When engineers learn the arts

The pioneer batch of renaissance engineers, whose course at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) included business and liberal arts, graduated this month after 41/2 years. The programme, launched in 2011, has been growing in popularity.

It is just one example of how inter-disciplinary studies are gaining ground here and globally.

Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development director for education and skills Andreas Schleicher charts this change. "Conventionally, our approach to problems was breaking them down into manageable bits, and then to teach students the techniques to solve them."

But increasingly, value is created by making links between ideas that previously seemed unrelated, which "requires being familiar with knowledge in fields other than our own", he points out.

"If we spend our whole life in a silo of a single discipline, we will not gain the imaginative skills to connect the dots where the next invention will come from," he says.

Schools in Singapore are tailoring their programmes to allow students to pursue areas beyond their core discipline. Some courses also have a strong inter-disciplinary theme, combining various fields of study.

On the future of education

ABILITY OVER AGE

As information becomes ubiquitous, criterion of admission to a specific course will be ability, not chronology, so the range of student ages will widen, with younger and older students joining the hitherto standard university-going age group. Younger students, whose self-directed learning has prepared them sufficiently for a university course, need not wait till the requisite age, while older workers who have spent their earlier years on other pursuits may now sit in the same course.

SINGAPORE MANAGEMENT UNIVERSITY PROVOST LILY KONG

At Nanyang Technological University, English literature students can take art history, while mass communication students can take business. Professor Kam Chan Hin, the varsity's senior associate provost of undergraduate education, says work challenges will "go beyond any single field, where solutions are found at the interfaces of disciplines".

National University of Singapore president Tan Chorh Chuan says the ability to learn continually across domains will be a "must have", and not a "good to have".

Another change is in the length of courses. In future, instead of spending three or more years getting a qualification, more people will study short, relevant modules as the need arises.

In some cases, these modules can be stacked to count towards a diploma or degree. That is useful for working adults looking to acquire certain skill sets without having to commit to a full diploma or degree programme at the start.

Skills-based modular courses for people to pick up new skills on a need basis are already on offer at the polytechnics. Singapore and Temasek polytechnics say they will offer more such courses over the next few years.

At the universities, bite-sized courses will also be more prevalent.

Singapore Management University provost Lily Kong believes learning will be more self-directed, and "students may weave in and out of studies and work, registering for micro-certs each time, rather than three to four years of study".

Human resource experts say such short courses may benefit employers, who are always looking for individuals with the right skills to fill new roles; and job seekers who do not need to invest years of study at an institution. In time to come, it may not be a full degree that is needed by employers.

However, Ms Linda Teo, country manager at ManpowerGroup Singapore, believes that modular courses alone are not enough to help workers secure jobs. Such courses can be used only to enhance existing qualifications at best, she says, but employers need to recognise and reward "learnability".

The Civil Service has to take the lead, say labour experts. The Education Ministry, for instance, announced last August that non-graduate classroom teachers would progress in the same way as their peers with graduate qualifications and be put on the same salary structure. The move, which took effect last October, recognises teachers' competencies beyond academic qualifications.

TEACHERS PLAY CRUCIAL ROLE

Given the vast volumes of information readily available today, teachers play an important role in helping students to develop the academic scaffolding and skills that will enable them to curate, make sense of and use data effectively. Personal qualities, such as initiative and resilience, and interpersonal skills, such as teamwork and communication, will become even more important. ''

NATIONAL UNIVERSITY OF SINGAPORE PRESIDENT TAN CHORH CHUAN

Elsewhere, certain sectors, such as services and technology, are also recognising employees' skills.

Last year, the hotel industry became the first local sector to get a five-year manpower plan. It includes measures to upgrade and retain workers, a framework of skills needed, and opportunities for career progression. The plan is timely, with the number of hotel rooms due to rise by 20 per cent by 2020, boosting demand for workers.

Calvin Yang

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 30, 2016, with the headline 'When engineers learn the arts'. Print Edition | Subscribe