Speech by Minister for Education, Mr Chan Chun Sing, at the SkillsFuture Month @ Singapore Institute of Technology

Published Date: 04 August 2021 01:30 PM

News Speeches

1. A very good morning to friends and colleagues and members of the SIT family. Happy to join you today at SkillsFuture Month @ SIT.

2. First, let me thank SIT for organising today's event on behalf of all the Institutes of Higher Learning (IHLs). In the spirit of what Professor Tan Thiam Soon said, I believe we should stop calling ourselves IHLs - we should call ourselves the ICLs, the Institutes of Continuous Learning. And it is true because there is no higher or lower learning, there is only continuous learning.

  1. SIT has been a strong advocate of lifelong learning and is a key player in our SkillsFuture movement.
  2. SIT was our first university of applied learning, and was one of the first to offer SkillsFuture Work-Study Degrees.
  3. SITLEARN has been supporting alumni and working adults to upskill and reskill in fields such as engineering and health sciences.
  4. SIT was also the first university to join the National Centre of Excellence for Workplace Learning effort, helping enterprises such as SMRT and Kwong Wai Shiu Hospital build up their capabilities.

Strengthening Our Lifelong Learning Ecosystem

3. Over the years, we have invested substantially in building up our education system – both our schools and IHLs. This has enabled us to deliver good student outcomes, train a skilled workforce, and create the foundation for our economic development.

4. While we will continue to do so, the competition around the world has intensified. Beyond the formal school system, or what we call the foundational school system, we must invest more attention and resources in two other areas in order for Singapore to keep pace with the changes in the world and stay ahead of the curve.

  1. The first has to do with pre-school education, which we will discuss on another occasion.
  2. The second, which in my mind is the most important determinant of a country's competitiveness, is Continuing Education and Training (CET). Doing well in the foundational part is necessary but not sufficient. What increasingly matters is whether any society, including Singapore, can move the needle when it comes to continuing education beyond our school system.

5. In order to do this, we will need to nurture a new generation of lifelong learners – starting them on the right footing with a strong academic foundation, and supporting their learning throughout life. Only so will our people continue to enjoy not just good starting pay after leaving school, but more importantly, enjoy a good growth trajectory in their lifetime.

6. The biggest challenge today for many economies is the same - how do we keep producing enough graduates with the right skillsets required by fast-evolving industries? It is not just about the number of graduates and their qualifications, it is about how well we are able to help our graduates acquire the evolving skillsets that are necessary to meet the fast changing needs of the industries. This will determine their employment outcome, wage growth and the competitiveness of our country.

7. The reason is because the business and technological cycles have become shorter, much more compressed and much more volatile. Hence we need to be able to acquire new skills at the right speed to meet the demands of the fast evolving market.

8. Let me talk about three ways which I think we need to help our IHLs to strengthen our lifelong education system. These three ways are not new. Many of our IHLs are already practising this, including SIT which is at the forefront of this.

  1. First, how do we shorten the cycle from frontier industry to academia;
  2. Second, how do we review andragogy and maintain currency of faculty; and
  3. Third, how do we strengthen the motivation of our people to reskill and upskill.

Shortening the Cycle from Frontier Industry to Academia

9. Let me start with the first, which is to shorten the cycle from frontier industry to academia. The pace of change will continue to accelerate and we need to find ways to shorten this cycle for our graduates to be much more versatile to meet the needs of the industry.

10. From the time a person chooses his or her course of study, to the time the person graduates and joins the workforce, it is at least a few years and for many of the frontier industries, the industry changes in these few years may already make the knowledge gained in IHLs irrelevant. The knowledge that the student had acquired might have already become obsolete.

11. So we have to approach this issue from two angles. We need a strong educational foundation, which is necessary and unchanging. But more importantly, we need to look at how we can attract the frontier industries to pass on their knowledge to academia in a much shorter cycle so that the training content that we deliver is in step with what the industries need.

  1. This will entail changes in how the IHLs have traditionally approached the design of CET programmes, to allow for greater industry involvement in curating and delivering those content, and even in assessing the trainees. In a recent meeting that I had with the US-ASEAN Business Council, we discussed how it is important for the industry not to wait for graduates to come to them. Instead, it is in their interest to reach out to the IHLs, be they universities, polytechnics or ITE, and start collaborating with these IHLs to train the people that they need. And this is why the MOU signings today are so important - this is an example of how we get industry to partner our IHLs to shorten the cycle of knowledge transfer from frontier companies to academia so that our students will be much more ready for the job market when they graduate from the IHLs.

I encourage more of our frontier companies to embark on such partnerships to develop the curriculum, provide the assessment tools and to inspire the graduates to enter their industry even before they officially graduate.

12. Our IHLs are making progress on this front:

  1. This October, the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) will launch new Financial Technology (FinTech) courses with TechFin, a subsidiary of PolicyPal. TechFin will help develop and deliver the course content to ensure industry relevance.
  2. Another example is the partnership between Singapore Polytechnic (SP) and Ericsson. With the support of SkillsFuture Singapore (SSG), they have co-developed a series of hands-on, industry-relevant practitioner courses to uplift the technical capabilities of professionals working with 5G technology.

Review Andragogy and Maintain Currency of Faculty

13. Now the second challenge that we will need to overcome is to review our andragogy and maintain the currency of faculty. Other than content, our method of delivery also needs to be designed to be much more adult-learner centric. In fact, someone corrected me the other day - we should not use the word 'adult' and 'youth'. If we look at the generation of students coming through our ranks, almost every five years, we see a different generation of learners, using different technologies and embracing different pedagogies. To equip our adult learners in their mid-40s and 50s, we will need a different way of engaging them compared to what is done for the 20 or 30-years-old. This is something that must be conscious in our minds - that almost every five to 10 years, we are looking at a new and different generation of learners and our andragogy must fit the needs of these different generations.

14. For the many adult learners, they are unlikely to come back to college full-time and they also have many family and financial responsibilities, and we need to take into account their time pressures when we design the curriculum for them.

15. SIT is taking a bold step by piloting a new Competency-based Workplace Learning pathway leading to a degree.

  1. Under this pathway, significant portions of the programme will be delivered through workplace learning. For these modules, learners will be assessed based on their skills and competencies acquired in the workplace.
  2. Adult learners will also be able to gain credits towards the graduating requirements, based on their skills and competencies acquired through prior working experience.
  3. This new pathway will require strong collaboration with the industry. For a start, SIT will pilot this pathway in two areas: One, in Information Security with Ensign InfoSecurity. Two, in Sustainable Infrastructure Engineering with SBS Transit and SMRT Corporation.

16. It is also important for our teaching faculty and lecturers to be equipped with andragogical knowledge so that they can effectively engage adult learners.

  1. We have invested in the Institute of Adult Learning at the Singapore University of Social Sciences for many years, to build up a strong knowledge base in the practice of CET and to conduct research into adult learning.
  2. We have to strengthen three limbs in our review of the pedagogy and training of our lecturers. Today, the National Institute of Education (NIE), which trains the teachers for our school system, is one of the strongest in the world, and at the cutting edge. In recent years, we have invested significant resources into the National Institute for Early Childhood Education (NIEC), and that will train another core group of teachers, educators and carers for the preschool sector. But there is a third limb that we need to pay attention to, and that is the Institute of Adult Learning. Since joining MOE, I have been pushing for us to develop the Institute of Adult Learning, similar to how we have built up NIE and NIEC. When all three of these limbs are strong we will be successfully enable lifelong learning from preschool to the foundational school system, to the IHLs, or ICLs.
  3. So in the next bound, we will be investing much more in the Science of Learning research to improve learning capacity and support the upskilling efforts of our adults through a better understanding of the underlying scientific factors. This will then truly help our people to achieve their potential over their life cycle.

17. For our faculty and lecturers to design and deliver industry-relevant training, our IHLs must have in place structures to encourage the teaching faculty to keep pace with industry developments and to develop industry-relevant skills and competencies.

  1. We will need to look at how to institutionalise regular industry attachments, rotations and sabbaticals for our teaching staff, so that they can gain new perspectives and develop new connections with the frontier industries.
  2. We would also need to have a revolving door in place, for teaching faculty and lecturers to move seamlessly between the workplace and the classroom.
  3. Alternatively, our faculty must be regularly involved with projects with frontier companies so that they will bring back the latest knowledge to command the respect of their students and very importantly, the adult learners.
  4. And for the adult learners, some of them may even know things beyond what the faculty may know and this is where our faculty will then need to acquire new competencies to be a facilitator for people to come back and share knowledge beyond just teaching.

Strengthen the Motivations for Reskilling and Upskilling

18. Beyond the two things that I have talked about - shortening the cycle of knowledge transfer from industry to academia, and reviewing the andragogy and currency of our IHL faculty, the third thing we need to do, and it is the most difficult, is strengthen the motivations for reskilling and upskilling. How do we do this for the adult population which has many other responsibilities and commitments?

19. Findings from a 2020 SSG survey point to a gap between employers and individuals in their perception of skills competency. Out of 1,500 employers and 2,800 individual respondents, 70% of the individuals were confident in their current skills and their continued relevance in the next 3 to 5 years. However, only 50% of employers believed their employees possessed the right skills for their organisational needs. So, there is a difference between what the perceptions of the individuals and the employers.

20. This 20% gap suggests that we need to generate a much greater sense of urgency and motivation amongst individuals to reskill and upskill, and to have employers step up their communications with their employees on where those gaps will be. I had a question when I saw this survey – has the pandemic over the one and a half years, widened or narrowed this gap? The preliminary feedback suggests that employees' perception of their relevance has grown, while the employers' perception of their employees' relevance has decreased. This means that the gap has opened up even further. Now these are just preliminary results that have yet to be fully ascertained, but if this is true, then it suggests that this challenge is now even more acute.

21. How can we help our adult learners to realise this and motivate them to upskill and reskill themselves amidst their many competing priorities in life - that is our challenge.

22. This November, SSG will publish its inaugural annual skills report. This report will identify in-demand and emerging skills for job opportunities, including growth areas such as the Green Economy, the Digital Economy and the Care Economy . This will give us a sense of where the growth areas are. But knowing where the growth areas and skills shortages are is merely the first step, we still need the employers and the employees to work together to acquire these needed skills. This is even more challenging in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, because of the increased uncertainty to the business outlook. In an environment where there is increased business uncertainty, there is the risk that employers or companies will actually invest less in their people. This is paradoxical, because this is actually the time when we need to invest more in our people, but because of the heightened uncertainty, there might be less investments, both at the levels of the individual and companies.

23. So this is where SSG is committed to work together with the employers and their employees to see how we can overcome this gap in the motivations of our people and companies to upgrade their skills. The competition is not local, the competition is global.

Conclusion

24. On this note, I would like to thank all the industry partners who are present today for your efforts. Your partnership with SIT and our other IHLs is fundamental in getting us onto the correct trajectory. Our ability to move the needle for our people and their career prospects will depend very much on partnerships with industries, to enable knowledge transfer to our IHLs in the shortest time possible.

25. This will allow our faculty members to keep their skillsets current and maintain important linkages to industries. Most importantly, these partnerships will allow us to encourage both employers and employees, to close the skills gap that exist today and will grow in the future, unless we do something as soon as possible. So, thank you all for your partnership and MOE and SSG will continue to work closely with you to make sure that our adult learners get the best support possible in their journey of lifelong learning.

26. Thank you.

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