Bridging the gap between skills demanded at workplaces and knowledge imparted in educational institutions has been a longstanding challenge. Germany's and Switzerland's apprenticeship schemes do a better job of closing this gap, drawing as these do from old European practices which once fused working and studying inextricably. In industrial societies, learning takes place en masse in schools, largely a world of its own.
Having rediscovered the utility of closer connections between work and study, many are now trying harder to produce "job-ready" graduates via different paths. Apprenticeships are held up for combining practical and up-to-date training with theoretical schooling. Variants are traineeships offering work practice not associated with acquiring qualifications, and internships for rookies - work stints that are short and unstructured.
Rare are models that intertwine learning and working compulsively, and promote greater interaction among teachers, workplace mentors and students. When curricula and teaching methods are jealously guarded by hidebound traditionalists, the results can be unnerving. For example, 75 per cent of IT graduates and 55 per cent of them in healthcare are deemed "unemployable", noted a report on higher education in India produced by international consultants Ernst and Young.
Acknowledging that the learning process has to be seamless across all domains, Singapore has been promoting work-study programmes for a number of years - a thrust that is being strengthened, as urged by the Applied Study in Polytechnics and Institute of Technical Education Review (Aspire) committee. Pilot programmes are to be launched next to combine work and degree studies. Through close collaboration between universities and large corporations, students will be able to apply theory in, say, a software house or bank, and, at the same time study, real-life workplace problems in an academic setting.
Such an experiential approach represents a shift from mass learning in big auditoriums to one-person-at-a-time learning in actual work situations. It makes learning less sequential, typically front-loaded in the childhood and teen years, and more accumulative - like pearls of wisdom strung continuously throughout life alongside precious practical experience. This will mean synchronising the language, concepts and philosophy of learning across all the places where it is taking place - schools, colleges, workplaces, adult learning centres, and continuing education institutes in university. The once-off paper chase must yield to the lifelong pursuit of skills. Without such a qualitative change, boosting the percentage of public and private university graduates in each cohort to 50 per cent by 2020 will not yield a workforce brimming with both knowledge and practical know-how in good measure.