The boy who knew too much: a child prodigy

This is the true story of scientific child prodigy, and former baby genius, Ainan Celeste Cawley, written by his father. It is the true story, too, of his gifted brothers and of all the Cawley family. I write also of child prodigy and genius in general: what it is, and how it is so often neglected in the modern world. As a society, we so often fail those we should most hope to see succeed: our gifted children and the gifted adults they become. Site Copyright: Valentine Cawley, 2006 +

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The NUS Asian University ranking.

NUS has placed 10th among Asian universities in the latest ranking survey by QS (Quacquarelli Symonds), the company which provides the annual Times Higher Education - QS World University Rankings.

Local academics are unhappy about this, especially considering that the same company gave NUS a 4th place ranking in Asia, last year. NUS President Tan Chorh Chuan even said that the University was still trying to understand how their placement had come about.

For my part, there is no mystery to this at all. The answer lies in the change that has been made in the way the rankings are done. Up until last year, there was a "citations per faculty" category, in which NUS did well. A citation is when an academic makes an official reference to a paper written by another, in writing his/her own paper. It is a means of giving credit for work used or commented on. This year, however, this "citations per faculty" category has been broken down into two separate categories: "papers per faculty" and "citations per paper". Under this new schema, NUS received a perfect score for "papers per faculty"...however, and this is critical, it did NOT receive a good score for "citations per paper".

Now this is a very telling and quite damaging observation being made by QS. "Citations per paper" is a direct measurement of the quality and significance of a paper. If a paper makes a significant contribution or has a useful or interesting idea in it, it will be cited often. If, however, a paper is a largely a waste of, well, paper, it will either not be cited at all, or be cited rarely. That NUS fell down on "citations per paper" tells us one awkward fact about NUS - they may be producing a lot of papers, but the quality is just not there: many of their papers are of indifferent quality compared to that produced in the rest of Asia. Were that not so, they would not have secured a poor ranking in this intra-Asian comparison, in the area of "citations per paper".

It seems that NUS have not understood the idea of "quality over quantity". It is all very well flooding the world with large numbers of papers, but if those papers are not actually very good, there isn't much point to it.

NUS has fallen in the Asian rankings for a very clear reason: a measure of the quality of papers written has been introduced and, in this respect, NUS is not strong.

Rather than pretending to be amazed or puzzled by this assessment by QS, NUS should learn from what they are being told. They really need to work not on the quantity of research output but on making sure that the research was worth doing in the first place, and was well done, when done. Quality papers are what make the academic world sit up and take notice: not a deluge of mediocre ones.

There is no mileage in casting doubt on QS' methods or intentions - for they have previously ranked NUS highly. What has happened this time, is that QS have REFINED their measurements. This new survey, far from being, as local academics portray it, misleading or misconceived, is, in fact, likely to be a much more accurate picture of the true standing of NUS in the academic world. This is clear because the only substantial change in the way of measuring, is to introduce research quality into the picture. Previously, NUS had been rewarded for sheer quantity.

If NUS wants to be a truly world-beating University, it needs to start producing seminal work - work that changes the world. QS' ranking states quite clearly that that is not what NUS is presently doing - were it so, NUS would have shone not in the number of papers, but in their citations.

The funny thing is, I know how much Singaporeans love competitions and ranking tables. Now, that the means of ranking has changed, perhaps Singapore's Universities will change the way they go about their work, purely to get a better ranking. I wouldn't be surprised to see a creeping up of quality, simply out of sheer competitiveness.

We shall see.

(If you would like to learn more of Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, aged eight years and seven months, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, five years exactly, and Tiarnan, twenty-eight months, please go to: I also write of gifted education, IQ, intelligence, the Irish, the Malays, Singapore, College, University, Chemistry, Science, genetics, left-handedness, precocity, child prodigy, child genius, baby genius, adult genius, savant, wunderkind, wonderkind, genio, гений ребенок prodigy, genie, μεγαλοφυία θαύμα παιδιών, bambino, kind.

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 10:51 PM 


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can't really blame the profs simply becoz they have less time on their hands due to the higher student:teacher ratio compared to western unis, where the class is smaller and hence less time is needed for teaching.

When i checked with my friends in some uk unis, this becomes very evident, with few having(if any) extra classes- while here, it is not uncommon, with some classes/exams held on weekends becoz of lack of time on weekdays.

I think the real problem here is how to manage between teaching students and doing their research. A good uni- for whom? The opportunity cost of teaching under-grads is the time that could have been spent on research. Unless of course the uni has a lower student:teacher ratio, then of course both can be more or less achieved. But that involves hiring more profs, but unfortunately, with the larger % increase in the student population(dragon babies), this ratio will likely worsen(at least for this incoming dragon batch)

For an undergrad myself, this ranking is of little use, since all the unis in singapore are, to my friends and i, more or less equal(except for certain courses). Furthermore, as undergrads, we don't really care about citations and such... we are really more concerned about how good the teaching is...
And employers are generally indifferent when it comes to choosing between grads of the 3 local unis.

yep... but i hope the student learning isnt sacrificed when nus decides to improve on the ranking...

8:00 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Yes, juggling different job responsibilities can be a difficult matter. However, I think this problem is a result of what research they are choosing to do. Having spoken to a local head of department in a University, it was clear that their focus was very short term. This tends to produce research of limited impact.

Thank you for your comment.

10:36 AM  
Blogger AcidFlask said...

I wrote about this years ago. It's unfortunate that little has changed since.

1:02 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I was unaware of your writings, Acidflask. It is a shame, indeed, that nothing has changed since then.

This piece of news is good news, however, since it might shame them into making a difference.

8:23 PM  
Anonymous Joe said...

If they do a long term calculation for this ranking and find that they will not be able to make it to the top few for the next few years. They will stop highlighting it again.

They will say that their success is measured in their own way, just like those international rankings that did not paint a good picture of our esteemed government. They just ignored them.

For example, our international media freedom ranking is quite low and they just it slide from the national media.

Hear the good stuff, just like the radio ad.

8:58 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

You are probably right, Joe. I expect to hear relatively little about this ranking in future...or perhaps to hear further attacks on it!

A mature response to this survey, of course, would be to learn from it and review how they are assigning research projects and selecting work to be done. Perhaps they can start to work on more significant things than the short term projects they tend to be involved in.

Thanks for your comment.

9:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The problem is that every year, each prof is supposed to come up with a certain no. of papers... so all papers will inherently be short term...since most meaningful papers/research take a much longer time than that

10:52 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Re. Paper quota.

That sounds like a really silly policy. Research is not like making can't be made to order and number, as required. Any attempt to make research to order is going to result in the production of CR**.

A better policy, if NUS wants to be other than a superficial university with shallow achievements, is to support the research of its staff, no matter how far ranging, rarified or unlikely it might seem to be. Then they would do interesting things.

Thanks for your perspective.

12:39 PM  

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