New 'degrees' for the new economy

In this last of a four-part series on higher education, skills and work, senior education correspondent Sandra Davie talks to Singapore Institute of Technology president Tan Thiam Soon on how higher education will have to evolve to prepare students for the knowledge economy.

The Integrated Work Study Programme is not an internship programme but a work-attachment programme. Prof Tan Thiam Soon feels that Singapore needs the world's best-educated workforce if the economy is to be strong.
The Integrated Work Study Programme is not an internship programme but a work-attachment programme. PHOTOS: SINGAPORE INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY
The Integrated Work Study Programme is not an internship programme but a work-attachment programme. Prof Tan Thiam Soon feels that Singapore needs the world's best-educated workforce if the economy is to be strong.
Prof Tan Thiam Soon feels that Singapore needs the world's best-educated workforce if the economy is to be strong. PHOTOS: SINGAPORE INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY

In most advanced economies including Singapore, citizens are encouraged to pursue at least 10 years of education.

Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) president Tan Thiam Soon asks: "Is it time to make 15 or 16 years of education the new minimum?"

He points out that, in Singapore, 95 per cent of school leavers already go on to study at the junior colleges, the polytechnics and the Institute of Technical Education.

"But is having an A-level certificate, a polytechnic diploma or an ITE certificate enough? Does the new knowledge economy require you to gain even more knowledge and skills to go on to be an economically productive person and thrive in the new world?" he asks.

For him, good-quality, skills-based higher education is the basis for full economic and civic participation.

"If our economy is to be strong, we need the besteducated workforce in the world," he says.

But the civil engineer, who held leadership roles in the National University of Singapore before taking over the helm in SIT, is quick to add: "It need not be a degree route, and it need not be frontloaded.

"It can be a diploma or specialist diploma or degree earned through the workplace training. And it can be done after a few years of working, or even while working," he said, highlighting the work-study degrees that SIT offers, where students alternate semesters of work and study or work a few days a week and attend classes on the other days.

He feels there will be a blurring of the boundary between formal education and learning at work and Singaporeans will have to learn throughout their lives.

He says: "Formal education on its own, no matter how good it is, will never be enough. Workers will learn that life is going to be about a work-learn continuum... to continually adapt to disruptive changes."

Q You say we should think hard about whether the minimum in education should be raised to 15 or 16 years. Who should pay for it?

A In reality today, almost all students are already receiving generous subsidies for 12 to 13 years, and for those going from ITE to poly, 16 years of education.

And there is also 70 per cent subsidy for undergraduate study. Those who go on SkillsFuture courses receive additional support.

Therefore, the mechanism to support all Singaporeans for 15 to 16 years of education is already there - it is more a case of getting all the educational institutions at different levels to align themselves to prepare the students for the future.

We should also find ways to encourage students not to frontload their entire education.

For many, it may be better to work and then continue to receive support for their further education, regardless of whether you call it formal education or lifelong learning. But it is very important for companies to have a much stronger culture of workplace learning that is also respected, accredited and recognised for professional upgrading.

Q Your university requires all students to undertake work attachments, of up to a year, during the course of their studies. Why are work attachments the way to go?

A The Integrated Work Study Programme (IWSP) is a salient feature of the SIT educational experience. As most of our students are polytechnic graduates, they are essentially work-ready. We work hard to ensure they are equipped with the right skills to contribute to the workplace.

  • About Professor Tan Thiam Soon

  • Professor Tan Thiam Soon is the president of the Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT).

    He obtained his bachelor's in civil engineering from the University of Canterbury and subsequently obtained his Master of Science and PhD from the California Institute of Technology.

    Prior to joining SIT, he was with the National University of Singapore for over 26 years and was a professor of civil engineering.

    His main research interests are land reclamation, deep excavation and soil improvement. He received the ASTM's C.A. Hogentogler Award in 2007 and the Best Research Paper Award in 2008 from the Japanese Geotechnical Society.

    He was awarded the Public Administration Medal (Silver) in 2008, Minister of Transport's Distinguished Innovation Award in 2008, Ministry of National Development's 2015 Minister's Award (Team) and the Public Administration Medal (Gold) in 2017.

    Prof Tan is a registered Specialist Professional Engineer (Geotechnical). He is a member of the Future Economy Council and board member of SkillsFuture Singapore and the Land Transport Authority.

    Sandra Davie

We put them in an environment where they can infuse their talents and knowledge with real work experience.

It is also an opportunity to showcase to the employers what they can really do that is beyond grades in their transcript.

Therefore, the IWSP is not an internship programme but a work attachment programme. Students spend at least six to 12 months on a full-time work attachment, that also helps to integrate theory and practice.

More than 70 per cent of the Class of 2019 who went through the IWSP received advance job offers from their employers, even before they graduated.

Q You have close to 500 companies that partner SIT to offer IWSP places now. What is in it for the companies?

A Since we embarked on IWSP in 2015, more than 2,200 students from 16 degree programmes have completed their IWSP, with another 1,100 students out in the industry for their IWSP in the current academic year.

We are happy to have nearly 500 companies offering work attachments to our students.

The companies can impart, and students can simultaneously gain, practical job and career skills.

Further, the companies can observe the students at work and select those that best fit their culture.

Q Do you see demand for SkillsFuture Work-Study Degrees growing?

A We have received a total of 1,572 applications for the SkillsFuture Work-Study Degree since it was launched in 2017.

This reflects that students are aware of how the pathway can help them gain valuable and relevant industry exposure.

We started offering the pathway in six degrees but have now expanded it to 15.

The number of companies partnering SIT in this has now increased from 14 to 35 since 2017, including Accenture, Defence Science and Technology Agency and Singtel .

Companies recruit SIT students with the long-term objective of employing them upon graduation.

With a decreasing cohort, competition for the right talents will heat up. Companies that make a proactive effort to recruit potential talents, and to assess them while working, will be at a key advantage.

Q Do you think there is a need for employers to change the way they hire? Based on skills, as opposed to qualifications?

A I think the need will be forced on them partly due to a decreasing cohort. Currently most people use only one measure - academic grades, which is a far from perfect indicator. Thus unless companies change the way they hire, they are going to miss out on many talented people.

There are also a number of jobs where skills are of much greater importance than qualifications. For those jobs, companies will have to move from traditional hiring practices to look at skills.

Q What do you see as SIT's unique value proposition as a higher education institution? What do you hope its legacy will be ?

A As the world continues to be disrupted by technologies, many mundane jobs will disappear but not the people. How education helps our people prepare for that future will be crucial to the nation.

Our unique proposition is that we have brought forward the blurring of the boundary between formal and lifelong education and, once students enter SIT, they have embarked on their lifelong journey of work-learn continuum. We make them aware of this continuum earlier than if they were in a more traditional university.

In 10 to 20 years down the road, if SIT has helped many more young people receive a university education that has helped them to navigate a disruptive future and help many of our companies to discover talented young people beyond just academic grades alone, that will be our legacy.

• Prof Tan will be speaking at the Applied Learning conference organised by SIT on Jan 30. The two-day conference will be held at the Sands Expo & Convention Centre, Marina Bay Sands Singapore. Go to to register.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 19, 2020, with the headline New 'degrees' for the new economy. Subscribe