Strategic players in the knowledge economy include universities, innovative companies and individual risk-takers. While all three are vital, how can they be made to interact more dynamically and flexibly? This perplexes as the skeins of disciplined learning, profit-driven application and "crazy" invention are not easily woven together. In high-profile instances, path-breakers like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Frank Lloyd Wright and Mark Zuckerberg found it necessary to drop out of college to fulfil their vision. Decades later, the young still feel they have to apologise to go outside the university to experiment, as was heard at last week's Straits Times Education Forum at the Singapore Management University.
A co-founder of recruitment website Glints, who put his further education at a top school on hold, said it was "a matter of asking for permission and forgiveness" in order to go against what the system had imposed initially. This is hardly a culture one should retain here. After all, every society needs risk-takers in order to evolve, as acknowledged by Acting Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung.
With wry wit, playwright George Bernard Shaw had observed that while the reasonable man adapts himself to the world, it's the unreasonable one who goes against the grain. "Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man" - the disruptors and agents of change. Given their value, there's benefit in drawing them into established learning environments. Accommodating misfits, however, comes hard for universities, especially those clinging to ancient teaching strategies. For example, despite calls to replace a "sage on the stage", droning on about a subject, with forms of "active learning" that promote participation, old practices and notions linger in many universities. Their crucial role as providers of public and private goods - in the spheres of education, research and applied problem-solving - requires the pace of change to be quickened.
One significant break from tradition here will be the pilot "cooperative programmes" to allow students to alternate seamlessly between campus and a workplace, with half or more of their time devoted to real-life pursuits. The scheme will be led by the Singapore Institute of Technology and SIM University, which will partner bigger companies and government agencies. Closer collaboration between institutions of higher learning and industry can raise the quality of education as a whole. Importantly, the two have an important role to play in cracking the difficulty of evaluating much-needed 21st-century skills like critical thinking, problem-solving, teamwork and digital competencies. Singapore universities and companies should be at the forefront of such efforts as economic restructuring will hinge on nurturing more workers who can innovate collaboratively.