Speech by Mr Ong Ye Kung, Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills), at APAIE 2018 Conference and Exhibition

Published Date: 26 March 2018 12:00 AM

News Speeches

Professor Sarah Todd, President, APAIE (pronounced A-Pie)

Members of the APAIE Board of Directors

Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen

1. It is my great pleasure to be with you today at the APAIE 2018 Conference and Exhibition. The theme of today’s conference, like many conferences these days, revolves around the topic of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Singapore is honoured to be your host to discuss this important topic, and today, I would like to share with everyone our latest efforts in reforming our higher education system.

2. And I will talk about what drove us to reform the system, what were our key considerations, mainly some specific things we had changed, and I hope it will provide a good reference for your discussions.

Industrialisation Changes Education

3. What drove us to reform our higher education system? Well, many people are saying: Industry 4.0 is upon us, so we must change the way we learn, work and live. But as to how to change, and what to change? We are none the wiser.

4. Let me offer a view. The fact that the revolution is numbered 4.0 means that there were earlier revolutions – the first, the second, and the third – that were no less disruptive. The essence of the current phase of change is not that different from the past – technologically-driven, disruptive, and turning the known order upside down.

5. In essence, industrialisation first automated manual labour, and turned workshops into assembly lines in factories. It then further automated the human brain, and is now reorganising human teamwork from assembly lines into a network. And in the process, the fastest-growing industries changed from extractive ones that relied on natural resources to those fuelled by innovation and by ideas.

6. Since a key function of education is to produce workers for the economy, industrialisation naturally had a profound impact on how education is being delivered and how teaching is done. So if we look back in history, prior to industrialisation, people learned in guilds, and from masters. But when industrialisation led to the division of labour and the rise of factories, schools were established and configured to teach the young how to fit into industrialised job.

7. Since then, education has become synonymous with schools, as well as universities.

8. Today, as we ride a new wave of industrialisation, we should naturally expect, and in fact push for, the shape of education to change. But the nature of change is very different now, compared to Singapore’s early days of independence.

9. 40 years ago, we knew what our economic strategy was, which was to attract MNCs to Singapore, as foreign direct investments to set up factories and provide jobs. And we knew what we had to do to the education system in response to this, which was to educate our young to possess the knowledge and skills demanded by the MNCs. That was a straightforward equation.

10. Today, we don’t even know what jobs of the future will look like. Industries are creating new job titles all the time, and new ways of organising work. And it would be foolish to think that the old way of planning education will continue to be effective. We must now foster human ingenuity and resilience so that our children will grow up and thrive in an environment we cannot yet fully fathom or discern. Education needs to evolve – not in definitive ways – but based on the shape of things to come.

11. And so what are these shape of things to come?

12. First, the education system must focus on achieving and measuring learning outcomes and avoid over-emphasising the importance of academic grades, which represent actually only a fraction of the attributes needed to succeed in life.

13. We need to examine more carefully the pathways that are most suitable for different groups of students, to help them achieve these good outcomes. For example, there are voices today that have even called into question the value of a university degree, as the proliferation of university graduates requires employers to look for other forms of differentiation when selecting talent.

14. In a recent survey conducted in the UK, 58% of employers rated work experience as the “most popular qualification” regarded, citing the reason that a one-off degree classification tells little about the individual student. That is of course reflective of the state of education in the UK.

15. In the same vein, the success of a university cannot be measured merely by pass rates, employment outcomes, or international rankings, but the long-term resilience of students, and students’ willingness to take risks, innovate, and create.

16. To do so, the system must recognise the diversity of strengths and talents amongst our young, and that only a passion-driven learning process will be self-directed, lifelong, and resilient to disruption because the young person is motivated to learn, unlearn and re-learn. In this system, the goal post has shifted from teaching a student enough so that they can graduate, to helping students learn to learn so that they actually never really graduate.

Dilemmas and Considerations

17. These were MOE’s starting premises when we embarked on the latest round of reform in education, and continue to form the backbone of the SkillsFuture movement that we launched in 2014.

18. But in any process, we are confronted with dilemmas, trade-offs, risks, and rewards. Let me now talk about some of these dilemmas and key considerations.

19. The first dilemma is this – why fix what is not broken? Our education system has a strong international reputation and has produced good outcomes – PISA scores, good university rankings, and positive graduate employment rates.

20. But sometimes a great strength can also be a weakness, because there will be the temptation to let things be or just tweak things at the margins, instead of making more fundamental but necessary changes. So we quickly concluded that we must build on, not rest on, this important foundation. And indeed, this has been the attitude of every Education Minister over the decades.

21. The second dilemma is a trickier one – our education system is closely aligned with national social and economic priorities. As societies and economies are faced with greater volatility, can the existing centrally and well planned education system continue to yield good results? Do we press on, or do we relax and give up?

22. The key imperative of education remains, at least in Singapore, to meet national needs – to earn our own living, create good jobs for our people, and help them excel at work and in life. Education also imbues common values and languages, as well as shapes the worldview of our young. So it serves a top-down, functional, and integrative objective, important to all societies.

23. But at the same time, individuals naturally wish to make their own choices in education based on their aspirations and needs, especially when technology is opening up so many tremendous career opportunities. Children and youth in particular possess a natural fascination for the kind of careers they want in the future. They want to change lives, help the poor, save the planet and make the world a better place.

24. Education systems must therefore also help people uncover and pursue their passions, and chase their respective rainbows. Such a system is bottom-up, aspirational, and diversifying.

25. Integrative versus diversifying. The collective versus the individual. Change versus stasis. The education system must strike a pragmatic balance between opposite yet related perspectives, in a world where major historical episodes – be it the rise of China or the advancement of Artificial Intelligence – they are still unfolding, and where the young are creating their own jobs through start-ups, and shaping their future.

26. In this evolving system, governments continue to have a duty to decipher what is happening in the world, and signal to parents and students what are the promising areas to pursue. We must recognise that it is very frustrating for a young person to graduate with a degree or diploma just to become jobless. So, there must always be signals about demand in the market. Never ignore demand.

27. At the same time, the education system must get to know the individual better. What to learn is also a personal enterprise. If we can help every one of our students to discover their interests and aspirations, uncover innate talents and abilities, and match them to the demand – that will become an enduring strength for the collective, and for Singapore.

28. The second dilemma is something we must learn to balance. If we do it right, there is even synergy between the two contrasting systems. Of course, it helps that Singapore’s economy continues to be vibrant, dynamic and diverse. If we continue to be an economic power, I think we can balance and synergise the opposing tensions.

29. The third is less of a dilemma, but what used to be a self-imposed dichotomy. Structurally, the Ministry of Education’s area of responsibility has been the education of students before they step into the workforce, whereas the training of adult workers had traditionally come under the Ministry of Manpower.

30. So in this era of change, where learning needs to be lifelong, the two functions need to be seamless. We concluded that the best way to do this is to restructure the division of labour, so that education and learning, from cradle to grave, all comes under one agency – which is the Ministry of Education.

Reforming Education in Schools

31. Our approach towards resolving the three dilemmas I just spoke about undergirds our current phase of education reforms. I will focus more on the specific things we have done in higher education because that is what I am involved and in charge of.

32. But the starting point of the reform is at the twelve-year-old mark, when our students take the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE). This is the big examination that makes parents and students lose sleep. Many parents will stock up on tonics for their children, and take leave to personally coach their children. In their minds, rightly or wrongly, PSLE can affect the rest of their child’s life. This is not an education policy – but something ingrained in our culture.

33. However, MOE can try to engender a paradigm shift over time, to dial back the excessive focus on academic results. Hence, we are moving from a precise scoring system using a T-score, to a system of wider scoring bands for the PSLE. This will temper the excessive competition in the current system. The change will take effect in 2021, to give sufficient time for parents and students to adapt and adjust.

34. At the same time, MOE has doubled down on making education holistic, so that every child can grow up to be a well-rounded individual. Good character, social-emotional competencies, a sense of belonging to their community and nation, as well as developing individual soft skills, which are important, but cannot be taught only in a classroom.

35. Hence in schools, we are expanding the opportunities for students to participate in community projects, on top of a range of co-curricular activities, which can be in arts, sports, or uniformed groups.

36. Outdoor education has become an integral and larger part of the curriculum since 2014. We are introducing new programmes with better facilities, and plan to roll all these out by year 2020.

37. There is also renewed emphasis on Applied Learning – so that students learn by doing, and we can help them open up their minds, unlock their imagination and discover their interests and passions.

Reforming Higher Education

38. In higher education, we concluded that education should, as much as possible, simulate and prepare students for real life.

39. Knowledge no longer carries the same premium it used to because technology has made knowledge very accessible. What is highly valued today is how someone applies knowledge in real life – in other words, skills. That comes with experience and with practise.

40. That’s why all of our universities are offering a dynamic experience for their students, where they make friends, expand their networks, seek mentorship, gain exposure to different cultures, and embark on a meaningful journey of self-discovery. In other words, learning at the universities have to become experiential.

41. So today, industry attachments have become the norm. Some attachments last up to a year, so that students are fully immersed in real-life work. Universities are beginning to recognise that there is value in bringing companies into campuses, and vice versa. So, co-operative programmes, co-developed by universities and major companies, are sprouting. They combine institutional education with practical work experience in an almost 50:50 split, and strengthen the nexus between study and work.

42. Around two-thirds of all our university students do at least one overseas stint. They can be in the form of academic exchanges, overseas internships, social work or entrepreneurship experiences, or short project-based trips. Some universities are specialising in providing exposure to Southeast Asian countries, which form Singapore’s immediate economic hinterland. Others focus on overseas entrepreneurship programmes, where students are attached to start-ups in the United States, Europe, and in Asia.

43. Our universities are also making curriculum changes to ensure that our students are well-versed in the latest lingua franca of international commerce. For a long time this has been English. But I think the new-age lingua franca is digital literacy. Most of our universities have made quantitative reasoning and computational thinking compulsory subjects for all students.

44. As I said just now, one of the key ways in which we can keep students motivated to learn through life is to help them identify and pursue their interest. Interest is the start of a sense of purpose. If we are learning something we are interested in, we are more likely to stay curious and engaged. And if we can stay curious, we are more likely to make that a lifetime pursuit, and achieve mastery in the process of doing that.

45. One way to achieve this is make our higher education pathways more diverse and variegated, to cater to different students’ inclinations and learning styles. I talked about co-operative programmes earlier. Over the past 10 years, we also started a university of design and technology, and another university focused on applied learning, catering particularly for polytechnic graduates. And last year, we converted a private university offering part-time degree programmes for adults into a publicly-funded university.

46. Another way is to diversify the way we recognise and admit students. Admission and academic reforms are two sides of the same coin. In fact, our studies reveal that amongst polytechnic students with similar O-Level aggregate scores, those who were admitted based on their aptitude and interest in the course, do much better in their studies. And they were far more likely to embark on careers in the sectors in which they were trained, compared to those admitted based solely on academic grades.

47. We therefore decided to expand something that was already in place – we increased the number of places allocated to students who demonstrate interest or aptitude for a particular discipline. So far, the response has been good across all levels of the tertiary education institutions.

48. However, aptitude-based admissions only work for students who have already identified their interests at the point of entering polytechnics or universities. The reality is that many students today have yet to experience enough of the world to know about themselves, let alone their calling, when they are barely 20 years old.

49. Therefore, we are putting in place a systemic Education and Career Guidance programme, starting in secondary schools, to help students get a better sense of where their interests and their strengths lie. As education becomes more experiential, students will also learn about and come into contact with different vocations and professions earlier.

Underscoring Lifelong Learning

50. Restructuring MOE to look after education and upgrading throughout people’s lives is a major boost to lifelong learning. The central initiative here is called SkillsFuture. It’s a national movement to provide Singaporeans with the opportunities to develop their fullest potential throughout their lives, regardless of their starting points.

51. In fact, SkillsFuture is the centrepiece and the driving force of this entire education reform propgramme. It is about recognising diverse interests and talents, encouraging a lifelong pursuit of mastery through multiple pathways, embracing an even broader definition of meritocracy based on skills mastery, rather than past academic results. It is about celebrating diverse talents, social mobility, economic competitiveness and well-being of the Singapore society.

52. One significant change brought about by the restructuring is that our Institutes of Higher Learning broke out of their traditional mould, from educating only students to becoming centres of lifelong learning. They are now actively ramping up courses for adult workers. In 2017 alone, 54,000 adult learners passed through our Institutes of Higher Learning.

53. But the more profound impact is the change in their approach to teaching. This is most evident in our universities. The traditional mindset is that universities have three or four precious years to prepare students before they embarked on their careers. So from the word “go”, they are in a race against time to pack in as much as they can into the curriculum. And that includes foundational knowledge, industry-related skills, inter-disciplinary skills, and work attachments, all within the short three to four years.

54. The result is a hectic and technically intensive curriculum that is very much front-loaded. Employers often comment that while a lot of Singapore graduates know a lot of “technical stuff”, they should perhaps acquire more critical soft skills essential for the workplace.

55. But now, universities as centres of lifelong learning have realised that they do not have three to four years, but 20, 30 years to work with students, because they will keep returning for more knowledge and skills after graduation. So the old mindset of front-loading education will change, as universities learn to embrace lifelong learning as part of their mission.

56. In this regard, The National University of Singapore is blazing the trail for the higher education sector in Singapore. Last year, NUS announced that all alumni are entitled to two free modules over a three-year period. The response was so overwhelming that NUS is expanding the programme to become one that treats every student enrolment as lasting for 20 years, helping their students to build their careers and learn for life. In this light, the concept of alumni is therefore also changing.

57. Our efforts to promote lifelong learning and SkillsFuture have yielded encouraging results, with our training participation rising steadily from 32% to 42% over the last 10 years. But more importantly is the type of courses that adult learners are going for, with IT and digital literacy courses the popular choices. We believe we are on the right track, and will continue to invest our efforts and resources into these initiatives.


58. Ladies and gentlemen, I have given you a whirlwind tour of Singapore’s efforts to reform our education system over the last few years. Given the time limit, I have mainly focused on the teaching aspect of universities. But education is much more than that. Beyond that, education is also a key conduit for social policies to address issues such as income disparity and social stratification, and we are making changes to tackle such issues at a more fundamental level, for example, at the pre-school level.

59. Further, our universities will also play a broader role. In particular, a university’s impact is no longer confined to education and changing the lives of students – it has now broadened to driving innovation and enterprise, providing a launch pad for future entrepreneurs and start-ups, keeping our industries at the forefront of the pack. We have witnessed how universities such as Carnegie Mellon helped change the fate of Pittsburgh. I have great confidence that our universities will play an equally vital role in Singapore’s economy and society.

60. One final change that has yet to come is the way universities’ impact on society and economy is measured and benchmarked. Most educators know that the international rankings today do not fully capture how well universities are performing these profound and important roles. I believe many of them will also agree with me that it is also time that our outcomes and impact evaluation metrics catch up with reality and Industry 4.0.

61. This generation is at a unique juncture in history. Every generation has its own challenges and solutions, but I am convinced that the opportunities at our finger tips today are much greater than before, and the competition that we face is correspondingly, more intense as well.

62. Domestically, the older, more pragmatic generation growing up will in time remake the home they live in. We have just pushed off from the starting line of a time of change and transformation. We need to persevere in this race, and patiently and wisely mould the future of Singapore.

63. I wish you a good Conference. Thank you very much.

Share this article: