Speeches/Interviews

June 07, 2018

Keynote Address by Mr Ong Ye Kung, Minister for Education, at the 3rd International Congress on Vocational and Professional Education and Training, Winterthur, Switzerland

Federal Councillor Mr Johann Schneider-Ammann

United States Secretary of Education Ms Betsy DeVos

Distinguished guests

Ladies and gentlemen

1. It is my pleasure to join you at this year’s International Congress on Vocational and Professional Education and Training (VPET) here in Winterthur.

A Disruption to Education

2. The world we are preparing our young for is very different from the times when we designed our education systems. Today, we share a common challenge – that the education systems in our countries are all in danger of becoming obsolete as technology is disrupting every industry, including education.

3. Why? First, skills and occupational demands have changed. Robots and computers are replacing human functions, but, at the same time, are also creating new jobs that have yet to be envisaged. We need to prepare our young for another major phase of creative destruction.

4. Second, technology has made knowledge more widely available. Hence, educators have come to the conclusion that imparting knowledge through lectures is no longer the best mode of learning. Instead, the premium on skills – the ability to get things done by working alongside machines and computers, and collaborating with fellow human beings – is rising and becoming more sought after. This is why Singapore embarked on a national movement called SkillsFuture.

5. Critical soft skills – what many term as 21st Century Skills – are becoming core to education, just like numeracy and literacy skills. Because in a globalised world, national borders are now more porous than ever. Once they start work, our young will be thrust into a global working environment from the word “go”, and they must have the critical soft skills to survive.

6. Finally, divisive forces are creating new fractures in societies – between rich and poor, young and old, races and religions. Our young need to be good contributing members of society, and play a part in tending to and healing societal wounds, and holding society together. This is probably the most critical of all 21st Century Skills.

7. In the world of education, we pose questions and solve problems all the time. In that sense, the future relevance of education is itself the mother of all questions. We see glimpses of brilliant solutions from time to time – such as specialised universities, non-college education experiences, and creatively designed schools and pre-schools.

8. But education is ultimately a public good. Catering to a niche is not good enough. Changes need to be scaled up to serve the masses, transform a generation and uplift society as a whole.

The Swiss Dual Study System

9. That is why educators around the world are studying the systems in various countries, discovering best practices, seeking the “holy grail” of education to solve tomorrow’s challenges.

10. So over the past three years, I have visited Switzerland annually as Minister for Education. My predecessors had also made Switzerland a regular destination.

11. What has particularly interested us is the Swiss dual study system, which combines classroom study with workplace apprenticeship training. The system dates back to the craft guilds of the Middle Ages, even before we had polytechnics and universities.

12. Today, you have made the transfer of skills and knowledge from master to disciple a systematic and institutionalised process within a modern education system. It has been updated to cover modern services and even high technology sectors.

13. Today, the dual study system is not merely about vocational training, but represents an alternate pathway for nurturing talent. Mr Sergio Ermotti, Chief Executive of UBS, is a good example of someone who rose through the ranks through the dual study system. And there are many others like him.

14. Another admirable feature of the Swiss dual study system is the participation of industries. You have brought education into industries, and vice versa. Two years ago, I visited Swatch and saw how the company put aside intra-industry competition, and trained craftsmen for the entire watch industry. This is a national ethos rarely seen in other countries.

15. The success of your apprenticeship system has significant societal impact. I see a more egalitarian society, where parents and children choose either the academic or apprenticeship route based on the child’s interests, aptitudes and passion. Your society, too, embraces and celebrates many forms of achievements and success.

The Singapore System

16. Now let me turn to Singapore. Our education system has also been a subject of international study. Every year, educators around the world visit us. They are particularly interested in our centralised recruitment, training, and development system for teachers. Our model-based approach of teaching mathematics is open sourced, and has been adopted in many parts of the world.

17. Our system has done well in terms of outcomes. Our students score well in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), in literacy, numeracy as well as critical soft skills. One of the most significant achievements is that we have one of the smallest proportion of low performers in the world.

18. At the higher education level, two of our national universities – the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University – have achieved high international rankings, even though that is only one aspect of the national mission of our universities.

19. About nine in 10 graduates are able to find jobs within six months of graduation in Singapore. But the notion of job searches and careers are also changing. Many graduates are now choosing to take up freelance work, start their own companies, and take gap years for various purposes.

Finding Our Own Solutions

20. Even as we study the systems around the world, every country has to devise its own solutions. Over the years, we have tried to implement many best practices from the Swiss dual study system. However, no matter how hard we try, the outcomes will never be quite the same.

21. Because a system is not just about its structures and designs. It is what the participants – teachers, students, parents, employers – make it out to be. That, in turn, is a function of societal culture. Other countries can emulate your system, but we cannot adopt your culture.

22. Similarly, others can implement every feature of the Singapore education system, but produce different outcomes. This can again be attributed to the secret ingredient that we call ‘culture’.

23. For centuries, Asian parents have believed in giving the best possible education to their children. This aspect of parental responsibility is deeply embedded in the psyche of Singaporeans, has shaped the way education has evolved in Singapore, and determined educational outcomes.

"para">24. A further complication in adopting international best practices is that in this era of rapid change, every traditional strength of an education system has a vulnerable flip side. And so, we have to be careful about what we adopt.

25. For example, a strong apprenticeship system prepares students for work and immediate employability. But there is also the worry that over-specialisation will make students vulnerable to technological disruption.

26. In Singapore, we have good academic outcomes, but we are asking ourselves if our traditional emphasis on academic excellence has inadvertently made our students too ‘book smart’, and lacking the innovative spirit, entrepreneurial zest and survival instinct needed in the real world.

27. We must each find a path forward that delivers the best for our young. Today, I will just touch on one challenge – how to better prepare our young for the uncertain future and to inoculate them against disruptive changes.

28. We have concluded that a large part of the solution lies in combining the best of the Swiss and Singapore systems. Let me explain.

Bringing the Best of Both Worlds Together

29. The first thing you need to stay resilient is mastery in your chosen area of expertise. There are no born masters – you need to combine depth of knowledge with years of practice and experience. And from the deep foundation laid by time and effort, you re-configure, re-arrange your competencies, and break new frontiers.

30. So innovation and creativity are not really sudden flashes of brilliance, but come from talent and hard work. At that level of attainment, it is not likely that machines, robots and computers can replace you.

31. Even if they become widely deployed in your industry, you have a good chance of being in the position to control or design them. You could also bring something to the table that machines are incapable of doing. It is not a 100% inoculation, but it is our best chance at staying relevant and valuable. And we see success in this approach in the Swiss system, where there is so much depth in whatever you do.

32. To achieve mastery, you need passion, which is not to be confused with happiness, or being on a high while you are doing something you like. It is quite the contrary, because passion is the antidote to the long, gruelling and uphill endeavour to become really good at what you are doing.

33. Behind every successful person is a tale of perseverance and the overcoming of frustrations and setbacks. But driven by passion, they soldier on and achieve success.

34. But interests and passions are by and large diverse, varying from individual to individual. Education systems need to guide each student to recognise and uncover them.

35. That is why Singapore has included Education and Career Counselling in our school curriculum. We have built up a team of counsellors, armed them with various tools, resources and industry knowledge, and deployed them to various parts of our education system.

36. While in Finland recently, I met a secondary school counsellor. I asked him “What if a student still has no clue what he wants to do when he leaves school?” He immediately replied – “Then, I would have failed.” In his mind, every child has a strength and an interest, and it is up to him and the school system to help the child discover it, or at least settle on a choice.

37. This cannot be the work of counsellors alone, but requires the combined effort of every teacher and lecturer. The school curriculum must also be multi-faceted to facilitate students’ exploration.

38. For example, soft skills are increasingly taught via outdoor learning. Applied learning has been integrated into Singapore’s formal nationwide curriculum so that students learn to work in teams and through hands-on activities. It opens up their minds, helps them discover new possibilities, and gain self-awareness.

39. Similarly, education experiences have been totally transformed in the higher education system. They have become more experiential, involving project work, internships, overseas exchange programmes, community service, and entrepreneurship opportunities.

40. If we recognise the importance of mastery, passion, guidance, and a multi-faceted education experience, there will be clarity in the shape of the future education system.

From Dual Study to Multi-Path

41. In some European countries, higher education is framed as a choice between the academic versus the vocational track, and between getting a degree versus not getting one. It works for Europe because of your history, and there is cultural acceptance of both tracks.

42. The Singapore society, on the other hand, places great emphasis on the attainment of higher academic qualifications. This aspiration for upward educational mobility is a positive force for the Singapore society, which is why our policy has always been to help as many young Singaporeans as possible go through university education, while ensuring that the graduates are in demand by industries.

43. However, a system that is driven by guidance, passion and mastery needs to be more variegated, catering to the varying strengths and interests of students, helping each student go as far as they can. It must be a Multi-Path system.

44. If a student is interested in a technical or craft-based profession – be it a coder, cyber-security expert, chef, event organiser, hospitality professional, designer, artist, healthcare worker, early childhood educator, or entrepreneur – they may have to undergo the requisite technical training and industry practice, which may or may not involve a university education.

45. On the other hand, the university landscape cannot be overly-dominated by academic programmes. It must include other professional studies, applied learning pathways, and work-learn degree programmes, modelled after the Swiss dual study system.

46. In this more diverse university landscape, there must be strong industry participation because industry practitioners are the most responsive to changes. Singapore is still some way from the Swiss standard of practice, but more lessons from industry practitioners can be integrated into our formal curriculum. Research, education and practice belong to the same cycle of discovery and learning, and must be recognised as such.

47. Time and space for the pursuit of education will change. Studies can be done either on a full-time or part-time basis, involving on-campus interaction, as well as online lectures and tutoring. With mastery as the end goal, education and work need not be regarded as sequential processes. We should instead intersperse study with work, to maximise the value of both, because you learn better after you put things into practice, and vice versa.

48. Our end goal is a system with different types of qualifications, different types of degrees, delivered through different modes, and which can be attained at different times and stages of a student’s life. It is varied and lifelong.

Conclusion

49. What we are aiming to develop will be a combination of the best parts of the Singapore and Swiss systems – and probably other systems around the world. Not two systems running in parallel, but amalgamating them to suit Singapore’s circumstances.

50. But the secret and deciding ingredients for success are still societal norms, beliefs and culture. Society must broaden its notion of success. Meritocracy must also take on an enlarged meaning that represents opportunities and social mobility, and be commensurate with the multiple pathways offered by the education system.

51. The best part of being an Education Minister is the large cross-sections of young people that I get to meet. They are exposed to the world from young, and are IT savvy. They have broad and diverse dreams – in sharp contrast against earlier generations, where pathways were limited by circumstances.

52. I have met students who are working on their start-ups even as they are studying; a girl who wants to join the Air Force to fly a fighter jet; a group of apprentices in a culinary school looking forward to work for Michelin-star restaurants; a young man who had poor academic results but did well in the IT industry and started his undergraduate studies in Computer Science in his late 20’s; and a dietician whose heart is with the older folks in the community. The list goes on. These are the inclinations and aspirations of our young.

53. Their hopes and excitement for the future is palpable, but their worries as to whether they can fulfil their potential is also real. We must have an education system that supports them well.

54. The coming of age of this generation, will be the biggest driving force for change in the education system. And it will be a change for the better.

55. Thank you.