No plans to merge polytechnics, universities or ITE campuses: Ong Ye Kung

Education Minister Ong Ye Kung speaking at a panel discussion at the St Gallen Symposium in Switzerland. ST PHOTO: DANSON CHEONG

ST GALLEN (SWITZERLAND) - There are no plans to merge polytechnics, universities or the campuses of the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) even though cohort sizes are falling, Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung has said.

This is because despite falling cohort sizes of between 10 and 15 per cent, these institutions still have a critical mass of students.

He was speaking to Singapore reporters on Thursday (May 4) night (Friday morning Singapore time) at the St Gallen Symposium in Switzerland, where he was on a four-day working visit.

Mr Ong noted that questions had been raised over whether institutes of higher learning would merge, after the Education Ministry announced last month that eight junior colleges (JCs) would merge in 2019 because of falling cohort sizes.

He said: "The situation for ITE, polytechnics and universities are quite different from JCs."

Illustrating his point, Mr Ong said the ITE currently has an intake of about 15,000 students across its three campuses.

He noted that even if demographic changes meant this figure could go down by 10 to 12 per cent by 2020 or 2025, "with three campuses we will (still) see a good critical mass".

The situation with the five polytechnics and six universities - which have an intake of 24,500 and 19,000 students each year respectively - is similar, he said.

Cohort sizes are projected to fall between 10 and 15 per cent by 2025, but the polytechnics and universities would still have a critical mass of students.

Universities also educate students at a "fairly specialised level" and do not need a big critical mass, he added.

He cited, as an example, the Singapore University of Technology and Design which has an intake of 500 to 600 students a year.

"That alone is enough for a niche university that is focused on design and tech," he said, adding that falling cohort sizes could mean that there would be more colleges and programmes "focused on certain areas" in future.

"There is in fact an argument that because cohorts are falling, to make up for the quantity of talent, you actually need more diversity, more pathways in order to bring out the full potential of the limited talent we have," he said, adding that this is the direction that higher education is heading towards.

Asked if it was cost-effective to maintain the same number of institutions despite falling cohort sizes, Mr Ong said: "You can have something that is small and beautiful, not everything has to be large and full of economies of scale, at the university level I think this is the reality."

Mr Ong added that while general education required a critical mass of students, this was not the case for institutes of higher learning, that educate students in niche areas.

Earlier on Thursday, Mr Ong spoke at a panel discussion on politics and education at the St Gallen Symposium, an annual conference attended by business and government leaders, as well as students and young professionals.

He also had a short dialogue session on higher education with symposium participants. Mr Ong said there was "curiousity" from participants on the education system in Singapore, which they held in high regard.

In terms of its education system, Singapore is operating from a "position of strength, highly regarded around the world".

"But we must continue to improve, because the economy is changing, the world is changing. The young are growing up with different expectations, hopes and dreams, and we must help them fulfill their potential," he said.

While in Switzerland, Mr Ong met Federal Councillor Johann Schneider-Ammann, who heads Switzerland's Federal Department of Economic Affairs, Education and Research.

He also visited various institutions of higher learning and companies, and met about a dozen students from the Singapore Management University who are currently on exchange at the University of St Gallen.

Mr Ong leaves for Singapore on Friday.

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