As Singapore proceeds on its Future Economy journey, facing technological disruption, equipping students with essential skills plays an essential role.
The National University of Singapore (NUS) and Nanyang Technical University (NTU) rank 11th and 12th in the 2019 QS Rankings, inspiring students from around the world to take advantage of the promising higher education options in Singapore. Changes to the economy and the education system are on the horizon so universities and secondary schools alike must plan how to train students for the job market of the future. Technology, automation and innovation represent growth but they also signal a necessary evolution in the realm of education if future students are to integrate into jobs not yet created.
Education systems around the world take note of the best practices in Singapore as bright students consistently report top test scores and graduate prepared for successful careers in an evolving global economy. In March of this year, the Minister for Education, Ng Chee Meng announced in Parliament that by the year 2023, all primary schools would have an Applied Learning Program (ALP). As of 2017, 80 of the 191 primary schools had ALPs in place to nurture creativity and encourage trial and error learning. Adopting these programs integrates mindful STEM and language learning organically, geared towards sharpening entrepreneurial and inter-disciplinary skills. All secondary schools in Singapore already have ALPs in place.
There is however, another side to the intense schooling that children receive. Some critics of the education system believe it is too stressful, putting too much pressure on young children to focus on results oriented success. Scores received on tests from early in their academic career can potentially affect employment as the competition continues to increase. Singaporean students now compete with talent from other ASEAN countries, like India and China where some programs could be considered more advanced. But, many educators realize the challenges presented to students coming up in the system today.
Professor Tan Thiam Soon, President of the Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) says that, “One of our challenges is to get young people to have more diverse dreams and objectives. Currently, there is a fair degree of homogeneity about what they think ‘success’ is. What we need is to have greater diversity and skill set amongst the young people. They should learn how to blend hightouch with a core understanding of the high-tech, and be able to think out of the box.”
The necessity for changing the mentality of students and by consequence, future jobholders, is directly inspired by the changes associated with Industry 4.0. “Our approach in SIT is to engage industry with an integrated approach,” says Mr. Tan. “If in the process, the workers need retraining, we will come in to retrain the workers. If the industry needs a pipeline of new workers, they can look to our students as future talent partners.”The evolution of the education provided for students joining the workforce has been consistently developing over the past several decades.
President of Singapore Management University (SMU), Professor Arnoud De Meyer clarifies that this is not the first time the government has led a concentrated effort to adapt the education system. He explains that, “One of the recommendations of the 1985 Committee was the need to transform Singapore from being a production economy to a knowledge economy. From a purely sociological point of view, we had an educational policy then that trained Singaporeans to be middle management for the multinationals operating here. The idea was to send the top quality students abroad to renowned universities such as Cambridge and Harvard, giving these students bonded scholarships so that they would come back and work in the government for a number of years. That model which existed before 1986 was not adapted for a knowledge economy that needs knowledge workers.” But, over the last two decades, the system has adjusted itself overtime, creating what De Meyer says is “a well thoughtout landscape of higher education.”
Comprehensive, specialized and polytechnic universities have all upgraded their offerings, including more opportunities for students to work directly with industry. Individuals that are less academically inclined have advanced opportunities at institutions such as the Institute of Technical Education (ITE). At ITE, learners receive hands on experience, uncovering their practical intelligence and how to apply it in real world scenarios. CEO Low Kah Gek elaborates, “Take the example of the students who enroll in the Automotive Technology course. They discover that they are great at fixing things. There is no need to do a long essay and describe how the tasks are done. They simply get going and fix it. Another example is students in the ICT sector, where they find that they can develop IT applications and provide solutions.”
ITE partners with 7,700 companies to connect students directly to industry through courses and internships. Ms. Low says that the university is “able to provide for about 80% of our students getting internships and we aim to achieve 100%.We have just launched a new program called the ‘Work-Learn Technical Diploma’. We work with industries to co-develop the curricula and co-deliver the training. Our industry partners provide 70% of the training on the job while ITE provides the 30% on-campus training. At ITE, we train our students with technical skills, but in the workplace our students realize there are other competencies required, such as having to work in a team, communicating effectively and being responsible and accountable. In the workplace, students acquire all these soft skills.”
Other universities are focused on the life-long learning initiative that has been adopted throughout the country. At NTU, alumni receive up to S$1,600 worth of course credits that can be used to apply for more than 120 skills-based courses. President of NTU, Professor Subra Suresh says, “We created technology-enhanced learning on our campus, so that our alumni – who may have graduated from NTU 10 years ago – can learn more about, say, biotechnology through an NTU online course. This is our attempt to help our alumni to upskill and reskill.” NTU already has almost 230,000 current alumni in over 150 countries.
The newly launched SkillsFuture initiative is a government program aimed to encourage all citizens to take advantage of opportunities like those offered at NTU. Professor Tan of SIT says of the program, “SkillsFuture is really putting in an ecosystem of helping kids getting their all-important first job but recognizing that no matter how we train, it will never be enough.” It strives to encourage individuals to understand their choices when it comes to education and careers and to truly foster a culture that supports lifelong learning as a response to evolving industry needs.
According to NUS President, Mr. Tan Eng Chye, “The World Economic Forum has estimated that 2/3 of the children going into primary school today would end up in jobs that do not exist right now, 65% according to them.” At NUS, students learn quantitative reasoning, statistics and computational thinking for AI and data analytics but they are encouraged to work on their interpersonal skills, learning about mindfulness and resilience. NUS also recently began their Lifelong Learners’ program, which lengthens the time of enrollment at the university to twenty years, allowing graduates uninterrupted access to continuing education programs.
The disruption is coming and as Professor Tan of SIT states, “education is a challenging future for generations and that it is not a Singapore problem but a global one.” This compact nation is poised to lead the way and is perhaps, ahead of some of the other global players. NUS alone has incubated about twenty-five percent of the startups in Singapore and partners with colleges overseas in locations such as Silicon Valley, Toronto, Stockholm, and Munich, to name a few.
Reinventing workers’ skill sets and inspiring innovation through education upholds Singapore’s reputation as a home for new business. Without the evolution of education, the gap between knowledge workers and the factories of the future would be even larger making Singapore’s effort valuable not only locally, but to the MNCs they support all over the world.