Education system, definitions of success will change drastically for next generation: Ong Ye Kung

Education Minister (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung and ITE chairman Bob Tan (left) interacting with Singapore polytechnic student Andrew Tan and Nanyang Polytechnic student Fazira Zulkifli (back facing the camera) at the international WorldSkills competition in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates on Oct 17, 2017. PHOTO: INSTITUTE OF TECHNICAL EDUCATION

ABU DHABI - Changing the mindsets of parents and society poses the greatest obstacle in the push to redefine notions of success in education across the globe, said Education Minister (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung on Tuesday (Oct 17).

But he was also confident that the question will be resolved with time, given that the education system and how one defines success "will be changed drastically"when the next generation grows up and and becomes responsible for hiring people in companies and leading ministries.

He was speaking at the closing plenary session of the WorldSkills Conference in Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which is held in conjunction with the 44th edition of the international WorldSkills competition for youth - known to some as the "Olympics of Skills".

There is "really no short-cut" that can be taken when it comes to shifting mindsets and perceptions of success, even if one works consistently at addressing the problem, Mr Ong added.

"We need youngsters to grow up, (because by then), they will be leading institutions, they will be leading ministries, they will be hiring people, they will be (chief executive officers), and the way they look at how I hire and how I educate will be quite different from the last generation," he said.

Mr Ong was a member of a panel discussing skills development, including issues such as the mismatch between jobs and skills, and the globalisation of skills and careers in an age of disruption.

Also on the panel were Mr Hussain Ibrahim Al Hammadi, Minister for Education for the UAE; Dr Ghaith H. Fariz, director of the Unesco Regional Bureau for Sciences in the Arab States; Ms Lyudmila Ogorodova, Russia's Deputy Minister of Education and Science, as well as students from schools in the UAE and India.

During the discussion, moderator and BBC chief international correspondent Lyse Doucet also asked Mr Ong about his observations at Singapore's Public Service Conference in October that the main obstacle to innovation in the public sector "is ourselves".

Mr Ong clarified that those comments were made in the context of Singapore, which has a "very small market", unlike bigger countries like China and India which are not as well-regulated, allowing for more "white space" for innovation.

In Singapore's small market, making space for innovation and experimentation has to be "very well-coordinated", creating a "regulated and friendly environment" for industry and other partners, he added.

Mr Ong also said that youth today have access to unprecedented access to information and computing power in their hands. So, they have greater potential to lead change and innovation. But this also leaves them facing "unprecedented competition" from youth that are equally well-endowed with resources around the world.

"So, there is no doubt that by the time they grow up, they will define the world differently, and they need to understand and internalise the wisdom of previous generations," he said.

Mr Ong, who arrived in Abu Dhabi on Monday night (Oct 16) for a four-day working visit, also visited competitors at the WorldSkills contest on Tuesday (Oct 17) and discussed areas for potential collaboration in technical and vocational education and training (TVET) between Singapore and the UAE with Mr Al Hammadi, UAE's foreign minister Sheikh Abdullah Zayed Al Nahyan and other officials at bilateral meetings.

This is the first time that a Singapore education minister has visited the biennial skills competition, which Singapore has taken part in since 1995. It aims to raise the profile of TVET worldwide and involves about 1,300 competitors from close to 60 countries in this edition.

A contingent of 21 Singaporean students from the polytechnics and the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) are competing in 19 skill areas at WorldSkills, including aircraft maintenance, cooking and Web design and development.

Asked by Ms Doucet about how the voices of young people can be heard when it comes to coping with change in a disruptive global economy, Mr Ong agreed with Unesco's Dr Fariz that effective and meaningful engagement is key.

But he also pointed out that "the voice of youth in every generation is never uniform". While there are young people who are single-minded and passionate about what they want to do, and get support from those around them, some of them also face opposition from society and their parents if they have an ambition in a vocational skill area, such as being a chef. There is also a third group of young people, who are still exploring their options and unsure about what routes they will like to take in life.

So, the response from the government and society is to take a multi-pronged approach, said Mr Ong. The first group has to be honoured and encouraged so that they can "do what they want and achieve something".

A platform like WorldSkills, he noted, "really recognises the achievements of all our competitors". "They're obviously passionate about their (skill areas), and whether they win a medal or not, that needs to be celebrated."

For the second group who have an interest but are unsure about pursuing it, "the system has really got to speak up for them and say that it's all right", said Mr Ong. Society and government has to "evangelise and speak up, and let them have the confidence that I can pursue my passion".

And for those who have not yet found a passion, a "systemic response" is needed, he noted.

"Within our system we have to open up pathways, spaces for them to explore what they don't know yet and hopefully in time they discover their passion."

The Government has been paying closer attention to the WorldSkills competition this year. In June, SkillsFuture Singapore, a statutory board under the Ministry of Education, took over from the ITE as the representative organisation for Singapore's participation in competitions recognised by WorldSkills International, a global non-profit body.

The four-day competition started on Sunday (Oct 15), and results will be announced on Thursday (Oct 19) night.

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