Opening Remarks by Mr Lawrence Wong, Minister for Education At The Straits Times Education Forum 2021 “Reimagining Universities, Post-COVID”, 5 February 2021

Published Date: 05 February 2021 02:30 PM

News Speeches

1. Good morning everyone, happy to be here to join you for the Straits Times Education Forum. In a typical year we would have been gathered in a large auditorium and able to see one another. Unfortunately with COVID-19, we are unable to do so, but I think the silver lining behind all this is that in some ways, we are able to reach out to a larger audience through this virtual format.

2. COVID-19 has truly prompted a rethink in many aspects of our lives – not too long ago, I attended an IPS forum where the theme was “Reset”. Today we are looking at “reset” or “reimagination” in one specific sector – the university sector.

3. In fact for years, before COVID-19, there were predictions that the university sector would be completely disrupted by technology. You see this particularly in countries such as America and the United Kingdom – tuition fees have been rising, costs have escalated, universities have become more bloated, student debts rise, and so, there have been questions about the value of a university education. Thus the pandemic has prompted more questioning of these trends – students are not able to attend classes face to face, and there is prompting of whether universities need to do more to reform themselves. In fact, there are now predictions in these countries that there will be so much disruptions that we may well see the demise of more universities unable to cope with such pressures.

4. We are not immune to these trends and pressures in Singapore. But our approach has been not to allow external forces to disrupt us, but to proactively disrupt ourselves instead. And so, over the years, we have continually reviewed and updated our university sector. And that’s how we have been able to grow a strong and diverse university sector in Singapore today. We have independent and external validators coming around to assess our universities, and they will affirm that what we are doing in research and teaching and learning are comparable to the best universities in the world. The fact that we have been able to do that in such a short time – credit goes out to the people we have in our universities: university presidents, academic faculty and staff, and we recognise their many contributions.

5. Still, we cannot rest on our laurels. We should recognise that it is a continual work in progress, and we must keep on improving and doing better. COVID-19 will accelerate many of the trends and driving forces we see in the university sector. So today I’ll share three areas which I think universities of the future can do better in, within the Singapore context.

6. First, we ought to do better in terms of teaching and learning outcomes for all our university students. Again, this is not a new criticism. Since the start of the university, there have criticisms over how universities and how academic faculty prioritise research over teaching. It’s not always a fair criticism, because in my experience, some of the best researchers are also excellent and inspiring teachers. However this criticism exists, and we are aware of it. There is also criticism that the university curriculum has not changed much. I read a recent commentary in the UK newspapers, and it said that “the university course has barely changed its 3-year structure of lectures, essays and exams in a hundred years.” I think it’s a bit exaggerated since it’s a UK commentator. But in Singapore, we’ve continually been looking at ways to refresh and update quality of teaching and learning in our universities.

7. So the university course in Singapore today is quite different, not from what it was a hundred years ago, but even ten or five years ago. It’s not just lectures anymore – you have a whole range of different types of capstone projects, seminars, collaborative projects, overseas opportunities, service-based learning, internships – it’s quite a rich and diverse range of offerings. And more recently, all our universities are looking at ways to provide more holistic learning. In other words, we are trying to broaden the range of offerings for students: not just focussing on specific domain knowledge that you would like to pursue your major in, but we are also looking at greater breadth, and more inter-disciplinary and cross-domain knowledge. For example, areas like digital literacy, innovation and entrepreneurship, communication, soft skills; these are all important and relevant.

8. We are also looking at updating the method of instruction in our universities. Even before COVID, universities have been moving away from large lecture formats, and making use of more interactive formats to engage students. Again, this trend will accelerate with COVID-19. I don’t think we will see everything going online. Learning is still very much a relational activity and human contact is essential. But increasingly, we will likely see a combination of online and classroom learning, or what we call blended learning, as well as the flipped classroom. This likely to become the new normal. We are continually looking at ways to improve outcomes for student education – this is a key priority and an area we want to continue to do better in.

9. Second, in embracing lifelong learning. The model of university education everywhere is frontloaded when someone is young, with a fixed period of education and then a fixed period of work. I think that model is no longer relevant today. We need to think of a new rotational model of learning, where work and education are rotated over the course of your career.

10. What does this mean for the university? Three things: One, you have to cater for multiple entry points along the age distribution rather than focussing on full-time education for the young. That means looking at offering part-time degree for adults, modular offerings that can be taken throughout one’s life and which can be stacked up and count towards a qualification later on.

11. Second, universities must cater to multiple entry points along the entire skills spectrum and not just focus on the cognitive – so they have to think about social, technical, industry-relevant skills, hands-on skills, practical life-skills, or even relationship building, working in teams, negotiation skills – these are all very important. So, the university of the future needs to be plural rather than singular – it needs to be more of a “multi-versity” rather than a university.

12. I think we can start to see some of these changes across all our universities. I was in MOE ten years ago, and when I reflect on our universities today, I can see so much more focus on executive, lifelong learning, compared to say ten or five years ago – a much richer offering of programmes catering to students, not just to those in full-time programmes, but for everyone in the workforce. Hence, universities embracing lifelong learning is a second area we should aim for.

13. Thirdly and finally, we need much closer collaboration with industry. Now, it has become a truism to say that universities have to collaborate with industry – all universities say that. But still, we must continue to do much more in this area.

14. When universities don’t move fast enough, then they become at risk of getting disrupted. Again, you see this around the world. For example, large companies now decide to set up their own academies, partly out of frustration that universities in their countries are not able to produce graduates to meet their needs.

15. One example is Dyson, which started its own Dyson Institute because of difficulties in getting engineering graduates in the UK. Thus they had their own Institute to meet this engineering skills gap. At the start, Dyson Institute offered degrees in partnership with University of Warwick. Now it’s been granted its own degree-awarding powers.

16. I don’t think we need to get there in Singapore. But our universities will therefore strengthen and deepen their collaboration here in Singapore when it comes to student education. There is a lot that our universities are already doing – they are getting industry inputs on curriculum, and our polytechnics do very well in this regard. Universities will increasingly also have to take a leaf from the polytechnic sector. They are getting students involved in solving real-world industry challenges, and creating new pathways like Work-Study programmes which go beyond internships, because in this programme, the university and the company are partners in creating the curriculum for the student.

17. Such collaboration is also crucial in the area of research. In Singapore, we have increased significantly our investments in research and development (R&D). Some part of this R&D work is in basic research – universities must continue to push the frontiers of knowledge in discovery. A lot of this has to also be part of the broader eco-system for innovation, entrepreurship and enterprise within Singapore itself. Hence, we have been encouraging the setting up of more corporate labs in our university sector—where the professors in the university can work with the engineers and people within companies themselves, and they can translate cutting-edge research into innovative ground-breaking commercial solutions. In our fight against COVID-19, for example, we’ve seen how such academic-university collaboration has been most useful in developing test kits and other solutions to fight the virus.

18. In conclusion, I hope to see universities of the future becoming centres of learning, nurturing a broad range of skills, having close collaboration with industry, and nurturing everyone to be a lifelong learner. I believe our universities do play critical roles in contributing to the well-being of our nation and our people. And as our universities continue to re-imagine and re-build themselves, they will play a very important role in shaping the future of our society. Thank you.

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