Singapore students need to be lifelong learners: Chan Chun Sing

Education Minister Chan Chun Sing said he has always hoped students here will be like Eels - Eternal and Engaged Learners. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

SINGAPORE - Students here need to be like "eels", or Eternal and Engaged Learners (Eels), said Education Minister Chan Chun Sing on Monday (Feb 21).

He was speaking at the launch of a book - Building Excellence In Higher Education: Singapore's Experience - on the development and future of the system in Singapore for higher education, which is co-written by the fourth and longest-serving president of Singapore Management University (SMU), Emeritus Professor Arnoud De Meyer, and SMU adjunct lecturer Jovina Ang.

Said Mr Chan: "We must dispense with the thinking that front-loading education can prepare us for the rest of our lives.

"Instead, I've always hoped our students will be like Eels - Eternal and Engaged Learners. "

In his speech, he drew on the book to outline three ways Singapore can position universities for the future.

As Singapore's universities grow in size, governance of the higher education sector and development of leadership teams must keep up with the complex task of leading and managing them, he said.

Mr Chan noted that the six universities in Singapore have over 100,000 students at any one time.

Secondly, institutes of higher learning here must evolve into institutes for continual learning to keep pace with the world, he said, agreeing with Prof De Meyer that the concept of alumni will become "a relic of the past".

Echoing Prof De Meyer's book, he noted that singularly academic or on-the-job training will no longer be sufficient.

This comes as Singapore continues to strengthen the training of mid-career workers with this year's Budget rolling out a scheme to provide highly subsidised, industry-oriented training courses to help such workers secure jobs in sectors with good hiring opportunities.

Lastly, research in universities must flow back to the industry, and leading industry skills and knowledge also need to reach labs and classrooms, said Mr Chan.

The book brings together interviews with former education ministers, including Dr Tony Tan and Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, permanent secretaries, presidents and chairmen of universities.

In his speech, Prof De Meyer highlighted designing a system aligned to socio-economic development of the country and significant investment in research funding for universities as two of several drivers of excellence in higher education over three decades.

Emeritus Professor Arnoud De Meyer highlighted designing a system aligned to socio-economic development of the country and significant investment in research funding for universities as two of several drivers of excellence in higher education over three decades. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

Addressing cynicism about the future of Singapore's partnerships with foreign universities after the National University of Singapore decided to cease its collaboration with Yale University last year, Prof De Meyer told The Straits Times the closure should be seen in the context of past partnerships between universities here, citing Singapore University of Technology and Design's collaboration with Massachusetts Institute of Technology that ended in 2017.

Partnerships between universities come to a natural end when the marginal return from learning decreases and "the logic for the collaboration usually breaks down", observed Prof De Meyer.

But the higher education system here is far from perfect, noted Prof De Meyer in his speech, questioning whether local universities are ready for mid-career education as the population ages rapidly.

He said: "Do we know enough about andragogy or how older people learn? Is the revenue stream of mid-career education stable enough to recruit faculty that may stay on for decades?"

Building Excellence In Higher Education: Singapore's Experience is co-written by Emeritus Professor Arnoud De Meyer and Singapore Management University adjunct lecturer Jovina Ang. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

Other challenges that universities of the future will need to navigate include the role of technology in university education, which has been accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic, he said.

While greater emphasis has been placed on lifelong learning since the launch of SkillsFuture in 2015, Dr Ang, who also teaches adult learners at SMU, said more needs to be done to make reskilling a way of life.

Said Dr Ang: "Typically a lot of Singaporeans tend to leverage their first degree for too long and I think that's why we need to inculcate a mindset of continuous learning from a very young age."

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