Speech by Mr Ong Ye Kung, Acting Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills), at the Opening of the OECD-Singapore Conference on Higher Education Futures, 14 October 2015, Resorts World Convention Centre, Singapore

Published Date: 14 October 2015 12:00 AM

News Speeches

Mr Stefan Kapferer, Deputy Secretary General, OECD


Ladies and gentlemen

1. It is my great pleasure to open the inaugural OECD-Singapore Conference on Higher Education Futures today. We are honoured to be the host of this conference. Welcome to the conference, welcome to Singapore.

Education and Meaning

2. I was undecided as to the kind of speech I should give today, my first public speech on Higher Education as an Acting Minister. I could play it safe and make general observations. Or I could try to speak more frankly, about what I see as the tensions present in higher education, the global anxieties across societies, and the policy dilemmas we face. I decided on the latter. It is a more difficult choice, but I felt that this is a rare occasion to have the talents, ideas and experience of those gathered here today, and to benefit from your ideas and thinking on the future of higher education.

3. What is the objective of Higher Education? In one sense, the answer is obvious - education is intrinsically valuable. But perhaps it is more complex than that. I would like to address one group of potential tensions which is particularly significant. Individuals naturally wish to make their own choices in education based on their passions, aspirations and needs. However, this often has to be balanced against the broader role of education to serve a country’s needs, and the implication that people are educated to the ends of the collective goal. I would discuss each of these in turn and why these tensions may perhaps be healthy and even constructive.

What’s happening in the World?

4. A discussion on higher education must involve a discussion of our economy and society, our present circumstances and future developments. Because education systems exist and have meaning only in context. These very contexts are evolving, with significant implications on higher education.

5. The world is changing rapidly and profoundly. An age of globalisation and the internet, of great and increasing speed and consequence.

6. Industries are becoming less extractive. Less about using natural resources to make, or do things, and more about innovation and ideas. In line with that, energy sources are diversifying - from conventional fossil fuels to renewables and, now, unconventionals. A company can no longer become competitive and stay successful by lowering cost and enlarging scale. It has to be innovative and make its products special to customers - offering utility not just in the physical sense but also in the psychological and emotional sense.

7. A big shift took place when production was no longer limited to a locality. Today, the world works as one big complex production ecosystem, and production becomes modular as a result. The traditional lines between products and services are becoming increasingly blurred. In a similar vein, value chains are more truncated than before. Today, one can offer a taxi service without owning any vehicles, offer hotel services without owning a building. And in time to come, you may run a top-class university without a single classroom.

8. Societies too are changing. People are increasingly educated, and technology and the Internet have created opportunities for mobility and progress in a big way. People continue to be on the move and have rising aspirations. In the past, people moved to urban centres for job opportunities. Today, they move to cultural nodes as well - for lifestyle, spiritual well-being and personal enrichment.

9. People have multiple layers of identities and affiliations - based on their locality, nationality, ethnicity, religion and the communities. They are connected related to different groups. So in Singapore, you can grow up as a Sembawang boy, be a patriotic Singaporean and also fervent member of the Star Wars global fan club.

10. The system of higher education exists and evolves within these larger social, economic and technological contexts. If we look back in history, we see how the industrial revolution led to the division of labour, which gave rise to the setting up of factories to do each individual work. That in turn led to education institutions to teach workers how to do those work. Since then, education has become synonymous with schools and, indeed, higher education institutions. With a different world, what will our future universities and higher education institutions look like?

11. The OECD’s Skills Outlook says that high skills will be in increasing demand, low skills will be in constant demand, and medium skills will be in decreasing demand. Advances in technology have the potential to replace or transform jobs that not just involve manual work, but also cognitive and increasingly complex intellectual tasks. To prepare people well for this reality, education institutions must be well plugged into the needs of industries and the real and unpredictable world.

12. Education should as much as possible be like the life for which it prepares. If that is the case, then a learner’s experience in higher education has to evolve to become more innovative, less extractive, more connected to the world, more modular in course delivery, more attuned to the complexity and diversity of students’ individual identities. That is a major challenge all higher education institutions have to face now.

13. This is one imperative of education, to serve national and societal needs in the context of a changing world. Our system in Singapore started off that way - to survive, earn our own living, create jobs for our people, and train our people well so that investments would come to Singapore. Like many universities around the world, the system also imbues common values, languages, foundational skills and world view amongst our young. Such a system is top-down, functional, preserving and integrating.

What do you want to be?

14. To a young person, he or she may be much less attracted by the national imperatives of education. For them, I suspect, education is often about personal choices - where and how to channel their energies and passions. To them, this life choice can be confusing and intimidating.

15. Children possess a natural fascination, so when we ask a child what he wants to be when he grows up, he has spontaneous answers. I asked my friends through whatsapp to survey their young kids recently - the answers came in fast and furious - policeman, fireman, teacher, engineer, scientist, doctor, pilot, and soccer player. Many are in fact skills-based, and rarely does a kid say he wants to work in a cubicle. One did say he wanted to be a boss. Another said - politician.

16. Kids want to grow into vocations, professions and careers that allow them to protect the ones they love, to walk through fire to save others, to cure the sick, to build cars, to fly to the moon, to understand Mother Nature. In this era of individual empowerment and global opportunities, we must not fail our young. We cannot just offer them career counselling without helping them understand what is the meaning of the job.. We cannot talk to them about international standings and rankings when they want conversations about society, community and nation, and the contributions that they can make to the world.

17. So the second group of answers to the question of the objective of education is that each of us has innate talents, abilities, and interests, and the higher education system must help people uncover and pursue their passions, and chase their respective rainbows. Such a system is bottom-up, aspirational, changing and diversifying.

18. Two groups of answers on the objective of education: Integrating and diversifying. Collective and Individual. Change and Stasis.

Stability and Change, Whole and Individual

19. In many ways these dialectic forces are ever present in societies - giving rise to a healthy tension between stability and change. Amidst these forces and tensions, higher education institutions establish their roles. In many institutions, legacy, tradition and inertia are immensely powerful, and change is not so easy. In Singapore, we have the advantage of being young and small, and it has become a habit for us - a crucial one, in fact - to experiment and innovate.

20. It is a common Singapore narrative - almost the SG50 story - to say that in the past, we were all for our stomachs, good economy, we wanted a job and a roof over our heads. Now our goals are more complex, we have the luxury of allowing people to pursue more diverse goals, from engineering and medicine to music, the arts and sports. The rethinking of the meaning of higher education must include the fact that the collective good is attained, or in fact, can only be attained - by the ability of individuals to pursue their own talents and passion. Every Singaporean counts, and he or she can only count if the system allows maximum play of what he or she can do and is best at doing. In this evolution, Singapore as a whole can become stronger, better, and more sure of our place in the world.

21. By setting ourselves on this course, we will encounter many requests that we cannot meet, and expectations we cannot fulfil. Behind every one of these requests is a passionate person yearning to get into a particular programme but who was somehow rejected. But one thing I noticed about the Ministry of Education when I first arrived here is that the staff begin all their presentations with a picture of a star fish. This alludes to the story about the boy who saves star fishes stranded on the beach by throwing them back into the sea one at a time. Our efforts are indeed about opening pathways to fulfil aspirations - one person at a time.

22. That is a key reason why we are increasing the university cohort participation rate of our students from about 30% today to 40% by 2020 - an eight-fold increase since 1980. We are growing the number of university places for our people not by adding more of the same, but in the form of new programmes and new institutions. It is not a cookie cutter but a full range - square pegs, round pegs, and all types of fantastical shapes.

23. Diversity will not merely be in terms of course choices, but will be multi-dimensional. It means rethinking what we learn, when we learn, where and how we learn, and the kind of credentials we achieve at the end of the training, as well as how society recognises and regards those credentials.


24. In Singapore, this multi-dimensional, qualitative change will be done through a movement called SkillsFuture. This was launched last year, to provide Singaporeans with the opportunities to develop to their fullest potential throughout life, regardless of their starting points.

25. In terms of what we learn, the range of possibilities and choices has grown tremendously, especially in the last 10 to 15 years. We are on the cusp of a new wave of growth as we grow our applied degree space through the Singapore Institute of Technology and the SIM University. Our polytechnics and the Institute of Technical Education have also established themselves as world-class providers of technical education. To help our students navigate these possibilities, we have introduced Education and Career Guidance in our schools and higher education institutions. We are not transplanting but are learning from the systems in other countries, such as the apprenticeships systems in Germany.

26. In terms of when we learn, the answer is simply throughout our lives. Study and work will no longer be sequential, but interspersed with each other throughout a person’s life. We are moving from education as a concept of flow, i.e. preparing young students to enter the workforce, to a concept of stock, i.e. helping everyone in society learn throughout their lives.

27. More fundamentally, and over time, we should blur the differentiation between PET (pre-employment training) and CET (continuing education and training). Learning as a concept has to be inherently lifelong.

28. In terms of where and how we learn, learning will still be centred on but not confined to schools and higher education institutions. Much of our learning can be online, through peer-to-peer interaction, and more importantly, at the workplace and on the job. There will be greater use of technology. The Internet as an infrastructure for learning is not just a conduit for e-learning. We have outsourced a significant portion of memory and knowledge accumulation to the internet, although with a lot of curation work to be done. And the spirit of outsourcing must mean we focus on what matters most to us and our core competencies.

29. Our vocational institutions - the Institute of Technical Education and polytechnics - are developing modern apprenticeship programmes, called Earn and Learn Programmes (ELP). Under the ELP, a learner will go into the industry of his choice, and undergo a formalised work and study arrangement, at the end of which he will get formal industry-recognised certificates or qualifications.

30. For an ITE graduate, these credentials could be stacked towards a polytechnic diploma. For a polytechnic graduate, they could stack towards an applied degree, or qualification certifying mastery in a specific field.

31. In terms of credentials - these will continue to be important. There is nothing wrong with paper qualifications, because how else will industries and employers know your level of knowledge and proficiency? What we do want to prevent is paper chase for its own sake, and an over-emphasis on one particular type of paper qualification.

32. We are already seeing more diversity in higher education credentials. Beyond traditional academic qualifications, there is a burgeoning market for alternative qualifications globally - graduate certifications, even ‘badges’, transcripts and portfolios are becoming credentials in their own right.

33. If we succeed in our effort, we will have a better balance between knowledge and skills pursuits, between academic and competency accomplishments, and across a wide spectrum of disciplines that is more reflective of the needs of the economy and personal aspirations.

34. More importantly, there will have to be inter-operability between qualifications systems - those belonging to our vocational institutions, under our adult learning frameworks, industry trade certifications, and university degrees. They must speak the same language and use similar source codes. It is imperative that we achieve this, because this will bring about a significant step towards making learning modular, flexible, progressive and lifelong.

Societal Norms

35. Under SkillsFuture, we will open up the learning of skills and pursuit of mastery as a broad pathway for Singaporeans. Pursuit of mastery of skills and advancement of knowledge exist alongside and overlaps significantly with one another, and can be strongly complementary and reinforcing. Mastery of skills can deepen fundamental academic understanding of a subject matter and even spark innovation. It is noteworthy that many genius entrepreneurs started by fiddling with gadgets in their garages before they invent something, and artistry can rarely be achieved without using one’s hands. Conversely, stronger academic foundations can improve the ability to acquire and apply skills.

36. If we do this right, from a broader economic and social standpoint, we will not just add value but also create value, not just make things but also invent things. The definition of merit and success will be broadened. But what is beyond Government’s and universities’ control - and rightly so - is how society regards and recognises a skilled worker, a craftsman and a master. This will have to be part of the continuing evolution as a society.

A Worthy Journey

37. This is a long journey. An experienced and retired educator told me it is like pushing a boulder up a hill. If we ever rest, the boulder will roll back down and run us over. But we must not rest. It is a worthwhile journey that will transform our higher education landscape, our economy, our society and our lives. This is the purpose and the sparkle, which inspires all of us who work in education.

38. I wish you a fruitful conference and an enjoyable stay in Singapore.

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