Extract of MOS Lawrence Wong's Speech at COS

Mr Lawrence Wong, Minister of State, Ministry of Defence and Ministry of Education, outlined the preliminary recommendations of the Committee on University Education Pathways beyond 2015 (CUEP) at the FY2012 Committee of Supply (COS) Debate. The following is an excerpt from his speech.

Committee on University Education Pathways Beyond 2015

Even with all of these developments, we believe there is scope to enhance the university sector. I now chair a Committee studying how to provide even more opportunities for university education. Over the past six months, we have consulted widely, and received much public feedback. We also visited several countries to study their systems. I thank those who have given us their suggestions, and would like to take this opportunity to provide an interim update on my Committee’s work, and may I emphasise that these are still preliminary recommendations.

Expand University sector

First, we recommend expanding the university sector to cater to a wider spectrum of students, while maintaining the quality and standards of university education in Singapore. As our economy grows in scale and sophistication, we will need more Singaporeans with high-level skills. We also want to meet the strong aspirations amongst young Singaporeans for a degree education.

How far should we go in expanding the state-funded university sector? One way is to benchmark ourselves against other countries. Currently, about 27% of every cohort goes to our publicly-funded universities and this proportion is expected to increase to 30% by 2015. Our provision for state-funded degrees is already more generous than many of our Asian neighbours, including the most developed amongst them, like Japan, Hong Kong and South Korea.

At the other end of the spectrum, state-funded university participation rates tend to be higher in Europe. Naturally, their citizens pay higher taxes to enjoy highly-subsidised and broad access to universities. But there are risks to raising university participation too rapidly. Often, standards are diluted, and degrees are devalued. Then far from graduates acquiring valuable skills, they become under-employed, or worse, unemployed. For example, the New York Times reported last year that in Spain, Portugal and Italy almost 1 out of every 4 graduates cannot find a job after leaving college. Indeed, we have received feedback from many Singaporeans, including from university students and alumni, who worry that we may be going too far in expanding university places. One member of the public wrote in through the MOE website to say that we “should be very cautious in expanding university places, and not jeopardize existing opportunities and the interest of individuals”.

Generous provisions for university education are also associated with wastage and inefficiencies. For example, we visited Finland and this is what their officials told us. At the University of Helsinki, we learnt that the average student takes almost 7 years to complete a degree. Because the places in the universities are taken up by what they call “eternal” students, it creates a bottleneck for new students, who have to wait around 1-2 years before they can actually matriculate. Moreover, while around 65% of each cohort enters the Finnish universities, the attrition is high, and only about 40% actually graduate.

These comparisons give us some perspective of where we stand internationally, and how far we want to go. Another indicator is the proportion of high-skilled jobs in our economy. Today, about a third of our resident workforce is employed in Professional, Managerial and Executive (PME)-type jobs, a significant increase from a decade ago. As we restructure our economy over the next decade, the profile of industry and jobs will also change. PMEs will be the fastest growing segment of our workforce, and so we can expect growing demand for graduates with high-level skills. University participation rates will therefore have to increase correspondingly.

Sir, I have outlined several broad considerations that shape our thinking. The Committee will continue to study the issue and seek public feedback, to work out how far to expand the university sector, while maintaining the quality outcomes for the benefit of our students.

Developing new teaching-focused university pathways

Second, as we expand places, we also need to develop new pathways for entry into university.

We want to add to the diversity and dynamism of the university sector, and provide students with more choices to develop and grow. Today, our publicly-funded universities are largely research-intensive. Other countries, however, have a more balanced mix – they have research universities as well as teaching universities that are practice-oriented, and share close links with industries. Diversifying our mix of universities will increase the routes and options that our students are able to take for entry into them.

In Finland, for example, I visited Metropolia, the largest University of Applied Sciences (UAS) there. The Finnish Universities of Applied Sciences offer mainly Bachelor degree programmes, mostly in areas with clear industry demand and focus, such as engineering, healthcare and social services. The entire curriculum is designed with close industry inputs. Students go through a practice-oriented learning pedagogy, and most professors have strong industry backgrounds. They focus on applied research and collaborate with industry partners to commercialize technologies. Students thus graduate with valuable, industry-relevant skills, and are better able to apply their knowledge in a practical way. Other countries like America and Germany also have teaching universities with such characteristics and features.

The Committee believes there is scope to develop a new university model in Singapore – one that is teaching-focused and practice-oriented, with close industry ties. While these elements already exist in our current universities, we want to integrate them and take them further, to offer something distinctive and valuable for our students. The mix of disciplines offered should have a strong industry focus, including niche programmes not offered by the existing universities, as well as areas where we need more skilled manpower, for example, in hospitality and tourism, social services and allied healthcare. Such a university model can also include elements of co-operative education, where academic studies are fully integrated with practical, hands-on work experience, and where students alternate between semesters of full-time study and relevant paid work. For students, the university experience should be challenging, interactive and meaningful, combining theory with real-world industry experiences that help them achieve their full potential.

We will study how best to implement these ideas. One possibility is to leverage on SIT, which is already pioneering some elements of such a model. Together with its overseas partners, SIT offers a number of applied degree pathways in disciplines with strong practice-orientation, such as occupational therapy and digital animation. It has also built close links with industry, and received strong endorsement from industry partners. Building on these foundations, we can develop an innovative model of teaching-focused, industry-linked and practice-based university education for Singapore.

Leveraging on the Private Sector

Third, in expanding the university sector, the Committee believes there is some scope to leverage on the private education institutions.

Many Singaporeans obtain their degrees through this route, and the private education sector has grown into a diverse industry, comprising many different players, with different business models, catering to different needs. This diversity, however, makes tapping on the sector a complex issue, as quality and standards are not uniform across the board. Today, the government subsidises students at selected private institutions, namely: UniSIM, the only local private institution with degree awarding powers; and NAFA and Lasalle, specialized arts institutions offering degree programmes in partnership with top overseas institutions like Royal College of Music and Goldsmith College.

Mr Ang Wei Neng has suggested extending subsidies further to students in other private institutions. Mr Zainal Sapari also raised this previously in this House. The Committee is studying this matter carefully. We recognize that there is a role for private providers to meet the demand for university education. But this has to be managed carefully, to preserve the value of university education for our students.

We are not alone in grappling with how best to leverage on the private sector. Worldwide, there is a growing debate about the role of the private sector in providing higher education. In the UK, the rapid growth of private universities has sparked concerns that the interests of private providers may not be aligned with national interests, that the private providers are “cherry-picking” the more profitable courses and students, and that standards are being compromised. In the US, the Department of Education is increasingly dissatisfied with the value offered by for-profit private education institutions and is clamping down with new rules to block government aid to such institutions.

In Singapore, we have taken steps to raise the quality of our private education institutions. We established the Council for Private Education (CPE) which sets out mandatory baseline standards for institutional quality. CPE also offers a voluntary EduTrust Certification scheme, for higher-quality private institutions to differentiate themselves. But this is just the first step in distinguishing quality from baseline requirements. EduTrust provides prospective students with a measure of confidence that processes are in place to run a sound organization and student interests are well looked after. We will have to do more to encourage private institutions to focus on quality outcomes. This is a challenge that regulatory agencies around the world face. If the same quality benchmarks for public universities institutions are applied to private institutions, there may not be a viable business case for many of the programmes offered in such institutions. We should therefore study the experience of other countries very carefully, including learning from them what is feasible and what not to do.

Developing CET as a degree pathway

Fourth, we should continue to expand the routes for working adults to continue their education and training by enhancing the pathways for them to obtain a degree.

Last year, the government subsidised over 4,000 part-time degree places at NUS, NTU and UniSIM. This was on top of the 12,000 publicly-funded full-time university places for Singaporeans. We believe that more adult learners can benefit from such part-time degree programmes. In a constantly changing and increasingly sophisticated economy, continuing education and training (or CET) is a critical avenue for Singaporeans to continuously upgrade their skill sets.

I understand that it is not easy for adult workers to pursue a part-time degree. They have to make personal sacrifices, to juggle work and family commitments, and study at the same time. To make CET more attractive, we must address the challenges that part-time students face. This includes diversifying the range of offerings to better cater to individual needs and preferences, and enhancing flexibility in course structures and programmes. More fundamentally, we will require closer cooperation amongst the various stakeholders – education providers, employers and the government – to provide a more conducive and supportive environment for CET. The Committee is studying how best to tackle these issues, so as to create many more opportunities for adult workers to get a degree, while continuing in their jobs.

Ensuring affordability of university education

Fifth, as we build new university pathways, we must ensure these opportunities remain open to all Singaporeans, and that university education remains affordable, especially to those from lower-income families.

Education is a vital enabler of social mobility; no Singaporean student admitted to our universities should be deterred from pursuing a degree education due to financial difficulties. Today, the government subsidises a large proportion of university education through grants, and supplements this with a full range of financial assistance schemes, including loans and bursaries.

MOE regularly reviews and enhances these schemes, and will continue to do so, to ensure that they meet the needs of students, especially those from lower-income families. For example, we recently enhanced the bursary scheme by broadening its coverage to two-thirds of all families (based on household income) and increased the quantum provided.

The universities and broader community have also stepped forward to provide support. But some of these schemes may not be as well-publicised. MOE will work with the universities, and other post-secondary institutions, to reach out more to the students; and ensure that those in need are aware of the support available, and are not unduly burdened by the financing of their education.

One area of financing where there may be scope to do more is the loan schemes extended to students. In some countries like America, Canada and the UK, university education is financed largely through student loans. To reduce the financial burden on students, many such loans are subsidized by their respective governments, whether in the form of lower interest rates, or extended interest-free repayment periods. The Committee is studying these ideas, to see if we can adapt and apply them in the Singaporean context, to make loan schemes more attractive as an additional source of financing for university education, on top of the direct grants and bursaries provided by the government.

Wrap-up on CUEP update and Higher Education

Mr Chairman, over the next few years, the Committee envisions a more diversified university landscape with multiple “best-in-class” institutions, including top notch research- and teaching-oriented universities, as well as a good mix of full-time, part-time and work-study degree programmes, to meet the wide spectrum of Singaporean needs and preferences. At the same time, we must maintain the quality and affordability of university education, and ensure good employment outcomes for all our graduates. I have outlined the preliminary findings of the Committee. The increase in university participation and enhancements to this sector will require a corresponding increase in funding for the higher education sector, not immediately but this will come, and I hope members will all support this in due course. There is much more to be done, before we finalise our recommendations in the second half of the year. In the meantime, we will continue with our consultations, and welcome further suggestions and views.

Read the full speech.