Raising the bar in S'pore higher education

Universities of the future will become more open, with an emphasis on lifelong learning

Higher education is changing globally, and the changes will flow into Singapore's university system in the years ahead.

Technology is transforming the delivery and consumption of higher education and liberating the way learners learn.

There is still an increasing demand for university education, despite the rising cost. Singapore is generous with university funding, but rising demands from provisions for the aged, healthcare and other social needs will threaten the sustainability of higher education spending.

Also of concern is the possible glut of graduates seen in some countries, and a mismatch between graduate abilities and industry needs.

The notion of a degree and what it constitutes, its credentials, how it is provided and its continuing relevance in a changing economic and employment environment are all coming under scrutiny. In the light of these, what may the future university landscape here be like?


AND INCLUSIVEThe university landscape here currently comprises research-intensive, specialist and applied universities, providers of full-time pre-employment education and part-time continuing education and training, and other private or foreign institutions.

The publicly funded universities, or autonomous universities, do well in providing quality education; some are highly ranked globally, while others are known for strengths in teaching, applied learning and social impact. To complete the landscape, perhaps there can be one more institution dedicated to the arts.

SkillsFuture, the national "skills development for all" movement, will promote diverse pathways with the focus on deepening of skills rather than striving for qualifications, and learning throughout life rather than dichotomising formal education and learning at work.

Just-in-time and on-the-move upgrading will become more prevalent. Learning will be a "mix-and-match" from different sources and at different levels, yet enabling the learner to aggregate and synthesise what is acquired.

Degrees may no longer be the prerogative of universities. A set of "stackable" courses taken from various providers in a coherent manner can be presented to a university, or even an accrediting body, for a degree or for "top-ups" to a new degree. Or they can be shown to an employer who is more keen on what is on the transcripts than on the degree scroll.

The focus of university education will shift towards a more applied nature, producing graduates with skills needed by the marketplace and imbued with a lifelong learning mindset.

The university system will also be more open, welcoming late developers and learning enthusiasts. Learners can loop in and out of courses throughout their lives, pacing their learning according to needs and aspirations, acquiring knowledge through a combination of formal studies, workplace training, professional certifications and portfolio attestations.

What will be needed is a good system of career and skills advisory to help the individual make informed and timely decisions.


Online learning will become a primary mode of study, not a supplement for face-to-face didactic teaching. Funding pressures, the quest for mobility and flexibility, and effectiveness in learning, will accelerate the adoption of online learning.

The 21st century learner will demand new pedagogies and the ability to judiciously use and interact with data. There will be more experimentation with new approaches as universities find ways to meet the needs for personalised and independent learning, and for facilitating communities of learning and knowledge exchanges.

The roles of teachers and learners will overlap and faculty will be facilitators of learning rather than communicators of knowledge - a challenge even for old hands at teaching.

Analytics will be used to impact the entire spectrum of learning. Data on an individual student, a class, cohort, and the effectiveness of delivery, for instance, can help assess each student's abilities and predict outcomes, enabling timely interventions. Using personalised analytics, students can better manage their own learning. There is great potential in mining national data on institutions, students and employment movements, to give longitudinal knowledge that informs strategies and policies.

University academia will need to make many adjustments. For example, examinations will need re-designing to accommodate the use of multiple devices, online information search and even interactions among learners, while maintaining rigour. New ways will have to be found to keep the personalised social-emotional touch of face-to-face classes.


As universities alone cannot completely prepare a graduate for the job market and his entire career, the provision of higher and continuing education must involve multiple parties such as the government and employers.

The quest for efficiency gains in running universities here may see a greater sharing of courses, curricula, teaching, research and infrastructural resources among universities, with more services outsourced to specialist market providers. For instance, having a common learning management system can bring cost savings that will benefit students and facilitate a learner's reading of courses from different universities.

Within this fray, there is room for private sector growth in providing learning and other disaggregated services. Publishers, Internet providers, specialist knowledge companies, professional academies and non-academic service providers can bring innovative pedagogies, content and services.

The private sector can continue to play a recognised accredited higher education role by raising its bar on quality and standards across the board. Through greater statutory control of quality in exchange for concessions, such as special rates for land leases, grants for educational technology improvements and direct education subsidies, students should gain most.

There will be a smaller number of quality private higher education providers that will complement autonomous universities.


The higher education landscape looks to be mo re diverse and inclusive with greater fluidity in how education and learning and, for that matter, when and how a degree, is acquired.

More importantly, individuals will take greater personal responsibility for their continuing education throughout their lives, and society will be better served by universities as they bring learning closer to the community and make it a way of life in Singapore. It is a promising and exciting future to work towards.

•Professor Cheong Hee Kiat is the president of SIM University.

 A longer version of this article was first published in Beyond 50: Re-imagining Singapore, a collection of essays on the country's future challenges and opportunities.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 03, 2015, with the headline 'Raising the bar in S'pore higher education'. Print Edition | Subscribe