Those running a university with an elitist bent might blanch at the prospect of widening its role to include vocational training. After all, the whole point of university access at one time was its exclusivity, and the chief benefit was to secure the future of those who obtained a degree. Admission of the elect was underscored by institutional identification cards carried at all times, as in Yale where portals are gated; and by the all-male final clubs at Harvard which were once sought after. However, Britain's so-called red brick universities, like others elsewhere, were more open and less hidebound. These emphasised real-world skills too rather than just academic knowledge.
Here, vocational training was an afterthought in the 1950s, growing out of a sense that Singapore education was too academic for the good of the economy. That led to the formation of two technical secondary schools, a secondary commercial school and the Singapore Polytechnic. The Adult Education Board, which was set up in 1960, conducted evening classes on modest premises. This merged later with another body to create the Vocational and Industrial Training Board (once deemed the school of last resort), which in turn morphed into the Institute of Technical Education (a winner of a global Harvard-IBM Innovations Award for having a profound impact on the lives of people).
Gratifyingly, it's now recognised that not just ITE but also polytechnics and universities must play a bigger role to support lifelong learning among working adults. The push towards mastery in different fields would be stymied if limited avenues exist at tertiary levels for adults to deepen their knowledge and skills. The SkillsFuture Series of courses will boost the number of places for trainees from 10,000 initially to 50,000 every year by 2020. This will allow mature learners, who have to balance work and study, to explore emerging fields, such as cyber risk management, cloud computing and augmented reality.
Besides running such programmes, universities will have to allow undergraduates to get practical experience, by alternating between campus and workplace. The expanded mission of universities to cover continuing education and training, together with the pilot "cooperative programmes" with industry, represents a major transformation for institutions of higher learning. In addition to providing diverse learning options, some might also allow students to tailor their education to match their interests. Such efforts are laudable. But to derive better outcomes, universities must also offer sufficient guidance to ensure individual learning pathways are properly structured.