Going to university is more than about getting qualifications, but also about preparing oneself for life and bettering society, said Senior Minister of State for Law and Education Indranee Rajah on Wednesday night.
She was speaking at the biennial Union Forum organised by the National University of Singapore Students' Union, on the topic of 'the idea of the university'.
Students should enrol in university to gain broader knowledge than just the degrees they earn, and "emerge with an enlarged worldview" having learnt ideas with power to have impact on lives, she said.
"The attainment of the degree is not an end in itself. The degree doesn't make you a better person... a good person," she added. "The ultimate purpose of the university is really for the betterment of the person, society and mankind."
Later, in a panel discussion with NUS provost, Professor Tan Eng Chye, and Straits Times Editor at Large Han Fook Kwang, Ms Indranee expressed her hope that Singapore universities would one day become "powerhouses" in generating ideas.
She suggested the nation tends to "look to other countries for ideas", rather more than creating its own. "What I would like is for people to look at a Singapore university and say: 'Hey! That idea came from a (local) university," she said.
But she also noted that universities must provide knowledge needed for students' future careers. "There has to be some kind of purpose to it at the end of the day, but it should not be only that."
Prof Tan said that students today were "too grade-driven". He recognised that Singapore society being "outcome oriented" played a part in this, but said he hoped that students would one day "learn for the sake of learning".
He noted how the first choice of courses for NUS applicants is consistently medicine, law and business, perhaps because of higher salaries in those fields. "For the benefit of Singapore... it's important to have a good spread of talents across the various disciplines," he said.
Meanwhile, Mr Han urged university faculty and students here to make their voices heard more, for example in the media, in discussions about issues facing Singapore.
"If not, by default others dominate the discussion. Society will be poorer for it."