Speeches/Interviews

January 25, 2018

Opening Address by Dr Janil Puthucheary, Senior Minister of State, Ministry of Education, at The Inaugural Applied Learning Conference at Conrad Centennial Singapore

Professor Tan and the team from the Singapore Institute of Technology

Our guests from overseas and Singapore

Ladies and gentlemen

1. I thought I’d like to talk about some perspectives around applied learning, especially from a state perspective and social perspective, because we are taking this so seriously as we feel this is an important push. I thought I’ll divide my comments into what will happen to the behaviours and processes of (i) educators and education institutions, (ii) individual citizens, whether they are young citizens in full time study, older citizens at work or the larger society, whether (iii) it is the industry partners, or (iv) the role of government in this space.

Educators and Education Institutions

2. If we get applied learning right, how will that change the behaviour of educators and why will it be something that we as government and society are interested in?

3. Educators will no longer be able to isolate themselves from what is happening in the larger society. Good educators should not. The education service and the faculty that provide a very important cornerstone of our social development will be fully integrated with what is happening, whether it is the industries that we develop, the aspirations of the next generation of students that come along or the anxieties of their parents.

4. If we get applied learning right, the assumption on the time taken for refreshing curriculum materials and processes, the syllabus and co-curricular activities would be taken to a higher order magnitude. You can’t think of the curriculum review process in terms of “once every five years, I’m going to think of what the content of my textbook is going to be; what my online learning space is going to be” because industry does not work on a five-year cycle or ten-year cycle. You can’t have refreshing of pedagogical practices and teaching content on a time frame that suits academic promotions and tenure applications, or hiring of the next Associate or Assistant Professor. You have to get internal systems right as an educator driven by pressures of applied learning, so that your cycle time, speed of refreshment, and relevance are now so tight that they become almost “live”, if we get applied learning right.

5. What does that do to the type of educators you might employ, that you might promote, that you might reward? You have to have educators who - through their own personal and professional development, the choices they make about what they research and teach, and the relationships that they build – would be fully integrated in the industries and domains in which they wish to teach their students. You are going to have to blur the line between academics and practitioners. All academics will need to have a little bit of a practitioner in them and a process of personal development as a member of faculty that makes you industry relevant, in order to be relevant to your student and your education institution that employs you.

6. If we get applied learning right, what would that do to education organisations? How will you think about the board members that you appoint and the structures that you build in terms of hiring and promotion practices? The way that you divide up departments and divisions, and who you appoint? SIT takes the lead in many of these in terms of, for example, the time allocated between courses and the time allocated between academic pursuits and industry relevant practices.

7. If we get applied learning right, if a student sees value in how an education organisation can effectively deliver applied learning, the universities, the polytechnics, and the education institutions will react. They will change how they structure themselves. They will think that the imperative now is how to reach out to the industry to find good internships, to find good placements, and to reconsider the three, four or five years that students spend within the school gates, so as to ensure that it is intrinsically relevant.

Individual citizens

8. If we do applied learning correctly, what would that do to the choices and behaviours of citizens?

9. What do I mean by applied learning being done correctly? Not necessarily that every student doing applied learning is exposed to a job they are going to do. You can’t guarantee that. You are going to have to take a chance. If you place a student in this internship or that attachment where you bring the industry into a course, it may turn out, one year later, that they have gone to an adjacent industry or slightly different company. This is the nature of education – you look for transferable knowledge, transferable skills, and transferable experience. Just because we are doing applied learning doesn’t mean you’re not going to have that imperative for transferability.

10. But, if the student has confidence about the application of their learning, because we got applied learning right, I hope that it will significantly reduce the anxiety of the choices that they make, about the kind of sub-specialisations that they feel they need to pursue, as they enrol in schools, polytechnics or universities. If they have a sense of confidence that the work skills they get are transferable from one employer to the next, that the way they calibrate their own education in terms of internships and work-study programmes becomes transferable, they will get a little bit, I hope, less anxious about choosing a course or competing for an internship. They will get the confidence that, if they don’t get it exactly right this time, they can come back as an adult learner to take more courses, perhaps at their alma mater, or somewhere else in the education landscape. It will change the behaviour of students in choosing their courses. It will change the behaviour of students as they progress through their courses. And I think it will make our students much more resilient to the changing landscape of industry and the economic disruption they can potentially face. They will have the confidence that they will be able to learn either during their course of study or after their course of study.

11. If we get applied learning right, what will it do to the behaviour of the adult who has been through such a course and is now out there working? Will it increase their confidence in staying in this particular job? Or will it increase their confidence to seek out further opportunities for adult education, so that if there is an opportunity for transfer to a new domain or new industry - because their industry is sun-setting or their company is going out of business - will they have more confidence to go back and engage in adult education? And I hope that if we get applied learning right, they will have an experience of working and studying at the same time while they were young. They would have seen the benefits of that and they would have seen the applicability of that. And now as an adult, it will not be the first time they have to work and study. They will have had the experience and perhaps be more confident in choosing that as an option to be personally, economically and socially resilient. And we are, as you know, making a big push in adult education with the SkillsFuture movement to provide lifelong opportunities for training as an adult to all Singaporeans. But ultimately, for them to work well, Singaporeans will have to choose to be re-educated, re-trained, and re-skilled as an adult. They need some confidence to be able to do that, and I hope that if we get applied learning right, then through their course of study, they will have that confidence as they go on to adult learning.

Industry

12. If we get applied learning right, what will that do to the industry and the industry players that you must engage as an education faculty? You need partners who will be able to accept your students, integrate into your work-study programme and cooperate with your faculty, so that you, as faculty, know the educational value of the work-study programme.

13. We know the benefits to students; we know the benefits to our education institutions and educators. But what will it do to the industrial players? Prof Tan talked a little about this – it changes the balance of whose responsibility it is to drive training. The idea that it is the education institution’s responsibility to make everybody work-ready and that industry players do not have the responsibility is a whole paradigm that we need to move away from very aggressively.

14. But what are the barriers? Well, there are several barriers. One of course, is the cost imperative for businesses. The other is the ability and confidence that both small and medium enterprises and sometimes large industries don’t have to provide training and do training well for their own purposes. By exposing industry partners to what you do in your education institutions, one of the skills transferred is the ability of the industry to provide training in a better, more coherent and more effective manner. This gives them the confidence to play a part in the education of the next generation and gives them the confidence to play a part in the development of skills for their industry. And over time, we hope that the local industry trade associations, and small and medium enterprises, in partnership with the labour unions and labour movement – the model of tripartism here in Singapore – will develop the confidence, skill, capability and competence to deliver that training in partnership with the education institutions, so that the idea of a national SkillsFuture movement and national push for adult education does not have its responsibility thrust only on education institutions nor only on personal responsibility. But this is also the responsibility of the employer – companies need to get engaged with this. And if you look at how we are developing our funding models and distributing grants for SkillsFuture, some of it is distributed through company-led training as well.

Government

15. What would applied learning done right do to how the government sees the link between education, economy and society? Ultimately, if we can break down these walls, barriers, and frictions between the provision of education and industry and between the choices made as a student or as an adult, what we have introduced into our system, our society and our country is a much more flexible, responsive and resilient relationship between the providers of education and industry, and ultimately both beneficiaries and users of that process.

16. You will have more confidence that whatever disruption we face as a country, changes to our economy and business opportunities that are thrust upon us – we are a very small, open and connected country and these things are usually thrust upon us from outside – systems will be in place to be responsive within a very short cycle time. Not because every four to five years we start an economic steering committee to have a significant change around this industry or that industry. We may still have to do that. But in between, you will have a greater confidence that education services and institutions, in partnership with industrial training, will be responsive on a very “live” basis.

17. The imperative to the government, to the state, is to be prudent with state funding. Those of you who have been doing this for some time, you worry about the leakage, the loss of talent. You worry about the inefficiencies in the system because you worry about making the wrong choices. When you have greater confidence that the system as a whole will be making the right choices and making choices in the right way, you can allow a little bit more flex and inefficiency for students to pursue their own path and their own passion, knowing that if they get it wrong, it’s okay and things will sort themselves out later on. You can allow a little more flex and inefficiency for institutions to say, let’s try this model or pedagogical practice, let’s try this course or initiative, and if it doesn’t quite work out, you have a little more confidence that the system as a whole will be okay over time in being responsive to the demands of the economy. So if we get applied learning right, institutions will be far more confident about how they deliver their mission. Students and their parents will be far more confident about the choices that they make. Ultimately the state and government will be more confident that over time, there can be a little bit of flex and inefficiency in the system and it will be okay and it will serve our society and economy well.

Conclusion

18. Overall, if we get applied learning right, besides the benefits of applied learning to that individual, I think that there are significant larger benefits to the systems, processes, institutions and to our society as a whole.

19. It will take many years for us to get this exactly right and it will take many years to realise all the potential benefits that I described because there is a lot of work ahead of us. We will have to look at all the nitty-gritty details that I’m sure we will be talking about today and tomorrow at this conference. A conference like this, the ability to bring together people who are interested, the success that SIT has already had in charting this journey in applied learning and developing models that are being studied by educators here in Singapore - I think these speak of our commitment to this path and our short-term success. And I think it bodes well that we have come thus far.

20. I congratulate SIT and its partners for putting together this conference and the work that has been done so far. I look forward to welcoming you to the Punggol Digital District as I happen to be the MP for that area, and I thank you for inviting me here today to join you for this conference. I wish you all the best and I hope that many of the benefits that I have spoken about will be realised sooner rather than later. Thank you very much.