No plans to merge polys, unis or ITE, says minister

Institutes of higher learning still have critical mass of students despite falling cohort sizes

There are no plans to merge polytechnics, universities or the campuses of the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) even though cohort sizes are falling, Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung has said.

This is because despite falling cohort sizes of between 10 and 15 per cent, these institutions still have a critical mass of students.

He was speaking to Singapore reporters on Thursday night (Friday Singapore time) at the St Gallen Symposium in Switzerland, where he was on a four-day working visit.

Mr Ong noted that questions had been raised over whether institutes of higher learning would merge, after the Education Ministry announced last month that eight junior colleges (JCs) would merge in 2019 because of falling cohort sizes.

He said: "The situation for ITE, polytechnics and universities is quite different from JCs'."

Illustrating his point, Mr Ong said the ITE currently has an intake of about 15,000 across its three campuses. Even if demographic changes mean this number could go down by 10 to 12 per cent by 2020 or 2025, "with three campuses we will (still) see a good critical mass".

BIGGER NOT ALWAYS BETTER

You can have something that is small and beautiful, not everything has to be large and full of economies of scale. At the university level I think this is the reality.

'' MR ONG YE KUNG, Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills), on whether having smaller cohorts for the same number of institutions is cost-effective.

The situation with the five polytechnics and six universities - which have an intake of 24,500 and 19,000 students each year respectively - is similar, he said. Cohort sizes are projected to fall between 10 and 15 per cent by 2025, but the polytechnics and universities would still have a critical mass.

Universities also educate students at a "fairly specialised level" and do not need a big critical mass, he added. He cited, as an example, the Singapore University of Technology and Design ,which has an intake of 500 to 600 students a year.

"That alone is enough for a niche university that is focused on design and tech," he said, adding that falling cohort sizes could mean that there would be more colleges and programmes "focused on certain areas" in future.

"There is in fact an argument that because cohorts are falling, to make up for the quantity of talent, you actually need more diversity, more pathways in order to bring out the full potential of the limited talent we have," he said, adding that this is the direction higher education is heading.

Asked if it was cost-effective to maintain the same number of institutions despite falling cohort sizes, Mr Ong said: "You can have something that is small and beautiful, not everything has to be large and full of economies of scale. At the university level I think this is the reality."

Mr Ong added that while general education required a critical mass of students, this was not the case for institutes of higher learning that educate students in niche areas.

He also had a short dialogue on higher education with participants of the annual symposium, which is attended by business and government leaders, as well as students and young professionals.

Mr Ong said there was "curiosity" from participants on the education system in Singapore, which they held in high regard. "But we must continue to improve, because the economy is changing, the world is changing. The young are growing up with different expectations, hopes and dreams, and we must help them fulfil their potential."

Mr Ong also met Federal Councillor Johann Schneider-Ammann, who heads Switzerland's Federal Department of Economic Affairs, Education and Research, visited various institutions of higher learning and companies, and met students from the Singapore Management University who are on exchange at the University of St Gallen. He left for Singapore yesterday.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 06, 2017, with the headline 'No plans to merge polys, unis or ITE, says minister'. Print Edition | Subscribe