Speech by Mr Ong Ye Kung, Minister for Education, at the 2nd Singapore Institute of Technology Applied Learning Conference

Published Date: 30 January 2020 12:00 AM

News Speeches

Introduction – SIT Has Come Far

1. I want to first congratulate SIT for organising this conference for the second time.

2. Since your establishment in 2009, you have come very far as an Autonomous University (AU). Today, SIT is the flagbearer of applied learning in the undergraduate space. You have developed many high quality specialised degree programmes, and pioneered new teaching approaches, including the Integrated Work-Study Programme.

3. Today, other AUs are also taking reference from SIT, and infusing applied learning elements into their curricula, such as creating more internship and overseas learning opportunities for students, incorporating industry case studies and real-world projects into their curricula, and expanding work-study programmes.

4. Because of your work, you have provided opportunities for many young men and women, especially Polytechnic graduates, to upgrade their knowledge and skills, and find better career opportunities. More importantly, your students are equipped with skills and knowledge that are relevant and sought-after by industries, and can embark on meaningful careers. In a few years' time, you will have your own integrated campus in Punggol, and I very much look forward to its completion.

Many Pathways, Many Interconnections

5. The applied learning pathway that SIT pioneered is now a mainstream pathway. There are other pathways, such as the traditional academic degree, professional training (to become doctors, lawyers, nurses, or engineers), and the nascent work-study pathway. There are also students who choose not to front load their education too much, join the workforce first, learn the ropes in the industries, and then return for more formal education.

6. I will not dwell on the reasons why different pathways are necessary. Essentially, with technological advancement, humans are increasingly valued for our technical and soft skills, rather than deep content knowledge. These skills cannot be picked up purely off books and papers, but are honed through years of on-the-job practice, improvisation, and continual learning. We need different pathways to support the development of these skills.

7. But having different pathways is not enough. They are like different expressways, bringing us to different destinations. But we also need smaller roads connecting the expressways and pathways together, so that if you decide to switch from one to another, it is possible to do so, even if it means spending more time on your journey. In other words, we need the pathways to be porous, because students do change their plans for various reasons.

8. When I accompanied President Halimah Yacob on a state visit to Germany last month, we visited a technical training centre run by ABB. ABB fully funds the training programmes, and prepares the trainees to be skilled technicians for the company and the wider industry.

9. What is interesting is that ABB has a programme specifically catered to students who had taken the academic path and gone to a Gymnasium or even graduated from University, but later decided to change back to a technical or vocational path. ABB will support and facilitate their switch through very good training and mentorship.

10. The system is therefore highly porous and flexible. It encourages students to focus on developing their passion and interest via the most suitable pathway, without the fear that they are closing off future upgrading options. Students are assured that they can switch pathways, but they must also understand that it can take additional time and effort.

11. Over the years, we have made a lot of progress in facilitating individuals' switch from an applied or technical pathway to an academic pathway. That one-way switch, I think we have done very well. Just look at our Polytechnic graduates. Today, one in three Polytechnic graduates take up offers by various AUs, including popular courses such as Information Systems, Computer Science, and Business Administration.

12. Today, I would like to talk about three initiatives to further enhance the porosity between pathways.

Expanding Opportunities for A-Level Students to Enter Polytechnics

13. First, we will help A-Level students switch to Polytechnics when it is needed. Every year, the large majority of JC students progress to our AUs, but unfortunately a small proportion is not able to cross the admissions bar of the AUs. The problem is that the A-Level certificate is generally not accepted as a work-ready qualification, and these students may face difficulty in starting their careers. One option for them is to enrol into a Polytechnic to get a diploma.

14. However, even though Polytechnic offers a good education, many A-Level students do not find it attractive to make the switch, because it takes too long. To illustrate, after O-levels, a student spends two years in JC, and then uses her results to apply to AUs. If unsuccessful, and she wishes to switch to a Polytechnic, she has already missed the admissions window, and can only enrol in April the following year. Thereafter she will undergo three years of Polytechnic education. In total, she would have taken about 6.5 years to attain a diploma after graduating from secondary school. And to many A-level students, that is just too long.

15. We have taken steps recently to reduce the duration of this process. Since last year, A-Level graduates who do not progress to the AUs need not start in Polytechnics in April the following year like all fresh Polytechnic students. Instead, we allow mid-year entry; they may be eligible for module exemptions depending on the subjects they have taken at A-level, and if granted, can join midstream into Year One Semester Two of their diploma course in October of the same year. So they go through a diploma course of 2.5 years. This change was implemented in about 110 courses, or around half of all Polytechnic courses, and we have received positive feedback from students and parents.

16. We will do more to shorten the time for A-Level graduates to attain a diploma, without compromising standards. For about 60 diploma courses – or about a third of the total number of all Polytechnic courses, we will do two things – first, the course duration for A-level students can be further reduced to two years after appropriate modules exemption. Second, the Polytechnics will allow off-cycle admission – they will allow A-Level students to directly commence Year Two in October of the same year, instead of April in the following year.

17. So the combined effect of these measures is as follows: A student who studied for two years in JC and graduated with A-Levels, but did not progress to the AUs in the same year, can commence Year Two of her Polytechnic course in October of the same year, and graduate with a diploma two years later. The entire process will take her about 4.5 years – two years shorter than the previous arrangement.

18. This reduction in course duration for A-Level students does not compromise the quality of their diploma education. Students will only receive module exemptions if they have met the necessary grades for their A-Level subjects. They will also need to complete the same graduation requirements as the other Polytechnic students, such as internships and overseas exposure. I believe that after graduating with a diploma, many can in fact progress to the universities, especially to SIT.

Expanding Aptitude-Based Admissions at NUS, NTU, and SMU

19. To enable more porosity across pathways, our admissions system needs to rely less on academic grades, and more on other meritorious yardsticks, so that a fuller range of an individual's aptitude and attributes can be taken into account.

20. To achieve this, we will further expand aptitude-based admissions at the AUs. In recent years, the proportion of students who have been admitted into our AUs through this route has increased significantly. In fact, the three newer AUs – the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), SIT, and the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS) – assess all students through an aptitude-based approach.

21. On the other hand, the National University of Singapore (NUS) and the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) practise Discretionary Admissions. Introduced in 2004, it gave the AUs the flexibility to admit up to 10% of each intake cohort based on factors beyond grades, after taking into account other academic and non-academic strengths. However, in implementing the Discretionary Admissions scheme, the AUs primarily still assess students based on whether they meet the academic cut-off point of the courses. If they don't, the AUs exercise discretion. Strictly speaking, it is still academic-based, and is different from the spirit of aptitude-based admissions which look at students more holistically.

22. However, in recent years, NUS and NTU have increasingly practised aptitude-based admissions beyond the Discretionary Admissions Scheme. They have gained confidence in using it to identify students who possess the skills, competencies, and passion to do well in their courses. Some courses such as Architecture, Medicine, Dentistry, and Law also have a long tradition of using aptitude-based admissions.

23. Therefore, from the AY2020 AU intake cohort, NUS, NTU, and SMU will no longer offer a standalone Discretionary Admissions scheme, but will assess more students broadly via aptitude-based admissions, covering as many courses as possible. For example, NTU recently committed to extending aptitude-based admissions to 50% of each intake cohort over the next few years. I'm sure others will move in the same direction.

Opening Up Pathways to Diplomas at Polytechnics and Ite

24. Third, we will open up new articulation pathways, to help individuals in the workforce access more structured full-time learning opportunities. We will do this by recognising their relevant work experience and the credentials they attained through continuing education and training, and not always rely on their academic results they achieved when they were young.

25. Today, individuals with part-time Nitec, part-time Higher Nitec, and WSQ are not eligible to take up full-time diplomas offered by the Polytechnics and ITE. However, we must recognise that working adults have also picked up valuable skills and knowledge through work experience, and they can benefit from full-time skills upgrading at some point in their careers.

26. Hence, from the AY2021 intake exercise, individuals with a part-time Nitec, part-time Higher Nitec, or WSQ Diploma, and have at least one year of relevant work experience, can be considered for entry into full-time diplomas at the polytechnics and ITE. Minimum academic grades requirement will still apply, but as the name implies, they are minimum requirements. We hope this will provide more upgrading options for our working adults, and encourage them to come back to school to pick up new skills. And this will also change the dynamics and atmosphere at the Polytechnics – there will be more students who are working adults, and I think it will make class more interesting.

27. In 2018, I announced that working adults can be considered for admissions into full-time Polytechnic diploma programmes, if they have at least two years of relevant working experience. The take-up has been encouraging. From AY2021, we will similarly extend this work experience-based admissions pathway to the ITE Technical Engineer Diplomas and Technical Diplomas, as well as part-time diplomas at the Polytechnics, to facilitate working adults to upgrade their skills.

28. MOE will also be implementing some minor harmonisation of admissions criteria for diploma programmes across the Polytechnics and ITE. Details will be announced separately via a press release. We are breaking down all the artificial barriers for people to switch from one pathway to another. This is ongoing work, and today we are taking the first steps.

Conclusion

29. In conclusion, I believe these three moves will bring us closer to having a flexible and porous system of inter-connected pathways. We are not yet at an ideal state, but these initiatives are a meaningful step.

30. The education system cannot do this alone, and we need the strong support of companies and industry leaders. Technical education enjoys high prestige in places like Germany and Switzerland because of the large numbers of companies stepping forward to offer on-the-job training and apprenticeships, and recognising these credentials of the graduates. We need more companies like that in Singapore.

31. In this regard, I am pleased to witness the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding between SIT, SMRT, and SkillsFuture Singapore (SSG) today. The pilot collaboration allows SIT and SMRT to leverage each other's expertise, to support skills training for SMRT's workers, as well as workers across SMRT's large value chain involving many Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs). More than 100 SMEs are expected to benefit over three years. I would like to thank SMRT for stepping forward to lead the transformation of the industry.

32. I wish SIT all the best, and everyone an enriching and enjoyable two days here at the conference. Thank you.

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