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Adapting education for a disruptive future

Interview - August 2, 2018

Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) is Singapore’s university of applied learning. And its vision is to be a leader in innovative university education by integrating learning, industry and community. In this interview, Professor Tan Thiam Soon, President, SIT discusses how the educational ecosystem is changing to adapt to disruptive technological changes with programs such as SkillsFuture, how Singapore and SIT are preparing students for the future workplace, as well as SIT’s collaboration with industry and other overseas universities.



How would you rate the competitiveness of Singapore versus your traditional competitors?

That is a question all the leaders often ponder about. At the moment, the world has a debt of $164 trillion. In comparison to other countries, Singapore is one of the few that has little debt. There are many opportunities for us. The question is how we can make use of that together with our know-how and position as a hub to leverage on the growth of Asia.

ASEAN is becoming very important because it is the fastest growing region in the world and will remain so for the next 10 to 15 years. ASEAN has a diverse, young and growing middle-class. Singapore can play a useful role, not only as a conduit for the Western (and also East Asian) technology and capital to go from Singapore to the region, but also as a source of knowledge and financing for the rest of ASEAN. Singapore can play a major catalyst role.


Singapore’s most important natural resource is its people. How would you currently describe the education sector in Singapore and what are the main differences between the mentality here and in the West?

The Singapore education system can be described as a double-edged sword. Singaporeans take education very seriously and this is a strength for us. But often we equate education to excellence in academic grades and that can be unhealthy.  So far, our system has been very well organized. We foresee that we will continue to place great emphasis on education as our most important resource is our people, but the way we define education will change quite a bit within the next two decades.

Singapore’s education sector will probably go through a significant change in the coming years, especially in terms of what we consider as successful outcomes of the system. One of our challenges is to get young people to have more diverse dreams and objectives than just pure academic excellence as an indicator of success. Currently, there is a fair degree of homogeneity about what many of these young people think ‘success’ is. What we need is to have greater diversity of skill sets amongst the young people. They should learn how to blend high-touch with a core understanding of the high-tech, and be able to think out of the box.

That is why in the last 10 to 15 years, we have set up arts schools, sports schools and specialized schools in Singapore. At the university level, we are beginning to have diverse pathways for young people to prepare themselves for the future. We are no longer in the era that will just faithfully produce high-caliber corporate bureaucrats that will be absorbed by MNCs or the civil service.


Regarding SkillsFuture, what would you say are the main challenges in relation to incorporating and acquiring new skills in the workforce?

Technological disruptions are completely changing the job market, which means there is also another truism that no amount of formal education today is ever going to be enough to prepare you for the unpredictable future. The SkillsFuture movement in Singapore is really about putting in an ecosystem of helping working people to continually upskill and reskill after getting their all-important first job, recognizing that no matter how much we train them in the beginning, it will never be enough. This is the mindset which we have to instill in our students.

It is only when they realize that their skills are beginning to run behind the job's needs, will they continue to upskill and reskill to stay relevant. At the end of the day, this is what SkillsFuture is all about: preparing the people for a very disruptive future. It is to get people to accept the fact that it is their responsibility to get ready for that future and prepare for it. The most important part is the mindset change.


Could you tell us about SIT's role within the educational sector and the ecosystem?

Singapore has gone through another transformation in the last 25 years without the whole world fully appreciating what we have done. As early as 25 years ago, when Singapore was one of the electronic powerhouses in the world, we began to construct more polytechnics, which are not an alternative university but an alternative to senior high schools (or pre-universities). We have learnt that it was much easier to help a poly graduate find a good job than to help a high-school leaver find one.

In the last 10 years, there has been a shift in the Singapore education landscape. Many students with good grades, after finishing their junior high school, choose to go to polytechnic instead of senior high school, because they prefer a more hands-on and practical education. In 2016, around 28% of young Singaporeans (around age 17) chose to go to a senior high school, about 47% went to polytechnic and another 24% went through the ITE (Institute of Technical Education), though the last one is more vocational.

Over 90% of SIT students come from polytechnics, whereas the other local universities mainly cater to the traditional senior high school graduates. SIT is unique given that every degree that SIT offers is a professional course. Our programs are focused on growth sectors of the future economy, with pedagogies that blend classroom learning with on-the-job learning. There is a very clear profession that we are training the students for, to meet the demands of the industry and to tackle the future economy. That is the role of SIT – to be a university of applied learning.


Can you tell us more about SIT’s programs that go in line with the SkillsFuture initiatives? What are the unique aspects of your collaboration with overseas schools?

We are a university quite different from our overseas university partners as we are the only one with an applied-learning system. Our main strategy is to work with overseas university partners to build an expanded ecosystem. This is in response to future disruptions which will have a great impact on the market due to new emerging areas. SIT is a small university in an even smaller country. Taking into consideration the speed of education development, we cannot keep doing things the traditional way. We need to think of a way to kick-start our program. So working with a group of overseas university partners is our strategy.  Ideally, we would like to maintain a consortium of partners and as long as one of them has the capability, we can kick-start a new program much quicker than if we have to build up everything ourselves. Another benefit is that these partnerships bring global perspectives and a new dimension to our students.


Any synergies with American universities?

We have two very unique collaborations with American universities. One of our partnerships is with one of the top video gaming schools in the world called DigiPen, based outside Seattle, where Ubisoft and Nintendo are located. DigiPen is specialized in training students in writing and developing video games. We thought this was a good way to prepare our young for the future. Video gaming opens a whole new set of skills, many of which are highly relevant for the digital disruption. In addition, we have a collaboration with the Culinary Institute of America, with the ambition of training future executive chefs.


What about Europe?

We have a partnership with Trinity College Dublin. We found this interesting since Ireland is a country of five million people. We had the opportunity of implementing our allied health degrees in physiotherapy and occupational therapy, which were not offered by the rest of the universities in Singapore. We also have substantial collaborations with universities in the U.K. (University of Glasgow, University of Liverpool and Newcastle University) and with Technical University of Munich in Germany.


Do you have to import that know-how from abroad or is this something you've taken upon yourself?

We are taking this on ourselves even though there are no specific requirements for us to do so. We choose this strategy to make sure that we continually learn to be nimble and responsive, whether as an institution or as an individual. We believe this is the only way to survive in the disruptive future. We can develop many things in different sectors and we can respond to such changes at a speed many more traditional universities will not be able to do so.


How do you collaborate with industries for research and more?

The need to engage industry as an institution is not just another strategy but is essential to our success as a university of applied learning. Having said that, we do not work with the industry in a one dimensional or sequential way, but rather on a comprehensive and broad front.

To be effective, our approach in SIT is to engage industry using an integrated approach. We partner them to help develop solutions to fulfill their needs for tomorrow, and also help retrain their employees in specific areas. In return, the industry can provide their know-how and look to our students as future talent partners. We also work hand-in-hand with industry to figure out how they can support our work attachment programs, which we term the integrated work-study program (IWSP).  A flagship program of SIT, the IWSP offers an immersive job stint for our undergraduates in the real working world for eight to 12 months. Our students get to work on meaningful projects and are able to apply the knowledge and skills they have learnt in the classroom. As a result, they can better understand the evolving needs of industry and grasp the complexities of the business world.

We cannot be the University of Applied Learning, training our students for a changing industry, if we are not there with them. This is our statement of aspiration – from a very young university’s point of view. We just celebrated our fourth anniversary as a university in March 2018.

Building that very strong relationship with industry is critical to our success. We tried our best to recruit people with more industry experience, though it is a bit of an uphill battle in Singapore. The good thing is that the emphasis on well-prepared skills is gaining traction in Singapore and hopefully, in the longer term, we have more technically-skilled senior people who can become our faculty after working 10-15 years. 


How do you see the University within 15 to 20 years?

Our vision is to be a leader in innovative university education by integrating learning, industry and community. That way, students come to SIT to learn how to thrive when they go out into the industry and community, and also learn the essential skills of being able to adapt to a changing future.

We hope to build a highly nimble and responsive university, one that our students can constantly come back to for upskilling and reskilling. We have a motto, “Once a SITizen, always a SITizen”.  In the ideal state, SIT will no longer have alumni, but only two kinds of students: students here with us, and students out working and waiting for their time to come back again!