SUTD’s tuition-free coding school draws 3,000 applicants for first intake

Education Minister Chan Chun Sing speaking at the launch of 42 Singapore. He said that the programme illustrates the concept of continuous meritocracy. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

SINGAPORE – A tuition-free coding school, modelled after a pioneering French school that has since grown worldwide, had 3,000 applicants vying for a spot in its first batch in Singapore.

After a rigorous selection process, the inaugural cohort of 190 students will start school this week at 42 Singapore (42SG), which is offered by the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD).

The students, whose ages range from 18 to 60 years, went through 26 intensive days of “bootcamp” before they were accepted. 

The university, which launched the 42SG premises on Tuesday, said in a statement that offers were made to 200 applicants, about 96 per cent of whom accepted. 

“This is 25 per cent more than the 150 that were initially expected for the first intake.” 

42SG, which is open to anyone 18 and above regardless of their prior academic qualifications, aims to equip learners with the most-in-demand skills for jobs in the infocomm and technology (ICT) sector. 

Singapore citizens need to have completed national service. 

The programme offers modules in the fields of coding, computer programming, cyber security, network infrastructure, data science and more.

Modelled after Ecole 42 in Paris, a pioneering school in peer learning that was founded in 2013, 42SG does not have any teachers or lectures. Instead, it offers full hands-on, project-based learning in a gamified environment.

Hosted at the SUTD campus, the 42SG premises spans 880 sq m, and houses 150 computer terminals that have been specially configured and linked to 42 Paris’ server to administer the programme.

With this, Singapore joins 28 other countries in the 42 network with more than 18,000 students. 

Supported by SkillsFuture Singapore and a donation of $600,000 from 42SG’s industry partner foodpanda, the programme charges no tuition fees.

SUTD said the students in the pioneer batch come from all walks of life. About a third are in full-time employment, while another third are currently not working and are using this opportunity to upskill themselves. The rest are students, working part-time or retirees. 

Nearly half of the students do not have a university degree, and about half also have no prior coding experience. 

To be accepted, applicants go through a two-step selection process. The first is a two-hour memory and logic test that does not require any coding knowledge.

The second, called “The Piscine” (French for swimming pool), will test prospective students’ determination and desire for 26 days, as they do basic coding and learn collaboratively with other “Pisciners” by completing projects and evaluations.

SUTD president Chong Tow Chong said those who took part in The Piscine recorded a high pass rate of 63.6 per cent, above the average of all 50 42 campuses worldwide. 

Thanking the partners involved in bringing 42SG to fruition, Education Minister Chan Chun Sing, who attended the opening ceremony on Tuesday, said: “It is easy for us to try and do more time-tested methods to conduct education as we have done in the past, but it is even more impressive for many of you to join hands with us to keep trying new things.”

He said the programme illustrates the concept of continuous meritocracy, where skills matter more than credentials and past records.

“Let’s move beyond (a system) where people are pigeonholed into what they can do according to their previous certifications,” he added.

SUTD said the 42SG programme has 21 “levels” which are split into two main categories – core and specialisation. 

Students have to pass nine levels under the core programme before they can proceed to levels 10-21 under specialisation. 

They will also take part in one or two six-month industry placement exercises as part of the specialisation programme.

The second intake for 42SG is scheduled for May 2024. The next Piscine is slated to start from the third week of February 2024. 

Mr Mohamed Syafik Mhd Isa, 33, a freelance trainer, said joining 42SG is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. 

“I have been interested in studying data science, but kept putting it off because I have to work and didn’t have the time,” he added. “Then I found this school, and it is exactly what I am looking for.” 

With the help of online tutorials and resources, Mr Syafik added basic coding to his repertoire of self-taught skills, like photography and videography, which he trains students in. 

“I learn much better on the job and through practice with immediate feedback, rather than in a classroom with exams,” he said. 

The biomedical science graduate from a local polytechnic ended up not joining the industry as he could not find suitable roles. 

“For the sake of survival, I picked up new skills like being a barista and going into training by chance. You could say going into coding was also by chance,” he said. 

“I realise I like working with data and statistics because of a previous job experience with a non-profit,” he added. 

“I figured I should learn more about coding, since I was teaching it and didn’t know the languages very well. I was just scratching the surface.”

Mr Mohamed Syafik Mhd Isa and Ms Louisa Nonis are among the students in 42SG’s inaugural cohort. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

Despite having no coding experience, Ms Louisa Nonis, 28, joined 42SG because of her interest in digital forensics.

The fine arts degree holder said she had dealt with the security of artwork online in her previous job in a fintech firm.

She was drawn to the unique structure and flexibility of the 42SG programme, and how it screened applicants.

“Everyone is here to learn and share regardless of backgrounds… I feel there is room to bridge different fields and there will be more interdisciplinary opportunities,” she said.

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