Speech by Mr Ong Ye Kung, Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills), at the Launch of the SMU Academy

Published Date: 26 April 2017 12:00 AM

News Speeches

President, SMU, Prof Arnoud De Meyer,

Provost, SMU, Prof Lily Kong

Organising Partners of Digitec Conference

Distinguished guests

Ladies and gentlemen

1. I am happy to join all of you today. We have a large group of educators and career counsellors from our schools and Institutes of Higher Learning here. You will be part of a discussion to turn digital disruption into a powerful opportunity. I wish you a fruitful conference.

The AU’s mission and areas of focus

2. During the Committee of Supply debate early this year, I said that we need to do things differently in our Autonomous Universities (AUs). I think every leader in our Universities understands this. We are at the threshold of major changes in our society and economy, and that requires us to transform our higher education landscape.

3. We approach this from a position of strength: our education system is effective and internationally well-regarded. Our AUs, in particular, have done well in terms of international rankings, reputation and holistically, how they have delivered education all these years. However, the rankings do not fully reflect the public and social missions of an AU. Beyond external rankings, we need to undergo critical self-assessment too, and measure our achievements against our public objectives.

4. During the Committee of Supply debate, I mentioned three objectives which we would like the AUs to focus on – to improve the quality of teaching, to champion lifelong learning, and to conduct impactful research that makes a difference to our economy and society.

5. As we launch the SMU Academy today, I will focus my speech on one of these objectives – our AUs as champions of lifelong learning.

The reasons for lifelong learning

6. What drives the need for lifelong learning?

7. At the most fundamental level, it is to improve our personal abilities and competencies. Therefore, doctors constantly undergo training to refresh their knowledge, teachers attend professional development courses to keep abreast with pedagogical innovations, working professionals attend executive development courses to deepen their domain knowledge and sharpen their management skills. If you want to develop mastery in your area of expertise, you must be prepared to make it a lifelong commitment.

8. At the same time, technologies and industries are rapidly changing, and demands for skills are rapidly evolving. But technological disruption is not only a process of pure destruction, it is also one of renewal. So jobs do not simply become destroyed and disappear entirely. Rather, they recede into the background while many others spring up progressively. We have observed this over and over again in human history.

9. Let me cite the example of a sector that is undergoing upheaval but also creating opportunity, which is oil and gas.

10. In recent years, the industry has been disrupted by horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. Technology now allows you to extract oil and gas from shale rocks, compared to vertical drilling in the past.

11. What is disruptive is not just the method, but also its cost structure. Unlike traditional resource business, hydraulic fracturing does not take much upfront investment to produce unconventionals. The timeline to production is in months, compared to the years required to develop a conventional oil field.

12. Because of this, production of unconventionals is more like manufacturing – it is flexible and cost variable. Producers can readily expand or reduce supply depending on oil price. That has changed the economics of the industry drastically.

13. With better seismic surveillance methods and drilling technology, the sector has experienced significant productivity growth every year. So it is now much cheaper to produce a barrel of shale oil, compared to say, five years ago.

14. But the workforce requirements changed as a result. The sector needs far fewer drilling operators, because equipment has become more automated and the techniques more advanced. However, it needs more specialists who know how to watch over the monitors, generate and process data.

15. I was in Oklahoma City recently to witness an SAF artillery exercise. During a dinner I noticed a spanking new, high-tech looking building across the street. It was the General Electric’s Oil and Gas Research and Development Centre. This new centre has created hundreds of new jobs for scientists and engineers to develop cutting-edge digital and hardware solutions for the oil and gas industry.

16. There are other examples of technology disruption closer to home. I visited the Employment and Employability Institute (e2i) recently. The café in e21 campus has two operators, Cecilia Chung and Aisha Wong, who are both around their 50s. They have an assistant – a robot.

17. The robot is a pilot project with the café operator in the e2i campus. Office workers in the building can order their food on their mobile phones. The operators of the café will prepare the food, place it into the robot, and activate it to make the delivery. The robot can navigate the ramps and corridors, has a special transponder to communicate with the lifts to take it to the right floors, and deliver to the office where the customer is located. The robot can even collect payment – through EZLink – before releasing the food. The robot has become a good assistant, while the two café operators keep their jobs.

18. The operators told me it took about a week’s training for them to learn how to work with the e-bot. But they now find it a big help. This is a good example that as we have digital technology and robotics, it will not destroy our jobs. In fact, it will make our jobs easier, and we should think about how we can use technology to help us accomplish even more, just like the two café operators. Whether in food services or customer services, technology can enhance our jobs.

19. I understand SMU Academy also has a partnership with e2i to implement a chat bot that will help to answer 70% of general enquiries that come through its website. I look forward to its implementation. I will volunteer to be a mystery shopper.

Four Key Operating Principles

20. It may seem like a straightforward matter that AUs now simply need to extend their existing courses to adult learners, in order to fulfill their mandate in lifelong learning and help workers keep up with technology. However, we have to be mindful that the philosophy and science behind teaching a student and teaching an adult learner is vastly different. We can even argue that they are, in fact, parallel systems.

21. Let me elaborate by explaining the four key principles that would define a successful school for lifelong learning.

22. First, the mode of delivery should be modular. The schools for lifelong learning should offer shorter, bite-sized programmes to take into account the competing demands on an adult learner’s time, such as family and career.

23. But modularity cannot be achieved simply by breaking up existing undergraduate or other programmes. By and large, the content of lifelong learning courses needs to be created, not repackaged. With new content, we can better cater to emerging or new demands of industries.

24. SMU Academy has a good start through its finance and cybersecurity programmes, which have a strong reputation among working adults looking to upgrade their skills. Some of these are conducted with industry leaders and accreditation bodies such as ISACA (USA) for cybersecurity, or the Institute for Banking & Finance.

25. SMU Academy has already rolled out 40 new and industry-relevant modules.

26. Just to name a few, there are courses in Human Capital Management, Blockchain Technology, Data Protection & Information Security, and FinTech & Innovation. These are areas that are in demand in many fields today, and can give learners a boost in their skills and careers. This will not be like attending an undergraduate course, but is catered to adult learners. Industry practitioners will teach alongside SMU faculty in a hands-on, experiential way, with a focus on imparting relevant skills. Some courses will be held on weekday evenings, and others will soon be made available online. I shall help SMU make a sales pitch – each of you already has a catalogue in your conference bag with more information. Go check out their website, and sign up today!

27. More seriously, SMU Academy is on the right track. Please keep it up. In fact, some of these lifelong learning modules should find its way into undergraduate education.

28. Second, admission into the Academy should, as far as possible, be kept open to whoever needs the skills for work. The learners are adults, we need not be too protective of them, and so as far as possible, we let them decide if they are eligible. Hence, prior academic grades should not be the determinant for admission.

29. If we have to select participants because demand far exceeds supply, or we are subsidising the course significantly to prepare someone for a new career, then we should take into consideration the learner’s aptitude and interest through interviews, portfolios, or nomination by employers.

30. Third, industry relevance. Programmes offered must be aligned with the needs of the market. There must be a strong nexus between the schools for lifelong learning and industries. The former needs to keep abreast of developments in the industries, and the skills that are most needed. The latter needs to reach out to those who need the training, offer practitioner-trainers and work attachment places.

31. This is the only way to make lifelong learning skills-based, practical, and effective as a pathway into jobs and careers. In this regard, I am pleased that the SMU Academy collaborates with industry players like Mercer to offer HR and leadership management programmes. The Academy’s partnership with NTUC’s e2i will also allow SMU to tap on NTUC networks, to maximise the positive impact of the Academy.

32. Fourth, the schools for lifelong learning must be outcome-focused. We want to be effective, and effectiveness cannot merely be measured by the number of training places, revenue collection or contribution to international rankings. The ultimate outcomes of lifelong learning must be better employment and higher productivity and skills, and we have to find some way to measure effectiveness in this regard.


33. As the respective schools for lifelong learning take shape in our AUs and Polytechnics, I decided to speak about the key principles in ensuring that they are well run to serve their public policy objectives.

34. One of our key strengths as a nation is that we are nimble, able to upskill and reskill ourselves, and to adapt to technological, economic, geopolitical and other changes. But this is getting harder, as technology moves faster, our organisations become more complex and stable, and we get older as a people.

35. I hope the schools for lifelong learning inject a strong dose of vivre and nimbleness into our system. I hope to see them as centres for transformation, where adult learners from all backgrounds and ages can seek new hopes and seize new opportunities.

36. On that note, I want to congratulate SMU on the launch of the SMU Academy. Thank you.

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