Local universities should not just chase international rankings, because they have a national and social mission that goes beyond academic excellence, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday.
Unlike other elite institutions such as the United States' Harvard or China's Beida which admit a very small percentage of students in those countries, Singapore's universities admit the bulk of its tertiary-bound students, he said.
So, even as they attain ever-higher positions in reputable global rankings, their broader mission must be to develop a student's social conscience and build lasting friendships and camaraderie. They must also imbue in students Singaporean values and ethos, and "a sense that they have a responsibility to take Singapore forward", said Mr Lee.
He urged each university to learn from best practices and to customise its educational offerings to reach these goals instead of merely copying others.
Mr Lee was speaking at the official opening of the National University of Singapore's (NUS) University Town, or UTown, the country's first residential college where students and professors live, eat and learn under the same roof.
The immersive experience is an important development not just for NUS but also for the local tertiary landscape, he said, and fits in the broader context of efforts to improve the sector.
As part of this push, the Government has committed to increasing the number of university places from 27 per cent of each cohort currently to 40 per cent by 2020.
But Mr Lee cautioned that expansion must not lead to a stream of degree holders without jobs that fit their training or fulfil their aspirations. He pointed to countries like South Korea, where unemployment among university graduates is higher than graduates of vocational high schools, even though more than 70 per cent of each cohort attends university.
In Denmark, the corresponding figure is 50 per cent, but more than a quarter of those who graduated within the last year are still unemployed.
"Other countries have found that having large proportions of students going to university does not necessarily guarantee happy outcomes," he said. "We must learn from these lessons and avoid these pitfalls."
Universities must equip students with skills that are relevant in the future and which enable them to hold good jobs, Mr Lee said. Colleges must also have a practical sense of what disciplines and training will help their graduates succeed in a rapidly changing world.
He welcomed the earlier-than-expected introduction of the Singapore Institute of Technology's and UniSim's applied degree programmes, which will feature structured work attachments, next year. "This will produce high quality graduates with skills and knowledge that will be valuable to them in their careers," he said.
The expansion of tertiary education must also not come at the expense of rigour and standards, he added, citing an Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development study that found lower literacy levels in university graduates than high school graduates in Japan and the Netherlands.
In Singapore universities, he emphasised, "the degree must mean something".
Yesterday, Mr Lee toured the UTown campus and its unique features, such as six-bedroom suites, dining halls and 24-hour lounges and computer laboratories.
A fifth of its places are reserved for foreign students, adding to the diversity of the campus, whose centrepiece is a sprawling green - fringed by spots like Singapore's largest Starbucks - where students can lounge and play sports.
Each of its four residential colleges of 600 students have live-in professors and their own personalised modules, on topics like the pursuit of happiness.