Speeches/Interviews

September 26, 2018

Speech by Minister for Education Mr Ong Ye Kung at the Times Higher Education World Academic Summit 2018, National University of Singapore

Mr Trevor Barratt,
Managing Director,
Times Higher Education Professor Tan Eng Chye,
NUS President University Presidents,
Provosts,
Distinguished Guests Ladies and Gentlemen

1. Welcome to the Times Higher Education World Academic Summit hosted by NUS.

2. Research is a priority in most countries because of its power of transformation. Knowledge is power, and being at the frontier of knowledge promises a better life for individuals, nations, and the world. How research is organized differs across societies. There are two dominant models.

3. The first, with a longer tradition, originated from Western Europe. The Fraunhofer Society is Europe’s largest applied research institution which translates application-oriented research into commercial products and industrial processes. Each Fraunhofer institute specializes in a particular technology or sector.

4. They continually innovate and progressively improve their existing products and processes. Perhaps this is reflective of the European emphasis on strong traditions in industry-based crafts and guilds. I think such research shapes the economy and the competitiveness of the economy, which also explains why mittelstands and their competitiveness is a mainstay and a backbone of the German economy.

5. In America, it is a different model. Research universities were not state- funded and played a small role in scientific research, contributing mostly to agriculture and public health. That changed from World War Two. Professor Vannevar Bush of MIT brought government funding and university-led research together, to better understand the world at a more fundamental and basic level.

6. This partnership brought about significant scientific and technological breakthroughs - the radar, penicillin, the computer, jet propulsion and then the atomic bomb, which won the war for the Allies and changed the course of history. Today, universities are seen as a natural congregation of faculty who conducts research and teaches students.

7. In Singapore, we have a short history, and have drawn on these two models to establish a good foundation in research and development. To sharpen the competitiveness of our industries, we established a similar Fraunhofer model in A*Star, which bridges the academia and industry in research and development.

8. In 2010, we moved into the Research Innovation and Enterprise programme, where the Government continued sustained funding for research and development. A significant portion of the budget went to our universities. From there, we developed American-styled research universities, especially in NUS and NTU.

9. We also set up Research Centres of Excellence, which were standalone research institutes, which will be progressively brought into the universities. Building on the success of the existing Research Centres of Excellence, MOE has launched a new grant call to appoint up to two new centres directly into our Autonomous Universities (AUs). They will develop capabilities in new areas and seed future opportunities for emerging industries.

10. Today, regardless of the model we choose, research is a robust and tight discipline, with standards and processes that are upheld globally. The tenure system admits only high quality talent into the fraternity of researchers in the university. They have to publish their work, subject them to peer review, and have their impact evaluated, often by citations. Those outcomes, in turn, are widely used to drive the global ranking of universities.

The Need to Evolve Universities and its Validation

11. Yet all of us should constantly question how the current research model, and system of ranking and evaluation, needs to evolve with the times. After all, every industry we know of is subject to disruption.

12. This was a topic discussed at a recent International Academic Advisory Panel (IAAP) meeting held in Singapore. The Panel comprised Presidents and Vice Chancellors of universities in Europe, US and Asia as well as CEOs of global companies. The Panel felt that universities are undergoing a fundamental change. I will summarise the Panel’s views as follows:

13. We know learning has to be lifelong now. But as people learn for life, what does it mean to have a degree, given that the graduate will need to constantly update and upgrade his knowledge and skills throughout their lives? What should be the body of knowledge and skills that should make up a degree? What kind of breadth, and what kind of depth? These are fundamental questions for university education. A degree and its definition are undergoing a major rethinking.

14. There is a realisation that lifelong learning will change the rhythm and mix of education. There is less pressure for universities to front load knowledge during formal years of undergraduate studies, and more effort is required to make university education experiential.

15. So students now, in Singapore, go on overseas exchanges for cultural exposure and entrepreneurial stints, immerse themselves in community and social work, go on internships, work on research projects, germinate business ideas and spin off start-ups. In fact, they now populate the incubators in universities across the world, creating a never-seen-before buzz and a can-do spirit on campuses. When they step out of campuses, they can drive the growth of entire industries.

16. With researchers pushing the frontiers of knowledge, and students constantly on the go, universities are changing the character of cities. If a city is vibrant and dynamic, and has transformed its economic make-up from old to new industries, there is a good chance that a university is an underlying driving force of that change.

17. Against the deep changes happening in universities, it is not surprising that when it comes to the issue of international university rankings, the IAAP was quite unanimous in expressing that today’s methodology needs to be enhanced to take into account the varied and profound roles of universities today. The ranking system also, probably unintentionally, gives the impression that there is only one research-based model of success for universities, when in fact they have diverse social and economic missions and objectives.

Collaboration with the Outside World

18. So, if there is a change I wish for or an improvement I wish for in the international ranking system for universities, it will be to evaluate the effectiveness of a university in collaborating with the world outside of academia – industries, society, communities, Government – and delivering impact in all these sectors. This will go way beyond publications and citations, which are the easiest to measure today and we may have relied on quite a lot.

19. There are two aspects to collaboration with the outside world. First, is institutional collaboration. Singapore universities have set up many corporate laboratories with major global and local industry players in their campuses. These laboratories combine the practical expertise of the industry and the research powers of the academia to seek the next competitive breakthroughs and innovations.

20. We are bringing industries into campuses, and vice versa. So it is not just a flipped classroom, but also flipped campuses, and flipped faculties. Not just asking students to contribute in class, but industries contributing to education.

21. I had a deep impression when I visited a Singapore military facility. There was a commemoration plaque of the engineers who worked on a project. On one side were the engineers of the Ministry of Defence, but many of them also held professorial titles in our local universities. On the other side were professors of the universities, but unfortunately they were not given military titles. That was impactful work, and an impactful collaboration needed between universities and the Ministry of Defence.

22. Another example would be the National Institute of Education (NIE) of NTU which offers a good model where Singapore’s Ministry of Education trains all our teachers. Beyond that, the faculty conducts research and spearheads innovation in education, which translates into classroom practices and better student outcomes.

23. One research finding shows that by allowing students to generate solutions to novel mathematical problems as opposed to being taught the formula, they can eventually better understand the concepts that are taught to them, and significantly outperform their counterparts in a traditional direct instruction classroom. This affirms the inquiry-based approach that is widely practised now in Singapore classrooms.

24. The second aspect is the internal talent recognition and management system of universities. Universities need to recognise the impactful work of academia in industries and Government, and encourage a flow of talent between the sectors.

25. I am therefore encouraged that experts from Alibaba and Google are now teaching Artificial Intelligence at NUS and NTU. Recently, Mely Caballero Anthony from NTU was promoted to Full Professor for her work in chairing the United Nations Advisory Board on Disarmament matters in 2016, and having served as the Director of External Relations at the ASEAN Secretariat. She was recognised for her work outside of the university and was given a full professorship.

26. The Harvard Kennedy School is a good example to show us how talent in industries and academia can reinforce each other. At Kennedy School, academics can join the government for several years, and return to academia. Conversely, members of government can join academia as a next career, and contribute to teaching and research in the School.

27. The NUS Yong Loo Lin Medical School and National University Hospital are situated side by side physically. University graduates from the NUS Yong Loo Lin Medical School start their practice in the hospitals. As they gain experience, they may complete their residency and specialist training, or undergo a Masters in Medicine, and then contribute back to the university as faculty in teaching and research.

28. Instinctively, their research will be informed by challenges and problems they face as practitioners. A fundamental breakthrough in a local Singapore hospital contributes immediately to global medical knowhow.

29. For example, NUS and the University of Malaya Medical Centre, together with two Singapore hospitals (NUH and KKH) and two Malaysian hospitals, have been working for the past eight years, in an on-going study on chemotherapy for children with leukemia. In a recent study, they discovered that increasing the intensity of treatment for children with high-risk leukemia can improve the recovery rate from 70% to 90% and cut down recurrence significantly.

Social Sciences and Humanities

30. In my view, there is great collaboration potential in social sciences and the humanities, between academia, the social sector, communities and governments.

31. There is a clear imperative. Globalisation has put much stress on societies. Far right parties are gaining ground in many countries, asserting identity politics. Inequality and social stratification is an issue across all mature societies. There is urgency and imperative for researchers in the social sciences and humanities to examine issues of the day, in a robust, evidence-based, scientifically rigorous, outcome-focused way.

32. In this pursuit we should allay the worries that a social scientist has no future doing local research. Singapore is a multi-cultural, urban and international city and we are a microcosm of the world. Many countries are curious about our social and governance solutions, and our experiments. For decades, China sends thousands of senior officials and mayors to Singapore to study our solutions, as we are an interesting reference point for them. Whatever works in Singapore, China can consider for its cities.

33. The fact is, all round the world, whether it is inequality, identity politics, or racial harmony, societies face similar challenges, driven by the same deep global forces, manifesting locally. Likewise, the way to teach a child to become better in mathematics, is not likely to differ between classrooms in Singapore, US, Brazil, Germany or Djibouti.

34. Social science research will need to be imaginative and be confident that local research can have a global audience, and to do so by focusing on the fundamentals. Then what is seemingly local, can find global application. That is why a simple study by Professor Ho Teck Hua of NUS, which showed that in Singapore, yellow taxis were less prone to accidents than blue taxis, was widely published. Because across cities, drivers have similar habits on the road.

Conclusion

35. I wish Times Higher Education all the best, as it evolves its existing system to better evaluate the performance of modern universities. The academia world needs your service and innovation.

36. Academics and researchers are by nature curious people. So I think I am in safe company to express the many questions I have in mind on the future of universities and research and ranking. I am supposed to take some questions for the next 20 minutes, but really, I would welcome answers too. Thank you.