Keynote Address by Mr Ong Ye Kung, Acting Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills), at the Straits Times Education Forum at Singapore Management University

Published Date: 25 June 2016 12:00 AM

News Speeches

Mr Warren Fernandez, Editor of The Straits Times

Professor Arnoud De Meyer, President of Singapore Management University

Distinguished Guests

Higher Education as a Social Force

1. Thank you for inviting me to the Straits Times Education Forum. I enjoy reading the Straits Times Education feature every Monday, which I often find informative and insightful, and I would like to thank ST for putting resources on a topic that is close to many people’s hearts. I would like to start the speech talking about two things: the Oscar Academy Awards and the Brexit.

Who Won the Oscars?

2.My daughter told me that early this year, after the Academy Awards, her secondary school was abuzz with news of Leonardo Di Caprio finally winning Best Actor. I asked if her classmates would be watching The Revenant, which won Di Caprio the Oscar as well as a Best Picture Award. She said no, as they felt that the show was too long and gory.

3. When I was younger, I used to make it a point to catch all the movies that won the Oscars – Star Wars, Gandhi, Amadeus, Rain Man, Schindler’s List, Dances with Wolves, The Silence of the Lambs, etc. But gradually, I also stopped watching award-winning movies, unless I am on a long plane ride. Today, I look out for entertaining films, like the superhero movies, which usually do not win awards, because I just want to relax and be entertained. The fact that the TV ratings for the 2016 Oscars were the lowest in eight years suggests that I am not alone.

4. Award-winning movies still have high artistic value. The Oscars are still a highly revered institution – but it is losing touch with its audience, especially the younger generation. In a similar vein, young people may prefer Uber to taxis, Airbnb to hotels, eCommerce to physical stores.

5. What can happen to the Oscars can happen to institutes of higher education. We cannot be on the wrong side of change. And that brings me to the second thing that I would like to talk about as an introduction, which is Brexit. Personally, I felt it was the writing on the wall. Reading the emotions and the articles championing Britain’s exit from the EU, I felt they were more emotionally compelling. It was a very unusual outcome considering that this is a bipartisan position. The leader of the Conservative Party and the leader of the Labour Party campaigned for “Remain” but the people of Britain thought otherwise. This is the key lesson for us that over time, if the people feel a detachment from an institution as major and as important as the EU and cannot relate to the institution, they will opt to leave. This is an important reminder for all of us, that running institutions, no matter how successful these institutions, we should never be caught on the wrong side of change.

The “UnCollege” Movement

6.Today, there is an “UnCollege” movement in the United States. Followers believe that it is more important to start learning by doing, and college is not the only path to success. Peter Thiel, who co-founded PayPal, started the Thiel Fellowship, which offers students $100,000 over two years to drop out of school and do research or start a company. For reference, in Singapore, it costs the state a lot more than $100,000 to put a student through university.

7.The Minerva Project in San Francisco aims to provide an Ivy League education online at a fraction of the price, with a focus on teaching students to think, lead and communicate. Lectures are done online, and a significant portion of the education involves having the students work in foreign cities. It has a 1.9% acceptance rate in a small application pool, making admission more competitive than the likes of Ivy League Universities.

8. Recently I met the three founders of Glints – an internship and job matching platform. The three youngsters postponed their offers from top US universities to focus on their start-up. To them, university can wait. In the meantime, they will pursue their passions but they will still go to university in time to come.

Catalyst, not Residue

9.They are a minority. We do not have an “UnCollege” Movement in Singapore – at least not yet. On the contrary, our parents and students have a great desire to attain degrees, because they are seen as necessary to fetch a premium in the labour market. Today, it is true that university graduates on average earn more than polytechnic graduates.

10.In fact, one of the biggest challenges in MOE is this: On the one hand, we need to moderate the supply of places in autonomous universities carefully, to ensure that graduates can find jobs and earn a premium in the labour market. On the other hand, there has to be enough supply of places to meet as many Singaporeans’ aspirations to attain degrees as possible. This is a dilemma that we constantly have to juggle.

11.But in 10, 20 years’ time, will this dilemma still be around? Can we be sure that an “UnCollege” movement will not engulf Singapore?

12.We are seeing more young people taking alternative paths to pursue their interests and aspirations, like the youngsters that created Glints, or aspiring chefs and artists. These paths do not involve the attainment of degrees, and the students know that.

13.On top of that, technology is changing the nature of work. Industries too are changing. Some employers want graduates to have very specific skills, such as UNIX programming or integrated circuit design. I would urge them to provide those specific skills training on the job. In our universities, we ought to provide a foundation for students to have enduring qualities – resilience, teamwork, desire to learn. – and many employers are in fact emphasising on these qualities now. From time to time, we, including DPM Tharman, meet these industry captains to hear their views.

14.They are telling us, “Singapore graduates know a lot of stuff, but those can be learnt on the job. What’s more important are the practical and soft skills that can help them excel at the workplace.”

15. In these changing times, our institutes of higher learning, or IHLs, must constantly reform and improve themselves. And they need to do so while the system is functioning well and from a position of strength. We cannot afford to go down the road of Brexit and EU. By then, it will be too late.

16.IHLs must lead, and not react to changes. Their role in the economy and society must be catalytic, and not residual. But the process of reform and improvement must be done in the context of their mission. What is this collective mission? I simplify it in three words – skills, knowledge and identity.

Mission of Higher Education

17.First, the building of skills. All major civilisations developed systems and institutions to prepare people for work – for Europe, it started with the apprenticeship system during the Middle Ages. Later, the Industrial Revolution introduced machines which led to factory schools and mechanics’ institutes.

18.Apprenticeships and the guilds that run them form the foundation of Europe’s dual system of education today. The system continues to be the cradle for individual skills mastery and competitive advantages for many European economies.

19.Second, knowledge. The discovery, creation and transmission of knowledge is the core mission of any IHL. The Renaissance saw the advent of knowledge and technology, and universities like Oxford and Cambridge, and later Harvard, rose to prominence. Universities in Asia – Peking University, Tsinghua University and University of Tokyo – were also established as centres of progressive thought, research and knowledge discovery.

20. Universities today pride themselves for being at the frontier of knowledge. Many inventions which have transformed our way of life originated from universities – the barcode, the pacemaker, insulin, the first computer, even fluoride toothpaste.

21.Third, defining our society. IHLs reflect the character of the society they are in, and vice versa.

22.In Europe, the dual system of learning in both institutions and at the workplace reflects some of the deepest values of the continent, such as respect for craft, resilience and lifelong pursuit of mastery.

23.In Indonesia, University Gadjah Mada was established three years after the country’s independence and when it was still under threat from the Netherlands. Today, it continues to stand as a symbol of national pride.

24. Higher education in Singapore served similar purposes. Our first Government Trade School opened in 1929, at Scotts Road. Singapore Polytechnic opened in 1954, and today we have a strong system of five polytechnics and three ITE campuses and many Continuing Education and Training centres to help Singaporeans attain mastery in whatever they do.

25. In the creation and transmission of knowledge, our universities have done very well in their research efforts. We have made significant investment in research through the National Research Foundation, and built up a global research talent base. Today, Singapore is a prominent global centre for research.

26. Over the years, our IHLs have moulded generations of Singaporeans, shaped their world views, sparked inspiration and built up their economic knowhow. They have also left indelible marks in our nation’s history. NUS was established on the eve of Singapore’s Silver Jubilee, on 8 August 1980, when the University of Singapore and Nantah were merged. That was a defining moment for Singapore, when we chose to be a multicultural country, connected to the world through English as our working language – at the considerable sacrifice of a segment of our Chinese-speaking population.

27.Having just crossed our half-century mark as an independent nation, our IHLs continue to have important national and social roles. Our IHLs continue to be places for the exercise of all the public virtues that Singaporeans hold dear.

28. They stand for excellence and curiosity to learn and improve all the time, to help us become a better country and a better people.

29. They imbue in our young the spirit to work together, give back to our community and society, and realise the difference they can make as a generation.

30.Through providing quality education, IHLs continue to be a social force to narrow or even erase privileges of birth and wealth, to uphold the fundamental value of meritocracy of our society.

31. We must therefore recognise that although IHLs are global centres of learning, a Singaporean IHL must have a distinct identity, one that speaks to its social and public mission, located within a specific and particular national context. Whole generations of young people come under the influence of the faculty, professors and lecturers in our universities, polytechnics and ITE. You hold the keys to the future of our nation and shape the character of our society.

Teach Better

32. So – to reform the IHLs while we are still at a position of strength is a critical endeavour. Today, I will talk about three areas that we can work on. Any reform of IHLs must start with teaching better.

33.Technology has changed the dynamics of a classroom. In the past, classes are done where one speaks and everyone else listens but this is out of fashion. In the past, classes for adult students pursuing Master’s degrees were facilitated rather than taught, so that the experience and knowledge of participants could be drawn out and shared with the rest of the class.

34. Today, it is becoming increasingly common for many classes in IHLs to be conducted the same way. The new term for it is the “flipped classroom”. In this methodology and teaching approach, the dynamics of interaction are reversed – quality learning resources are made available online, the student is expected to self-learn before the class, and the teacher facilitates higher-level learning through active discussion, collaboration and interaction in class. The focus is to train students to ask the right questions rather than give the right answers.

35. An SMU professor put the reason for having flipped classrooms more bluntly to me – “If you don’t involve the students and ask them for their views, they will be staring at their phones throughout class instead!” It is for practical reasons.

36.Beyond the classroom, IHLs also teach students by offering an experience that students cannot get online. There are quite severe limitations to online education – no real friends, can’t pick fights, can’t build networks, can’t find mentors, and certainly, can’t get caring counsel. Many will argue online courses can offer these but I really doubt it is the same. Only a physical IHL, provided that it tries hard by putting the student at the centre, can give an immersive, memorable, life-changing experience.

37. Our IHLs have done a lot to enrich the campus experience. They provide opportunities for students to work on real-life projects. SUTD, for example, grants students access to its laboratories and workshops 24/7, so that they can use it anytime to produce their gadgets and work on their projects. All our IHLs offer Education and Career Guidance, with Ngee Ann Polytechnic coming up with a refreshing idea of guiding students to develop digital portfolios and video resumes for their job searches. These are some of the steps that our IHLs are doing to teach better.

‘A’ and not ‘T’-Shaped Skills

38. Second, IHLs must help students to build up their essential soft skills, such as interpersonal skills, working in teams and across cultures, the ability to communicate well, negotiate effectively, and be resourceful and enterprising. These are skills that industry leaders told us are lacking in Singapore students, as I have mentioned earlier.

39.We often hear the need for students to have ‘T’-shaped Skills. To me this is an unfortunate description. Because of the way ‘T’ is written, it assumes that learning essential soft skills and deep technical skills are sequential, and the two sets of skills are distinct and separate. When one set of deep skills is not enough, we have to learn another set. So some say ‘π’-shaped skills – with two legs representing two sets of deep expertise – is even more apt.

40.I think it is better to say that we need to acquire ‘A’-shaped skills. We all start from scratch at the tip of ‘A’, and then we gain breadth and depth at the same time.

41. Deep technical skills are not singular and rigid, unlike a vertical stroke of a ‘T’. There is versatility in depth. In fact, I would argue that versatility and soft skills have to be acquired through depth and mastery.

42. Similarly, essential soft skills cannot be taught theoretically in a classroom. They have to be acquired through practice, that is, learning by doing.

43. I was heavily involved in the negotiations of the US-Singapore Free Trade Agreement (FTA). By immersing myself deeply in the project for several years, I understood the legal intricacies of an FTA, and the project provided the context for me to learn many essential soft skills such as diplomacy, communications, how to negotiate with top-notch American lawyers, and how to keep up the good morale of our team. I could not have learnt these essential soft skills – which I use a lot today – by attending a course titled “Soft Skills for Effective Negotiations for FTAs”. We simply cannot compartmentalise deep technical skills and essential soft skills.

44.That is why IHLs are increasingly focusing on real life learning. They are offering better-structured and longer internship programmes, setting up start-up incubators to encourage entrepreneurship, and involving students in industry projects such as the SMU-X initiative – to provide the environment for students to gain both depth and breadth in their skill sets. At the same time, more companies are starting their own corporate universities, such as UBS, Unilever and BNP in Singapore. Increasingly, education is a joint effort between institutions and industry players because they recognise deep technical skills and essential soft skills have to be acquired at the same time.

45. It was with this synergy in mind that we launched the SkillsFuture Earn and Learn Programme, a work-study programme for fresh polytechnic and ITE graduates.

46.We will go a step further and introduce co-operative programmes in our universities. As the name implies, it is a co-operation between universities and industries, where students spend half or more of their time at the workplace, alternating between campus and company on a semestral basis. Many can in fact be hired by the company from the outset and are income-earning employee-students throughout the course.

47.We will be launching pilot co-operative programmes in the coming years. These will be spearheaded by SIT and UniSIM, which will partner organisations such as Singtel, Singapore Power, The Ascott Limited, CapitaLand and Standard Chartered, as well as government agencies such as the Defence Science and Technology Agency and the Cyber Security Agency of Singapore.

48.This co-operative programme is a fresh concept. The leaders in the universities and industries understand its benefits, and that it requires a far higher level of commitment from companies compared to the internship programmes we have today, to co-develop the programmes with universities.

49. To make these programmes effective and successful, we will need buy-in across the organisation, from middle to upper management of the workplace, because when a student spends entire semesters in an organisation, his interactions will be with the middle and lower management and executives, who must know the lesson plan and have the patience and desire to mentor, teach and guide him. We will work hard at this and aim to roll out the first pilot programmes next year in 2017.

Research that Matters

50. Third area of reform is research. Beyond teaching, research and the discipline of discovering and creating knowledge remain one of the essential missions of IHLs. This is particularly relevant to universities. World-class research talent and capabilities are central to the achievement of Singapore’s goal to be an advanced knowledge economy and a culturally rich society.

51.Today, research accounts for a significant part of the scoring in the international rankings of universities. Having good rankings is not a bad thing for students at all, as they will be better regarded when seeking employment in the marketplace after graduation. Good rankings also help attract diverse talent to our universities. The rises in the rankings of NUS, NTU and SMU are very significant achievements that we can be very proud of.

52.But we must also recognise that rankings, done by private organisations, are based on criteria that may not entirely align with the public missions of our IHLs and universities. Rankings provide a gauge of the quality of our institutions, but they do not do justice to the intangible and important role that IHLs play in shaping our society and nurturing Singaporeans. We should not chase rankings blindly, in the same way that we tell students and parents not to chase grades blindly.

53.In Singapore, the danger we face is not an “UnCollege” movement but a possible dislocation of priorities – of having top-ranked, world-class universities that belong to the world but not to Singapore.

54.There is a perception that our universities are focused only on publication and research. We need to correct that misperception. If universities only focus on research, then it is no different from any research centre. Universities must demonstrate how they are fulfilling all their core missions that I mentioned earlier, to impart skills, to create and transmit knowledge, and to shape and define society.

55.The university scene must therefore be truly diverse – where not every institution is just focused on research and knowledge creation. Some will put strong emphasis on excellent teaching and developing skills mastery in students. Others will take pride in forging close collaboration with industries, or encouraging entrepreneurship amongst the young. Some others will be positioned uniquely to work with the Government and contribute to public policy-making or major public projects.

56.One of the reasons why I admire American universities is their ability to produce the likes of Ben Bernankes or Janet Yellens. Most of the time, they do research and teach, but when the situation calls for it, they step forth to take on major public and global responsibilities.

57.In Singapore, we have our share – Professor SJayakumar and Dr Yaacob Ibrahim in politics; Professor Tommy Koh and Professor Chan Heng Chee who are our top diplomats; Professor Tan Kong Yam as Chief Economist at MTI; Professor Tan Chorh Chuan, who is now President of NUS, but before that, was Director of Medical Service in MOH; Professor Lim Chong Yah and Professor Lim Pin who led the National Wages Council for many years and contributed to tripartite collaboration and industry harmony in Singapore.

58.Our universities must aim to be a brain trust of talent and expertise across many disciplines and domains. To do so, they must have talent management systems that adopt an expansive definition of contribution and impact – one that is not narrowly defined by the number of research papers published in international journals.

Conclusion – A Social Force

59. If we do this right, our IHLs will progressively build up its diverse and deep pool of talent, across various disciplines and domains, drawing from academia, industries and Government. It will be a significant social force – for good.

60.Let us have a talent pool that conducts research to strengthen the society’s knowledge of science and the humanities; one that offers frontier technology to change businesses and industries, and insights and ideas to shape and improve public policies. Our IHLs must have people who will step forward to shoulder public responsibilities, and work side by side with the Government on major projects. They must nurture, guide and inspire young people through excellent teaching. In this teaching, there must be a moral message that having received a good education and benefitting from the Singapore system, our young people have a duty to society at large. A duty to make things better, to make us better. Like the title of an Oscar-winning movie, our IHLs will be where we find “Crouching Tigers and Hidden Dragons”, a place of great masters of all disciplines. This will be a vision worth striving for. Thank you very much.

Share this article: