Speeches

FY 2010 Committee of Supply Debate: 3rd Reply by Senior Minister of State S Iswaran on Providing More Opportunities in Tertiary Sector, Raising Quality of Private Education Sector and Strengthening Language Skills

(I) More Opportunities for All in the Tertiary Sector

Thank you Mr. Chairman. I would like to thank Members for their comments and questions on the topics of tertiary education, private education, and English Language, which I will address. Allow me to first address Members’ specific queries on tertiary education.

New Upgrading Opportunities for Polytechnic Students

Mr. Christopher De Souza and Dr. Amy Khor asked about new upgrading opportunities for our polytechnic students. Today, about 40% to 50% of our polytechnic graduates upgrade to degrees within five years of graduation. The Singapore Institute of Technology, or SIT, was therefore established to augment the quality pathways that our polytechnic graduates can pursue to obtain good, industry-relevant degrees in Singapore. At SIT, polytechnic graduates will be able to leverage on their applied education and work experience to obtain a university degree in about two years.

SIT will cater to growth areas in our economy which offer good job opportunities, such as engineering, applied sciences, digital media and design, allied healthcare, and hospitality.

As pointed out by Mr Inderjit Singh, SIT will certainly bring about greater diversity in our higher education sector, and give our students more choice. The five initial overseas university partners of SIT have been very carefully selected, precisely because of their high international academic standing, and equally, their strong commitment to providing quality education. The degrees will be conferred in the name of the overseas universities and will be equivalent to those awarded in their home countries.

SIT will adopt a “decentralized campus” with premises in the 5 polytechnics. It will have new dedicated spaces in each polytechnic, which will help in the development of an esprit de corps and identity of the students. At the same time it will leverage on the resources of the polytechnics in areas where there are synergies, for instance, by sharing engineering laboratories.

We envisage SIT will cater primarily to Singaporeans. Students enrolled in SIT will be subsidised—as you already know—by the Government and will typically pay fees of around $9,000 per year for a 2-year programme, although this may vary across programmes. This sum is significantly lower than the cost of studying at the home campuses of these overseas universities, or for that matter, in equivalent private programmes established in Singapore of a comparable quality, and the sum is also competitive vis a vis our local autonomous universities in Singapore. Local SIT students will be eligible for all existing government financial assistance schemes. In addition, students can complete their degrees in a shorter time. Why? Because they build on the strong foundation of our polytechnic diplomas. And this is a key point—it is not a compromise on standards, but to leverage on the quality of our polytechnic education, which SIT will build on.

Upgrading Opportunities for ITE students

Next, let me move on to the area of technical education. Mr. De Souza has rightly noted that the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) has evolved into an internationally-recognised post-secondary education institution over the years.

Indeed, ITE’s success is reflected not only in positive feedback from employers, but also in the international accolades its students and graduates have garnered. For example, at the recent WorldSkills Competition, dubbed the “Olympics of Skills,” held in Canada last year, ITE graduates and students distinguished themselves among a pool of 900 talented youths from over 50 countries in a variety of skills areas.

A team of ITE Nursing graduates, Adeline Mah and Carolyn Choo, outshone their peers from European countries to attain a Gold Medal for their outstanding performance in patient care. Adeline said that the experience boosted her confidence tremendously, and she saw it as both an excellent learning platform and practical showcase.

Yew Rui Qi, and alumnus, Chua Ka Wen, attained Medallions for Excellence for achieving high scores in Restaurant Service and Beauty Therapy respectively. Ka Wen is currently a Teaching Associate at ITE and is also on a Teaching Associate Study Award, pursuing a degree in Beauty Therapy in the University of The Arts, London.

At the regional level, ITE students Muhammad Hamdany Bin Abu Hassan and Leow Ying Jie achieved the Gold and Best of Nation Medals in the Mechatronics Team Event at the 2008 ASEANskills competition. Muhammad Hamdany said that participation in the competition gave him a deeper appreciation for Mechatronics, and confidence to further his studies at the polytechnic level.

More ITE graduates are doing well and progressing to study at the polytechnics, from 12% in 1995 to about 19% currently. Mr De Souza would be pleased to note that MOE is working with the polytechnics and ITE to increase the progression rate of our ITE graduates in the coming years.

Furthermore, ITE recently launched Technical Diplomas in collaboration with quality foreign institutions to provide an upgrading pathway for students in niche, skills-based programmes not offered by the polytechnics. One example is the Technical Engineer Diploma in Automotive Engineering offered by ITE in partnership with the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports of Baden-W├╝rttemberg, Germany. Graduates from these diploma programmes can also seek admission into affiliated degree programmes offered by the foreign institutions.

Polytechnic Expansion

Our polytechnics and ITE will continue to provide industry-relevant education and skills training on a full- and part-time basis. They remain the bedrock of our education system, and play a key role in enabling our workforce to upgrade their qualifications, gain a foundation in new skill areas, and boost their productivity.

There is a growing demand for education at our polytechnics today. It stems not just from our ‘O’ level and ITE students who are performing better in examinations, but also from a rising number of JC-eligible students who opt for polytechnics in response to the wide choice of courses on offer. This is testament to the strength of our polytechnic education, which has consistently provided a high quality, industry-relevant and practice-oriented education.

Dr. Khor asked if there were plans to increase the number of polytechnic places to respond to the growing demand. As Minister Ng has mentioned already, MOE has decided to invest up to 1 billion dollars to create a 20% increase in capacity in the five polytechnics in phases over the next four years. For 2010, MOE will increase the number of polytechnic places to 25,900.

Places to Train Medical Doctors, Nurses and Allied Healthcare Professionals

Dr. Khor and Dr. Paulin Tay-Straughan asked if we are planning to open up more places to train medical doctors, nurses and allied health care professionals. Mr Chairman, our investment in medical talent is and should be informed by Singapore’s health-care needs, and this is determined by the Ministry of Health, including parameters like doctor-patient ratios. Therefore, in consultation with the Ministry of Health, MOE plans to gradually increase the annual intake of the NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, from 250 in academic year 2007, to 300 in 2012. The Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School admits 50 students a year. We are also studying the possibility of establishing a third medical school in NTU, as Dr Straughan mentioned, and will provide updates when ready.

For Nursing and Allied Health, our tertiary education institutions have also been working closely with MOH to increase their intakes in recent years. Now, over 80 places are available in NUS’ nursing degree programme each year, while Ngee Ann Polytechnic and Nanyang Polytechnic together offer over 1,000 places in their Nursing diplomas. Nanyang Polytechnic also offers over 200 places in their allied health diploma programmes. In addition, I am pleased to share with members that SIT is working to bring on board an overseas university partner to establish degree-level programmes in allied healthcare, possibly by next year. So this will be a further augmentation of that space.

Job Opportunities for the Future

Miss Sylvia Lim asked if the university cohort participation rate will be increased beyond our target of 30%. Mr. De Souza also asked whether MOE would increase the number of SIT places after 2015. Quite interestingly, Mr. Lim Biow Chuan then made the point that we must have enough job opportunities for our students. Therein lies the tension: we want to be measured by the way we expand university places, which must be carried out in a manner that does not compromise the quality of education received by our students. The qualifications we offer also have to be valued and recognised by the market. Each year, MOE works closely with the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) and the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) in planning for places in our post-secondary institutions. This is to ensure that our graduates continue to have market-relevant qualifications, as Mr. Lim Biow Chuan pointed out.

Ms Sylvia Lim made the point about OECD countries admitting up to 37% of each cohort into their universities, and compared this with our own participation rate, the objective of which was to see whether we could do more. It is not about mere numbers here—we have to see what is substantive behind these numbers. In many parts of the world, our polytechnic education is considered of equal rigour as that offered by some universities. So I want to make sure we are measured in the ways we expand university places. This is not about chasing a notional target, but about evolving policy in tandem with the needs of our economy.

In addition, our institutions regularly update their existing courses and mount new ones in consultation with industry players. Some examples of such new courses include Aerospace Engineering and Sustainable Urban Design. Our polytechnics and ITE do take this very seriously, to respond to Mr. Lim Biow Chuan, and there are industry representatives on all their boards and advisory panels. These efforts have yielded positive employment outcomes. The latest Graduate Employment Survey results show that over 90% of university graduates were employed within the first six months of graduation in 2009. For our polytechnic and ITE graduates, the proportion was 88% and 84% respectively. This is a creditable showing, I think members would agree, especially when we consider the difficult economic environment of last year.

Mr Inderjit Singh asked about MOE’s plans to set up a Liberal Arts College. The Liberal Arts College is an institution which exposes students to a wide breadth of courses to develop their intellectual capacity, rather than focus on specialised professional training, would certainly be an innovative addition to our Higher Education landscape. MOE is studying the feasibility of this quite carefully, and will provide updates in due course.

Arts Education

Let me touch briefly on the arts sector. I want to assure Ms. Audrey Wong that MOE recognises the value of arts education, and will continue to invest in its development throughout our system.

Ms. Wong welcomed the introduction of the new Singapore Teachers’ Academy for the aRts, or STAR, which will serve as a major platform for the professional development of teachers involved in teaching art, music and other arts-related areas. I would like to assure her that STAR will actively collaborate with local arts practitioners who have made significant contributions to Singapore’s arts scene. This would include ceramic artist Iskandar Jalil and world-renowned local composer Phoon Yew Tien. She also talked about the arts scholars returning—and certainly there is no restriction on whom we can tap—the question is whether they can add value and add to the process. By engaging local practitioners to conduct master classes and exhibitions, STAR will deepen our teachers’ appreciation of how Singapore’s rich cultural heritage has influenced local artists, which they in turn impart to their students. Ms Wong used the term “thinking hands,” and this is what we hope to infuse throughout the system, with teachers who are well-exposed to the disciplines.

MOE is committed to improving the quality of arts education in all schools. This would include “instilling a love for making things with imagination and the hands.” At the tertiary level, the Singapore University of Technology and Design seeks to imbue students with the very academic values that Ms Wong commends, with SUTD’s vision to nurture technically grounded leaders trained in the Art and Science of Design. The collaboration with MIT and Zhejiang University will not just have an academic dimension, but as Ms Wong rightly pointed out, will also have a strong cultural element, which will infuse SUTD with a different and unique learning environment.

Ms Wong will also be pleased to note that MOE remains committed to providing funding support for diploma programmes at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and the LASALLE College of the Arts, as well as NTU’s degree programmes at the School of Art, Design and Media. These institutions have the autonomy to manage the funding stream from MOE, including if they wish to setting aside a portion of funds for research if necessary. There are also other sources of research funding that they can tap—the Research and Development Grant given by the National Arts Council which is open for application to both lecturers and students.

(II) Raising the Quality of the Private Education Sector

Mr Chairman, let me now turn to private education. I would now like to give an update on the developments in the sector. I would like to thank Mr. Chiam See Tong and Mr. Yeo Guat Kwang for their questions, and in the case of Mr. Yeo, high hopes for raising standards in the private education sector.

The Council for Private Education, or CPE, was formally established on 1 Dec 2009. The new regulatory regime for private education institutions came into force on 21 Dec 2009. By the end of February this year, the CPE has received a total of 240 registration applications. For the EduTrust Certification Scheme, 23 applications have been received. The first batch of results should be announced in the coming weeks.

Mr. Chiam raised his concerns about misleading advertising and misinformation. These will certainly run foul of the Private Education Act, and the CPE is empowered to act upon this. If there are any specific instances you know of, I would urge Members of this House, and in general, to inform the CPE.

The CPE recognises that the changes in the regulatory environment could affect PEIs significantly, especially the small and mid-sized institutions. Thus, the CPE has been working closely with industry players, including those transiting from CaseTrust, to help prepare them for a smooth progression to the new regulatory regime. Between October and December last year, the CPE conducted a series of briefings and workshops on the Enhanced Registration Framework, EduTrust certification and also the Fee Protection Scheme.

Student and Fee Protection Measures

In the area of student and fee protection, the CPE has implemented an industry-wide group insurance scheme to enhance fee protection for students enrolled in local PEIs. Members will recall that when we moved the bill, this was a topic of discussion—how much protection will be afforded for fees that students pay in advance. All PEIs who wish to collect up to 6 months’ fees in advance are now required to purchase an industry-wide group insurance to protect the fees. Otherwise, PEIs would only be allowed to collect up to 2 months’ fees. This enhancement has been well-received by students and parents. Because essentially, there are just 2 months of fees at risk if the PEI is not insured.

Assistance for PEIs

Mr. Yeo asked about a dispensation for institutions under CASE Trust to make the transition. There is no need for a refund, but excess fees collected must be protected, and evidence of protection must be provided to CPE. Once this has been done, then it is up to the institutions to see out existing arrangements for those cohorts who were enrolled before the change of the regulatory framework.

I thank Mr Yeo for his feedback on small PEIs needing assistance to attain EduTrust certification. The EduTrust Scheme assesses PEIs on their performance in six main criteria, ranging from corporate governance to student protection and academic processes. The EduTrust Certification Scheme also allows industry best practices to be recognized. I think we must be clear about this—if our desire is to raise the standards of the sector, then there will be some additional compliance costs that institutions have to live with. Some PEIs may, however, need further support to transit to the new scheme.

I am pleased to announce that the CPE is in the process of working with SPRING, IE Singapore and the industry to formulate a support scheme to help PEIs in the private education sector prepare for EduTrust certification. The proposed scheme aims to provide grants to the eligible institutions so that they can engage consultants to conduct diagnostic reviews and identify areas to upgrade in terms of their capability. The details of the scheme are being finalized and more information will be released at a later stage.

Overall, the measures being taken by CPE will contribute towards the strengthening of our private education sector. As Mr Inderjit Singh noted, this, in turn, will help us to attract and cultivate quality PEIs to add further diversity to our private education landscape. The attraction of new private universities is something that really is not within the purview of MOE. EDB continues to do that through the Global Schoolhouse Initiative, but any institution coming to Singapore must expect to be governed by the Private Education Act, instituted by the CPE.

(III) Strengthening Language Skills to Prepare Our Students Well for the Future

Let me now turn to English Language instruction. Mr Ong Kian Min, Mdm Halimah Yacob and Dr. Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim asked what is being done to uplift English Language instruction in schools. Mr Chairman, English language proficiency is a valuable asset for our students. English is the international language of commerce, industry, diplomacy and even sports, as I was told recently. Since the 2006 World Cup, FIFA has required all referees and their assistants to pass an oral English proficiency test, and to take written English tests on the game’s rules and regulations.

In general, we have made significant strides in acquiring English Language proficiency. In the Progress in International Reading and Literacy (PIRLS) Study, which was conducted in 2006 by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, our Primary 4 students were ranked 4th among 45 educational systems, which was an improvement from rank 15 out of 35 in 2001. We were even ahead of countries where English is the native language, such as the United States and England. Today, the pass rate for English at the ‘O’ level and the General Paper at the ‘A’ Level is about 90%, with students scoring double the proportion of distinctions compared to over twenty years ago.

However, more can certainly be done, particularly to improve our oracy skills. In 2000, MOE commissioned the UK-based National Foundation for Educational Research to measure the English Language proficiency of primary and secondary school students. The study showed that over a 3-year period, our students showed the most improvement in reading and grammar, but the least improvement in speaking, as compared to the results of baseline tests conducted in 2001 and 2002. As part of the 2006 English Language review, MOE also conducted a students’ survey on the teaching and learning of English. The survey findings showed that our students were regularly exposed to—it’s called “the informal register”—we all understand it as “Singlish.” But they did not have enough opportunities to use the formal register of English required for work and higher education.

So the next step forward is to nurture the oral communication skills of our students. While our students have a strong grasp of content knowledge, they will be disadvantaged if they are unable to express their ideas clearly in standard English—which is a point made by Mr Ong Kian Min yesterday. This becomes even more important as the services industries grow as an engine of our economy. In the long run, raising our students’ spoken and written proficiency in the English language will endow them with a key asset that enables them to take on the challenges of a globalised economy.

Raising the standard of English will require a continuous and co-ordinated effort from all stakeholders, ranging from English and English-medium teachers in our schools to community partners and the media. MOE will focus on areas in particular: Firstly, we will enhance teacher capacity to teach English and English-medium subjects. Secondly, we will promote school-based programmes to improve the use of English language by students and teachers.

Encouraging All English Language (EL) and English-medium Teachers to Upgrade their Proficiency

First, teacher capacity. As role models for students and key enablers of language learning, our teachers are at the heart of this effort. MOE will establish the English Language Institute of Singapore, or ELIS, in early 2011. ELIS will provide in-service training for both English language and English medium teachers, and offer a range of differentiated courses that cater to their specific learning needs. As a “test-bed” for innovative teaching methods, ELIS will make use of new technology and training approaches, blending traditional face-to-face instruction with web-based learning modules.

ELIS will play a key role in pooling our English language expertise and resources from partner agencies, and in advising schools on the programmes that are best suited to their needs. ELIS will also tap on our English Language Master Teachers as trainers, and recruit local and overseas experts. These trainers will be deployed to schools to provide customised courses and advice. In the long run, we envision ELIS as a Centre of Excellence for the teaching of English Language in Asia and beyond.

Enhancing and Enriching the English Language Environment in Schools

Secondly, MOE aims to enrich the English language learning environment in schools. To support our schools in this endeavour, an English Language Innovation Fund will be set up. Schools can draw on this Innovation Fund to promote creative ideas and practices that encourage the use of good English among its students and teachers. It will give schools the flexibility to implement customised English language programmes and activities that cater to the unique needs of their school community. 40 schools, including 20 primary, 19 secondary and 1 junior college, are participating in the first phase of this “whole school approach” and will benefit from the EL Innovation Fund.

Mr Chairman during my recent visits to some of the pilot schools, I had the chance to see how the “whole-school approach” was being implemented through the lens of students and teachers. At St. Andrew’s Secondary, I was struck by the quiet assurance and articulation of Joel Liew, a Secondary Four Normal (Academic) student, as he shared with me his experience in a Drama course offered by the school. Joel said that the course helped him learn and appreciate the craft of drama and how to write effective dialogue. But he said that his biggest thrill was performing at the Arts House where the plays were staged for the public. More importantly, perhaps, than the performance itself, was that such enrichment programmes are enlivening the English language for our students, and boosting their confidence in using the language, as Mdm Halimah Yaacob pointed out.

At Tanjong Katong Girls’ School, I met Mr. Seah Chin Choon, an Additional Mathematics teacher. As Mr. Seah comes from a Mandarin and Hokkien-speaking background, and by his own admission he would sometimes mis-pronounce words—such as saying “proNOUNCEciation” rather than “proNuNciation”. He gave me a demonstration on this. Realising the need to lead by example, he has made a personal commitment to improve his English—to the extent that he has even asked his former students to jot down all the words he commonly mispronounces so that he can be mindful of them. His humility and willingness to learn has earned the respect of his students, for whom he is a role model, an exemplar, of a positive attitude towards learning English.

At Junyuan Primary, the Principal, Mdm Law Li Mei, plays a key role in driving the “whole school approach.” Mdm Law and her English Language teachers have started a “One Minute of English” segment during the weekly Staff Contact Time to raise teachers’ awareness of common English errors. “Pass up your books,” versus “hand in your books” and things like that. Non-teaching staff are also included to benefit from the session. As her HOD for English put it, once the Principal, as the leader of the institution sets the tone, the entire school community is engaged in this very important effort.

After a very successful pilot last year, more support will also be given to primary schools to engage Language Facilitators. This year, the Language Facilitator Scheme will be extended to 25 more primary schools. These Language Facilitators complement the teaching and learning of the English language by conducting before- or after-school enrichment classes, in areas such as oral presentation, drama or story-telling.

Over time, MOE plans to extend the Language Facilitator Scheme to all primary schools. The “whole school approach” will also be extended to all primary, secondary and junior colleges. We hope that these efforts will be transformative in providing the right language environment for our children, and in significantly raising the level of our English language proficiency.

But I want to make the point that it is also important and useful to recognise that school-based efforts are only part of the story here. Improving the standard of English has to go beyond the classroom and into the community and indeed the media. We need an environment that is conducive to, and supportive of, the use of standard English in communication. A few real examples of English misuse that can be found in our day-to-day lives are illustrated in this slide, which was put together by an enterprising group of young MOE officials. For the first example, we all know that it is actually an “irresistible offer,” and the second suggests that the shop has been taken over. We all would like “self-cleaning areas” and the last, I must confess I was a bit baffled by—I suppose it refers to a hairdressing outfit—it really talks about simplicity being a virtue in the way we communicate.

Whilst these examples might be amusing—I can leave them here for you to ponder further—the more important point is that they serve to illustrate the need for a collective effort if we are to raise our English Language proficiency. We each have a role to play—as students, teachers, principals, parents, workers, managers and members of the public—if we are to sustain and succeed in this effort. MOE will certainly do its part to work with government agencies and industry groups on programmes and initiatives to improve the standard of English in Singapore.

Conclusion

Mr Chairman, in conclusion, I would like to emphasise that MOE will continue to commit significant resources and efforts to (i) expand the capacity and diversify the pathways in our tertiary education sector; (ii) enhance the quality of our private education sector as a key component of our education landscape; and (iii) raise the standard of English to endow our students with an enduring asset that will hold them in good stead in the globalised economy of the 21st Century.

Thank you.

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