Speeches

April 08, 2016

MOE FY 2016 Committee of Supply Debate - Speech by Acting Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung

The Bread and Butter

1. Madam Chair, first let me address a current worry, that Ms Foo Mee Har raised earlier. I chair the Jobs and Skills Subcommittee under the Committee on the Future Economy. When I asked an old friend who is a journalist what his readers expected out of my Subcommittee’s work, he said ‘Economy is a bit sluggish, tell them what courses to study so that they can get a good job. It used to be chemical engineering, then finance, and biomed. What's next?’

2. When I meet young students, some of them ask me the same question too.

3. There are two answers to this question, from two opposite, yet related, perspectives.

4. The first answer is to understand the environment. It is very frustrating for a young person to graduate with a degree or diploma that has no demand in the market. We must know how economic winds are blowing domestically, in the region, and in the world, and what skills and knowledge are in demand. We should never ignore demand.

5. From this perspective, Governments have a duty to decipher all that is happening, and signal to the people what are the areas to pursue.

6. The second answer is to know the individual. If we can help every one of us discover our interests and aspirations, uncover innate talents and abilities, and fulfil the potential of as many individuals as possible – that will become an enduring strength for the collective, for Singapore.

7. From this perspective, what to learn is also a very personal enterprise; we must help each individual follow their respective rainbows.

Understand the Environment

8. I will start with the first answer: understanding the environment. While the global economy is sluggish, there are still opportunities – it is the case for every slowdown and recession. Let me just name a few here:

9. Cybersecurity and data analytics are growth areas. They are driven by the proliferation of the Internet of Things and our Smart Nation initiative. One major Telco told me that they need 3,000 cybersecurity specialists, and we all know IDA's Infocomm Manpower Survey projected about 15,000 more jobs in ICT in the coming years.

10. We need people to develop and operate public infrastructure such as the new Changi Airport Terminal 4 and 5, and new MRT lines. The Government is ramping up its recruitment of engineers. SAF is building up its engineering core, and granting engineering scholarships.

11. To better support parents with young children, we need to expand the early childhood education sector, which needs another 1,500 educators over the next 2 to 3 years.

12. With an ageing population and new hospitals and nursing homes, there will be thousands more job opportunities in the healthcare sector at all levels.

13. We live in an exciting region with the markets around us presenting tremendous opportunities. If Singapore-based companies can venture out to these markets and successfully tap into them, they will create many more jobs that our people can fill. But it requires you to go overseas, put boots on the ground and understand the context.

14. Ms Foo Mee Har asked about helping PMEs who lost their jobs find new ones in growth sectors. This is something WDA set out to do since it was formed in 2003 – this effort predates SkillsFuture. Minister Lim Swee Say will be speaking more on schemes to help the retrenched and displaced find employment during his Ministry’s debate.

Understand the Individual

15. Now the second answer, from the perspective of understanding the individual.

16. In this age of possibilities, we make room for a universe of purposes – encouraging our young to find meaning in new and unimagined ways. New ways to deliver services, to entertain the masses, power our industries, protect our environment, protect Singapore, or build machines to do things better and faster.

17. How Silicon Valley became a crucible for innovation, how the Swiss became leaders in watchmaking, how Singapore became a food haven – these are not plans drawn up by Governments.

18. They happened because enough people were interested about something. They congregated and made it happen. It is organic, ground-up, and even haphazard.

What Underpins SkillsFuture

19. We have therefore embarked on a movement – to harness the collective interests and aspirations of our people, to develop varied paths for people to develop mastery, go as far as they can, regardless of their starting points.

20. This movement is called SkillsFuture.

21. I thank Ms Denise Phua for devoting a good part of her Budget Debate speech to SkillsFuture. We will study your suggestions carefully.

22. I must first explain that SkillsFuture is not the $500 Credit granted to individuals. I got so many cuts on it! The Credit is just a small though important part of SkillsFuture. SkillsFuture is much more.

23. It starts with schools, laying the foundation for our young. Then Higher Education – ITE, Polytechnics, Universities – take over to help our young discover their interests and aspirations, impart knowledge in them, hone their skills and prepare them for the real world.

24. From there, a lifelong learning system takes over, where they embark on a continuous journey of learning, updating or even finding a new path.

25. Along the way, they will persevere, improve and achieve mastery in their chosen fields, and maybe teach the next generation. At the individual level there is a tremendous sense of pride and fulfilment. Collectively Singapore becomes more competitive, more inclusive in the way we view merit and success.

26. But beneath this learning infrastructure, what underpins SkillsFuture is the personal enterprise of each and every one of us - to learn a lifetime to achieve mastery, a mastery that is really part of who we are.

27. Today, I will talk about what MOE is doing in three areas of focus as we move forward with SkillsFuture. First, interests and aspirations. Second, developing mastery. Finally, innovation.

Interest and Aspirations – The strongest motivator

28. First, interest and aspirations.

29. 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 likely to make that subject a lifetime pursuit. If we make it a lifetime pursuit, we achieve mastery.

30. So it starts with interest, or a deep sense of purpose. Or, as Ms Denise Phua says, a yearning for the sea.

Aptitude-Based Admission

31. That is why we must make a greater effort to help students discover their interests and passions, through education and career guidance (ECG). Parliamentary Secretary Low Yen Ling will speak more about this topic.

32. We then match student interests with their course of study as much as possible during the admissions process, on that point I fully agree with Ms Foo Mee Har. Today, the polytechnics and universities are doing this to some extent.

33. We have an exercise called the Direct Polytechnic Admissions (DPA), where students are assessed through a range of measures, like interviews, write-ups and artistic portfolios, which cover not just academic scores but also other strengths – a much more holistic approach. Some secure a place in a polytechnic before they even receive their O-Level exam results. It is a little bit like DSA. DPA covers 2.5% of total admissions at the polytechnic level.

34. But at the course level, we allow up to 30% of the admission to be based on the applicants’ interest and passion in the vocation, on top of their academic scores. Last year, as a pilot, we raised the cap for Early Childhood Education courses from 30% to 50%. And it worked well.

35. The universities also have some flexibility - to admit up to 10% of students on the basis of their unique strengths and talents.

36. The effort to admit students into their areas of interest has yielded good results.

37. MOE’s studies have shown that for students with similar O-Level aggregate scores, students who are admitted to polytechnics via DPA do better in their studies, have lower drop-out rates, and are far more likely to embark on careers in the sectors for which they are educated and trained.

38. This confirms what may have been intuitive to us all along – when you are able to choose and enter a course you are interested in or feel passionate about, you feel more ownership and enthusiasm, and will likely do better.

39. As Confucius says, 知之者不如好之者,好之者不如乐之者: somebody who knows cannot match someone who wants to know, and somebody who wants to know cannot match somebody who loves to know.

40. MOE will therefore strengthen aptitude-based admissions.

41. At the polytechnics, we will expand the pilot done for Early Childhood Education courses.

42. We started with Early Childhood Education out of necessity, because you really need to love interacting with kids and have a knack of doing so, to be a good professional in this field.

43. There are many other trades where similar considerations apply – where interest, aspiration and some innate abilities, play a big part in making the student enjoy learning the specialised skills and have staying power in the trade.

44. Having said that, not all courses are suitable for aptitude-based admission. But we can certainly expand the scope we have today.

45. We will allow a total of 75 courses, or one-third of the total polytechnic courses, to admit up to 50% of their students based on more holistic aptitude-based assessments. Some of these courses are baking, culinary, architecture, mass media, sports coaching, nursing, social work, drama and psychology, game design, interior design, digital forensics, etc.

46. To support more aptitude-based admission at the course level, we need to raise the DPA allowance at the polytechnic level. We will do so by 10 percentage points, from 2.5% today to 12.5%. We will rename the exercise, to call it EAE, the Early Admissions Exercise.

47. With this change, we will also wind down what we call the JPSAE, the Joint Polytechnic Special Admissions Exercise, which covers a small segment of students applying based on achievements such as sports or community work. This will be folded into the Early Admissions Exercise.

48. In the same vein, we will put in place a new aptitude-based admissions exercise for students progressing from ITE to polytechnics.

49. At the universities, we will increase the aptitude-based admissions intake allowance for NUS, NTU and SMU from 10% to 15%. SIT is already a heavy user of such methods.

50. This is not a simple matter. Allocating places by grades on a single metric – aggregate score – is straightforward, efficient and to many – fair, transparent and objective – you just compare numbers.

51. But when you introduce other measures of student ability, it calls for an exercise of judgment. Between a 12-pointer who is not interested in a course, and a 16-pointer who is very interested, who would you choose?

52. This goes beyond making decisions based on one metric, but making a judgement call. This requires wiser minds.

53. Notwithstanding the changes, every course will still need some minimum academic score criteria, so that we have some assurance that the student can cope with the academic rigour of the course and we do not set him up to fail the course.

54. These changes can meet the aptitudes and interests of more students, but not all students. There will be applications that the polytechnics will have to turn down, and I expect many more appeals. And as MPs you may expect many more appeals. And you may expect them to quote what I just said, in their appeals.

55. So I was somewhat apprehensive in wanting to make this move – was I opening a can of worms?

56. But I became convinced that this is the right thing to do after I visited polytechnics and universities and spoke to our senior educators. They said this is so much harder to do, but speaking as educators, this is a better system for our students.

57. I also spoke to industry leaders, who unequivocally expressed that they need people who are interested and passionate about their industries.

58. And so the changes will be implemented for admission for Academic Year 2017. We will keep a close watch on how things go, and review thereafter.

59. I want to add a final comment on this topic – which is that today, while many students have clear interests and pursuits, most are actually unclear what they want to do.

60. We should not be pushing the young to rush into declaring their interests prematurely. I will be rather upset if I change this policy and see the sprouting of a new tuition industry coaching students how to ace interviews.

61. If a young person has yet to discover his area of interest, the system should give him more time for self-discovery.

62. And if he for some reason cannot get into the course of study he wants, then I hope he can give what he has a chance. We should make the best of the hand we are dealt with in life.

Creative Arts

63. The creative arts is an area that many young Singaporeans are interested in. We have been working with NAFA and LASALLE, our two arts institutions, to provide good pathways for students.

64. I have asked Parliamentary Secretary Faishal to take a closer look at this sector, and to see how our creative arts tertiary education can be further developed.

Private Education Institutions

65. While we expand the options for higher education, one specific area of concern raised by Mr Gan Thiam Poh and Mr Ang Wei Neng, is private education institutions.

66. I share those concerns. Parliamentary Secretary Faishal will speak further on this topic.

Mastery – A Lifetime Endeavour

67. The second area of priority is to build mastery. It often takes our whole lives to master something.

Improvements to SkillsFuture Earn and Learn Programme

68. The SkillsFuture Earn and Learn Programme (ELP) was launched last year, with the objective of opening a pathway for ITE and Polytechnic graduates to deepen their skills within their discipline of study.

69. The ELP is a dual-track, work-study approach, where students can deepen skills and knowledge in school, while acquiring experience in industries. It is similar to the apprenticeship model of learning in Europe.

70. In 2015, we rolled out 15 ELPs in 12 sectors. About 150 students were placed in more than 50 companies, of which about half were SMEs. The feedback from employers and trainees has been encouraging.

71. We will expand the ELP scheme in two ways.

72. Today, ITE graduates embarking on ELP will obtain a WSQ Advanced or Higher Certificate. We will introduce a new ELP pathway that will allow ITE graduates to work towards a full, part-time polytechnic diploma. There will be two new ELPs along this new pathway, in the Air Transport sector. We are also looking into similar ELPs in the Public Transport, ICT and Hotels sectors.

73. With this pathway, ITE graduates can take modules that are relevant to their current work first. They can focus on upgrading their skills to do a better job, without rushing to get a paper qualification for its own sake.

74. In addition, we will introduce another 20 new ELPs, covering 10 additional sectors in Accountancy, Air Transport, Electronics, Energy and Chemicals, Facilities Management, Healthcare, Hotel, Maritime, Spatial Design, and Visual Communication.

75. This will bring the total number of ELPs to 37, covering 22 sectors.

Strengthening the Lifelong Learning System

76. We will also continue to strengthen the lifelong learning system. Just as learning does not stop after school, the universities' role in education does not stop after students’ graduation. All five autonomous universities will be setting up new units dedicated to lifelong learning.

77. NUS will set up the School of Continuing and Lifelong Education, or SCALE. NTU will establish the College of Professional and Continuing Education, or PaCE. SMU’s is the Academy of Continuing Education, or ACE.

78. The way to remember these names is that they will help you PaCE your learning, ACE your skills, and SCALE new heights!

79. But we don’t forget the other two: SUTD will also set up its Academy of Technology and Design, and SIT will name its unit SITLearn.

80. The purpose is not to offer part-time degrees or master’s programmes to fuel the paper chase, but to help workers stay relevant and competitive. A key focus of these centres will be to look beyond traditional degree offerings, by offering shorter, bite-sized certificate programmes.

81. So in response to Associate Professor Randolph Tan’s question, all universities, including research universities, can participate in skills-based learning.

82. Through these centres, we also hope to underscore an idea pertinent to lifelong learning – which is, after you graduate, the next upgrade need not be a degree, masters or PhD, but an upgrade in real practical terms – to stay abreast with industry developments and change in technology, or to deepen existing skills.

83. In IT, this may mean getting a vendor certificate; in aerospace, perhaps being type-trained for a particular aircraft or dealing with new composite materials; in the foreign service, it could be learning a new language.

84. As Ms Foo Mee Har pointed out in her speech, we also need companies and industries to be actively involved in lifelong learning.

85. I think the best way for companies to contribute is to offer real-life learning that institutions cannot simulate, a point that Associate Professor Randolph Tan underscored. Even the best graduates cannot be ready for work from day one – they need time to learn about the industry and also the company.

86. The partnership between IHLs and industries must therefore be an enduring and ever-strengthening one.

87. In Singapore, we have built up a landscape of private and industry-linked training providers, through WDA's work over the years. It has not been an easy process. Whatever we have built up, we have to strengthen.

88. Today, training providers such as the SIA Engineering Company Training Academy, 3dsense Media School, SEED Institute of the National Trades Union Congress and At-Sunrice GlobalChef Academy provide industry-relevant training which supports both employers and individuals.

89. In logistics, Dr Robert Yap, Executive Chairman of YCH, is spearheading efforts to set up a supply chain and logistics academy. Actually it is called SCALA, another acronym. SingTel is planning to start an industry training centre for cybersecurity.

90. There will always be a place for these private sector providers and industry players in SkillsFuture.

SkillsFuture Credit

91. There is of course also the SkillsFuture Credit. It is just one part of SkillsFuture.

92. SkillsFuture Credit sends a very important message –which is that each of us is in charge of our own pursuit of mastery and learning throughout our lives.

93. This is why only you can use your Credit. We want every Singaporean, young and old, to think about our own personal enterprise. That cannot be transferred or outsourced to anyone else. It is a personal enterprise. So to respond to Mr Ang Wei Neng, while there is no upper age limit, the Credit is also not transferrable.

94. I think we’re at this stage of our evolution where we’re getting Singaporeans to think of their personal enterprise. I have friends whose parents who are over 80 years old, and are thinking about what they want to learn. We must focus not just on the administration, but also on getting the philosophical message through.

95. That is also why we have deliberately designed it to be on the generous side. We started with 10,000 eligible courses – not a small number – and included online providers such as Coursera and Udemy.

96. And if we accept this is a personal enterprise, then my answer to Ms Cheng Li Hui’s caution about wastage, and Mr Desmond Choo’s request for guidance for workers to use the Credit is that yes, let’s make sure the courses are inclusive but yet of good standards, let’s leverage on WDA and e2i career coaches to give guidance.

97. But let’s also have faith that individuals will make good decisions for themselves in time to come. Give them some time, space and freedom to discover, wonder, imagine, and make individual decisions. Strike a balance – as Associate Professor Randolph Tan said.

98. Whatever people ultimately choose, we also need to suspend judgement a little. Who is to say that an engineer will not find learning fine art and appreciating the aesthetics useful? Who is to say a corporate trainer can’t learn photography, as Mr Baey Yam Keng has said? Remember how Steve Jobs applied his knowledge of calligraphy to develop the iMac and all the beautiful fonts we see today?

99. Mr Baey Yam Keng and Mr Desmond Choo asked for an update on the take-up rate of the Credit. From January to March this year, about 18,000 individuals have utilised their SkillsFuture Credit, with about $5.2 million disbursed. This is a healthy number – not a mad rush, yet a good response. What is encouraging is that 17% of them are aged 60 and above. And we are working with PA to roll out more community-based courses this year.

100. As suggested by Mr Ang Wei Neng, we will expand the list of eligible courses over time. By this month, we will have added about 2,500 courses to the list of eligible courses from just four months ago.

101. Ms Denise Phua and Ms Chia Yong Yong have spoken about helping persons with disabilities learn skills and offered some specific suggestions.

102. I have spoken to Minister Tan Chuan Jin on this, and we decided that between MOE and MSF, we will do a joint review on how the Post-Secondary Education Account and SkillsFuture Credit can be rationalised and adjusted to better support persons with disabilities.

103. As for life or executive coaching suggested by Mr Ang Hin Kee, we need to recognise that many of these are one-to-one sessions and can be susceptible to abuse. We will look at what practical steps we can take so that workers use the Credit for genuine and useful executive or life coaching.

Innovation – Pushing the Frontiers

104. The final area of priority is innovation. SkillsFuture is not just about doing things skilfully. It has much to do with innovation.

Knowledge Opens Up New Forms of Mastery

105. Mastery begets creativity and invention. It is hard to innovate if one does not know a subject deeply first.

106. At the same time, knowledge advancement can also open up new grounds for new forms of mastery. Before the Internet breakthrough, there were no expert influencers or masters in web design or e-retailing.

107. This is why all advanced economies need research universities.

108. Quality of research is a key determinant of a university’s standing internationally.

109. Here, I want to make a comment about university rankings, in response to Mr Seah Kian Peng.

110. Our universities have achieved strong international rankings. This is a practical advantage for the students, especially when they step out to look for work. It is even more important when we examine why our universities have done well in rankings – not because of the number of foreign faculty or students, but their strong global reputation amongst employers and academics.

111. Having said that, rankings in themselves have no intrinsic value, so Mr Seah Kian Peng is right to have reservations about rankings. Universities exist for a larger and better purpose.

112. We want our universities to make distinctive contributions to Singapore. This must include the core priority of nurturing and developing our young; and this must include discovering new knowledge and techniques that can rejuvenate industries, create new opportunities, and help Singapore stay ahead.

Balancing a Global Perspective and a National Character

113. To fulfil these objectives, our institutions must have a global outlook. The faculty will need to be diverse, bringing with them knowledge from different parts of the world. Amongst them, we want top global names here, to help us accelerate the process.

114. Mr Seah Kian Peng asked about the share of local faculty in our universities. Today, it is about 45%. Harvard, MIT and Oxford have a similar share of local faculty as our universities, but I have a big caveat here as the bases of compiling the data, and definitions, are different, so we may not be comparing apples to apples. This is why MOE has been hesitant to disclose these comparisons.

115. But walk around the campuses of these top universities, and I am quite sure you will sense the diversity amongst faculty.

116. Having said that, ours are national universities, and there also needs to be a balance between global diversity and having a Singapore character in our universities. This is a key balance to be struck, to be constantly fine-tuned over time.

117. In teaching, the faculty must be able to teach students about Singapore, and relate the subjects to the context of our part of the world.

118. In research, we must over time develop deep, differentiated expertise highly relevant to Singapore, and which the world takes an active interest in, whether it is water sufficiency, biodiversity, diabetes, urban planning, or education.

119. I recently visited the Earth Observatory of Singapore at NTU, led by Professor Kerry Sieh, formerly from Caltech. The team there, which includes local undergraduates, is part of the global effort to monitor volcanic activities all over the world. The devices are installed at MacRitchie Reservoir. They hope to use the information to predict the next big eruption, to give early warning and save lives.

120. I asked Kerry why Singapore? He told me we are near to the ring of fire but not on the ring of fire, and that makes us an ideal spot to do this research.

121. I thought to myself: How exciting! Singapore has a natural advantage in volcanic research! Surely this is an area where bright young Singaporeans interested in the subject can learn from Kerry? Over time, they can contribute to the centre, to Singapore and to humanity.

122. Another example – MOE provides competitive research funding open to university researchers, with evaluation conducted by an international expert council, for neutrality and independency reasons. Earlier this year, I asked the Chairman of the Council, Professor Robert Brown, which was the largest research project that was awarded this year. He said it was a project on the Chikungunya and Dengue viruses.

123. I looked it up - the actual name of the project is ‘Saliva-assisted transmission of pathogenic viruses by blood-feeding arthropods.’

124. I asked him why he approved this particular one amongst many proposals. He said it was because it was good science, and was relevant to Singapore.

125. If international experts recognise the importance of research on Singapore-relevant subjects, all the more we must have the confidence to build up our indigenous capabilities in these subjects.

126. We are doing so in several areas. Professor Tan Khee Giap is developing important knowledge at the Asia Competitiveness Institute, to help Singapore gain in-depth knowledge of the economies around us.

127. Professor Lau Hoong Chuin heads the Fujitsu-SMU Corporate Lab, which is using big data analytics to try to optimise traffic flows and reduce congestion in Singapore.

128. Associate Professor Low Kay Soon and Professor Goh Cher Hiang respectively lead the NTU’s Satellite Research Centre and NUS’s Satellite Programme. They led the design, construction and launch of six Singapore satellites last year.

129. We will nurture local academics who can produce quality work, and contribute to Singapore. The universities’ human resource systems have to value and recognise them.

130. In this effort, we will leverage on the Singapore Teaching and Academic Research Talent Scheme that was launched last year.

131. We will also use the platform of the Social Science Research Council, to provide opportunities for local academics to put up their proposals to conduct research into areas important to Singapore’s social development.

132. MOE will be working closely with the autonomous universities on this effort.

Conclusion

133. Madam Speaker, Minister Ng Chee Meng and I did not announce any major financial schemes during this Committee of Supply debate.

134. Our systems and institutions are well-developed. From here, higher performance of the system is not pumping more fuel into the machine and making it work harder, but by rewiring and reprogramming it somewhat, to optimise its performance and output.

135. Our vision of higher performance centres on the intrinsic worth and potential of a student, a vision that requires a dial-back from any excessive focus on academics and paper qualifications at all levels.

136. We want to also focus on other aspects of learning – hence outdoor education, review of the PSLE system, offer more choices and opportunities across all levels, focus on lifelong building of mastery, and move towards aptitude-based admission into IHLs.

137. We have described Singapore’s future as a mountain range of successes. But we must not assume that everyone wants to climb mountains.

138. A friend who went to Nepal and trekked in the mountains remarked to his Sherpa guide that Nepal is such a mountainous country that Nepalese must be a mountain people. The Sherpa replied “You are wrong, we are not mountain people, we are valley people.” Indeed, Nepalese do not live in the mountains. The air there is thin and altitude sickness can kill you.

139. We each have different destinations – the village, the city, the seaside, the oasis, the valley, the riverbank. It is a function of our gifts, our dreams, our resourcefulness, and our luck. And we all find different paths to get there.

140. Our children are growing up in a new world – striking paths into a Singapore that is more inclusive, all-embracing, a place where we can celebrate diverse talents and gifts. Education must remain at the heart of their journey, guiding them in purpose, equipping them with skills – and helping them seize the many opportunities of their age.