Speeches/Interviews

June 17, 2016

Speech by Mr Ong Ye Kung, Acting Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) at The Launch of the Nus School for Continuing and Lifelong Education (Scale)

NUS Chairman, Mr Wong Ngit Liong

NUS President, Professor Tan Chorh Chuan

Distinguished guests

Ladies and Gentlemen

Learn, Relearn and Unlearn

1 American futurist Alvin Toffler wrote: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

2 What Toffler said is really true, especially in a compact and small city like Singapore, which is highly susceptible to technological, economic, geopolitical and other changes. So if you are a Singaporean, chances are that over the past week you have pondered how your life may change because of a new American President, the threat of terrorism and the Zika virus, the rise of the gig economy, and the possibility of Brexit.

3 But a word of caution here – we cannot take what Toffler said too literally. The statement gives the impression that what we spend years learning may become obsolete and need to be discarded. That would be an inaccurate, wasteful, and even dangerous conclusion. Skills, knowledge and wisdom are too precious to be discarded.

4 A programmer may no longer use a coding language but he can continue to apply his complex logical thinking using another language. An artist may stop practising an art form because it is no longer appreciated, but he keeps his acute sense of aesthetics. An entrepreneur may encounter a business failure, but he becomes better at taking risks and sharpens his acumen. A striker may lose his pace with age, but he can apply his skills in midfield, and later as a pundit or manager.

5 In Singapore, our challenge is not a reluctance to unlearn and relearn – I think this is ingrained in many Singaporeans. In fact, I would argue that as a people, we may be changing careers and our declared area of expertise too often. Our challenge is to have the gumption and interest to devote our adult life to stay on course, dive deep and master one area of expertise.

6 To do so, one can only be driven by passion, and a strong sense of purpose in life. And it is only with mastery and deep expertise, that you have the confidence to apply those skills in fields beyond your usual comfort zone, and become resilient to changes.

An Empowering System

7 What paths we take is a personal choice, and what passions we pursue is a personal journey of discovery. The education system is increasingly putting the individual at the centre, to help and empower him to make life choices.

8 We have therefore expanded the range of courses and pathways in our Institutes of Higher Learning to provide opportunities and cater to different interests. Many individuals are looking beyond the traditional areas of focus to explore new pathways, and we must provide more skills-based learning opportunities to make Singaporeans future-ready.

9 But beyond expansion in breadth, the system needs to extend in horizon. Just as learning does not stop after school, the universities’ role in education does not stop after graduation.

10 This is why all five autonomous universities will be setting up centres dedicated to lifelong learning. NUS is the first of the five AUs to set up a new School of Continuing and Lifelong Education or SCALE, so as to strengthen lifelong learning.

11 Centres such as SCALE are seedlings that will grow into the key nodes of a network of national SkillsFuture centres in future. In time, the network will include other Institutes of Higher Learning and best-in-class private training providers, such as those delivering WSQ programmes and those conferred the status of Continuing Education and Training Centres today.

Success Factors

12 What are the key features of a successful national centre championing SkillsFuture and lifelong learning? We can learn from the journeys undertaken by EDB, ITE, the Polytechnics, NTUC and WDA.

13 First, the programmes must be certifiable and recognised by industry. It must be so, so there is value to an adult learner. When it comes to attending training courses, an adult is likely to be much more practical in his or her considerations.

14 However, it is important to understand that this is not to fuel a paper chase. Certification is important to an adult to prove competency, i.e. I am now up to the task. Hence, through SkillsFuture, we hope to underscore an idea pertinent to lifelong learning – that after you graduate, the next upgrade need not be a degree, masters or PhD. Rather, this could be a certificate or a diploma. It will be an upgrade in real practical terms – to stay abreast with industry developments and changes in technology, or to deepen existing skills and be more competent at work.

15 Second, the mode of delivery must take into account the competing demands on an adult learner’s time, such as family, career, and studies. Hence having shorter, bite-sized programmes and leveraging e-learning is the way to go. SCALE will therefore work with industry partners, and help Singaporeans acquire new knowledge and skills in a more accessible and flexible manner. It will also be a test-bed to apply new learning approaches, recognising that adults learn differently from young people.

16 NUS has had a good start through its Bachelor of Technology (BTech) programmes, which have a strong reputation among working adults looking to upgrade. Two BTech graduates from the Class of 2010, Mr Taher Uddin (46) and Mr Tay Beng Boon (43), are with us today. SCALE will be “deconstructing” these BTech programmes into “bite-sized” learning opportunities and certificate programmes that could be “stacked up” towards BTech degrees, or taken on a standalone basis. We will see more of such programmes starting in August this year at SCALE.

17 Third, there must be a strong nexus between the education institutions, the labour market and the industry. A centre must have channels to reach out to learners who will benefit from skills upgrading and learning. It must also work with industries and employers to provide more career choices. This, to me, is always the most difficult to fulfil, because an Institute of Higher Learning would typically see its primary role as ensuring strength in research and course delivery, rather than assuring that its graduates have enough career possibilities to choose from. 

18 To better assure this link, it is important to forge partnerships and draw on complementary strengths. I am pleased that today, NUS and NTUC’s Employment and Employability Institute (e2i) are signing an MOU for closer collaboration. This will allow SCALE to tap on vast industry and workers’ network of the NTUC, to maximise the positive impact on individuals and on our economy.

19 We are on a journey to transform our education system to recognise a broader form of meritocracy. We hope this will provide Singaporeans, like you, with more opportunities to develop Mastery and deep skills in areas of interest and passion. As we work towards establishing a network of national SkillsFuture centres such as SCALE, I look forward to SCALE helping Singaporeans SCALE new heights!