Asia rising: Chinese universities closing in on global leaders as landscape changes

SD: Under your stewardship, NTU rose to global prominence in about 10 years. What’s the secret behind this meteoric rise?

Andersson: It’s true it has been an incredible journey. Now I must be a little bit less modest because it’s probably the biggest rise of any university in the last 15 years while we had these rankings. Why is that?

I always say university is about people, that’s the most important. So we have recruited top professors from all over the world to come to NTU, like Caltech, Stanford and Imperial College London.

You could perhaps compare things with soccer teams like Manchester United or Chelsea. They take the best soccer players from around the world. We have used that with professors.

SD: What is their motivation to join you at NTU, which was previously not a famous university?

Andersson: I think it’s because Asia is rising. Many scientists around the world are impressed by the changing landscape in the world economy. And research, innovation and discovery have always followed economy.

Before World War II, Germany had the leading universities; after the war, it has been more Britain and America. Now we see a new era, the knowledge generation is moving east. That is the trend for the past few years. If you see among the top 100 universities today, 20 are from Asia. NTU is one of them, and at the moment is at the top (of the Asian contenders).

Many of these foreign talents chose Singapore for two reasons. It’s English, it’s East meets West, it’s easy to move there.

The second is that the Singaporean government has invested a lot in education and research. So it’s also attractive to get new laboratories, new equipment and so on for research. But it’s also because NTU has a strong management that made the decision to change the university, to take a very proactive philosophy of change. Many universities around the world do not do that.

The last thing I’d like to point out is that NTU today is very international. Everything is taught in English. Seventy percent of our professors are international, 80 percent of our students go abroad. When we work with industry, we work with international industry, not just Singaporean industry.

SD: What is your take on balanced development of research-intensive universities as a whole?

Andersson: NTU was basically engineering and business in the past; today we have a medical school, humanities, social science and an art school. It’s much broader-based now. We have worked very hard to enable interdisciplinary research.

Knowledge today is not necessarily within physics, biology or sociology; it’s interfaced. Therefore we have also created a lot of research institutes like in energy, water and medicine that go across disciplines.

That has also been a very important way to be at the forefront of knowledge.

Despite that we do very high levels of academic research, we also work with industry. We don’t make a difference between blue sky research and applied research. That has been very successful, it’s not either or, it’s both.

Mao Zedong once said “let a hundred flowers bloom” and this is also our philosophy. Although we have our priority areas, we also allow new projects to bubble up at the same time.

SD: Before joining NTU, you worked for various European academic institutions. What’s the biggest difference between running a European institution and an Asian one?

Andersson: Before I answer that question, one has to realize that Europe is heterogeneous. UK is different from Germany, Germany is different from Scandinavia. In Asia, if you go to (Republic of) Korea, Singapore and China, things are also different.

To give you an answer of sorts, a major difference is that there is a high acceptance of top-down solutions in Asia. The university management here may have more power and leeway of doing things. In Europe it’s more complicated. Every professor should agree to everything.

It’s really hard to do something new in Europe unless you have new money.

So this is one reason I came to Singapore. To some extent it makes your life easier. Things in Europe are sort of more stable in a sense.

I don’t say which is better. But of course it’s a fact today: Asian universities are moving on average faster than the others. Still, in the top 10, it’s the Ivy League universities. We are No. 11 and are challenging them.

Again, I say this with a caveat. There are big differences within the European context and within the Asian context.

SD: Many Chinese universities are aspiring to the coveted status of world-class universities and research powerhouses. Is there any advice you can offer?

Andersson: Patience.

One has to realize that top universities in the West have perhaps 100 years of building their reputation and research portfolios.

The Asian universities, with perhaps the exception of Japanese universities, are really new kids on the block.

So I feel that you probably have to start with a lot of volume and quality will come after that.

NTU has successfully started a lot of things. Singapore could also be seen as a role model. But I have no doubt that Beida and Tsinghua in particular will get up there in the coming five years. And the others will come.

Many times I get the question, when will China get a Nobel Prize. You actually got a Nobel Prize last year in Traditional Chinese Medicine.

But I have also got that question when I was in Israel. Israel didn’t get its first Nobel Prize in science until 2002. And that was 50 years after the nation was founded.

You could say Nobel Prize is the top of the heap. Despite that Israel has a very strong educational, research and innovative tradition, it took 50 years.

I also said to the Israelis, you need to have patience. You have to work steadily on the goals and have patience. It’s hard to get shortcuts to excellence.

SD: Singapore is a country steeped in the almost “religious” belief in meritocracy. How is this reflected in your vision about education?

Andersson: I come from Sweden.

When I started to interact with the Singaporean ministers, I felt the Singaporean politicians were very skillful and knew facts down to the details.

I was very impressed by that, including in education and research. That was very stimulating.

And I also remember that education is very fundamental in Singapore. Everyone wants to have the best education, to go to university. So it’s a very strongly education-oriented society. You can call it a meritocracy if you want.

And I also have the feelings that the Singaporean government so far at least has walked the talk. In Europe, every politician says we are going to invest in this and this, but it is more lip service with very little material.

As a Swede in Singapore I believe that the “meritocratic religion” is being real, so to speak.

SD: Home to leading universities in the nation, Shanghai has been a hothouse of on-campus innovation. How would you advise would-be student entrepreneurs?

Andersson: Shanghai is fantastic and is a big attraction.

And I think they (students and other on-campus entrepreneurs) have to work even more closely with industry, that universities have to progress even more in the spirit that I said before.

Maybe recruit more international top talent, use English more as a working language, give more space, be more daring, be less prescribed. Again, it’s “let a hundred flowers bloom.” Silicon Valley has been a driver of a lot of technological developments that have changed the world. This has been achieved very much without governmental influences. It’s just that many clever people get together and do clever things.

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