Singapore has to adopt best aspects of Swiss education system: Ong Ye Kung

Singapore needs to guide each student to recognise and uncover their interests and passions, to keep them resilient by achieving mastery in their area of expertise.
Singapore needs to guide each student to recognise and uncover their interests and passions, to keep them resilient by achieving mastery in their area of expertise.PHOTO: THE NEW PAPER

WINTERTHUR - Combining the best of Switzerland's emphasis on vocational training with Singapore's more academic-oriented education system will help students prepare for a future of disruption. But at the same time, society has to broaden its notion of success, said Education Minister Ong Ye Kung.

In his keynote address on Thursday (June 7) at the 3rd International Congress on Vocational and Professional Education and Training in Switzerland, he said: "What we are aiming to develop will be a combination of the best parts of the Singapore and Swiss systems - and probably other systems around the world. But the secret and deciding ingredients for success are still societal norms, beliefs and culture.

"Society must broaden its notion of success. Meritocracy must also take on an enlarged meaning that represents opportunities and social mobility, and be commensurate with the multiple pathways offered by the education system."

His counterparts, including Mr Johann N. Schneider-Ammann, head of Switzerland's Federal Department of Economic Affairs, Education and Research and United States Secretary of Education, Ms Betsy DeVos were also present.

Mr Ong attended the conference during a working visit to Switzerland from June 6 to 9, accompanied by officials from the Ministry of Education (MOE) and Temasek Polytechnic.

In his speech, the minister noted that the Swiss dual study system, which combines classroom study with workplace apprentice training to nurture talent, is of particular interest to Singapore.

He highlighted its mentorship programmes, and the involvement of industry.

"Two years ago, I visited Swatch and saw how the company put aside intra-industry competition,and trained craftsmen for the entire watch industry. This is a national ethos rarely

seen in other countries," he said.

Singapore's education system has also served students well, Mr Ong added, citing the good performance of the two national universities, National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University, in international rankings, and how nine in 10 graduates are able to find jobs within six months of graduation.

But both systems has its issues. Over-specialising in skills can make students vulnerable to disruption, while Singapore's traditional emphasis on academic excellence "has inadvertently made our students too 'book smart', and lacking the innovative spirit, entrepreneurial zest and survival instinct needed in the real world".

Hence the need to combine the best of both systems.

Through mastery in a chosen field, workers can continue to be relevant, bring to the table skills which machines cannot, and innovate. "And we see success in this approach in the Swiss system, where there is so much depth in whatever you do," said Mr Ong.

But to achieve mastery, one needs passion, and education systems need to guide each student to recognise and uncover them. "That is why Singapore has included Education and Career Counselling in our school curriculum," said Mr Ong. "The school curriculum must also be multi-faceted to facilitate students' exploration" and impart soft skills.

He explained how applied learning has been integrated into Singapore's curriculum so that students learn to work in teams and through hands-on activities. This is to open up their minds and help them discover new possibilities.

The aim is a system with multiple paths to success, involving "different types of qualifications, different types of degrees, delivered through different modes, and which can be attained at different times and stages of a student's life".

"If a student is interested in a technical or craft-based profession - be it a coder, cyber-security expert, chef, event organiser, hospitality professional, designer, artist, healthcare worker, early childhood educator, or entrepreneur - they may have to undergo the requisite technical training and industry practice, which may or may not involve a university education," said Mr Ong. "On the other hand, the university landscape cannot be overly-dominated by academic programmes. It must include other professional studies, applied learning pathways, and work-learn degree programmes, modelled after the Swiss dual study system...

"With mastery as the end goal, education and work need not be regarded as sequential processes. We should instead intersperse study with work, to maximise the value of both, because you learn better after you put things into practise, and vice versa."