened by this development in Singapore education, as I am sure many people like the both of you are.

The MOE can of course crank out all those numbers about how far we have advanced, how well regarded our educational system is...etc etc. But people on the ground know deep in their hearts that these metrics are largely cosmetic, and that the educational system at the poly/uni level especially is rapidly being degraded. TIncreasingly, these educational institutions see their future mainly as research institutes/centres.

I guess students fees are justified on the basis that they should be prepared to pay for the privilege to be in the company of these research luminaries.

BTW, in case you didn't notice, this humble post has been cited by the Straits Times today. Small recognition I suppose, that these sentiments are striking a chord somewhere.