In less than a decade, Singapore went from three universities to six, offering a variety of degree programmes and learning pathways.
The diversification of the higher education landscape took place in tandem with the expansion of university places to offer degree opportunities to more Singaporeans.
The Ministry of Education (MOE) had pledged that, by 2020, some 40 per cent of each cohortwould be able to attain degrees through full-time study at one of the local universities. Another 10 per cent would be supported to gain degrees through part-time study.
The MOE had also announced that, while the research-intensive National University of Singapore, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore Management University and Singapore University of Technology and Design offer more academic degree pathways, the two newer universities - the Singapore Institute of Technology and SIM University (UniSIM) - will provide application-oriented programmes, where the emphasis is on mastery of skills required for a specific profession.
Last year, the Government launched the SkillsFuture initiative, a national movement to harness the aspirations and talents of the population and encourage Singaporeans to keep on learning and upgrading their knowledge and skills.
As Acting Education Minister (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung said yesterday, it is in the context of SkillsFuture that it makes sense for UniSIM to become an autonomous university fully funded by the Government.
Indeed, as Mr Ong pointed out, even before SkillsFuture, there was UniSIM, which had its beginnings in the Open University Degree Programme started in 1992 to offer part-time degree programmes to working adults. Building on this, the Singapore Institute of Management proposed setting up a university for adult learners, and the proposal was approved by the Government in 2005. UniSIM launched its part-time degree programmes in 2006.
UniSIM's practices and expertise in the area of adult education should be preserved, even strengthened. As UniSIM president Cheong Hee Kiat said after the announcement yesterday, as an autonomous university, UniSIM will have more resources to deepen its expertise and provide more for its more mature learners who juggle work and study.
Mr Ong said that, if the MOE's proposal goes through, then as Singapore's sixth autonomous university, UniSIM will play two unique roles. He said, just as SIT will focus on applied programmes in science, technology and engineering, UniSIM will focus on social sciences, and preparing students for socially related careers.
The other area of focus for UniSIM, and some would argue the more important one, will be in providing courses for working adults and mature learners.
As Mr Ong pointed out, since its inception, UniSIM has been the university for lifelong learning, with its mission of providing skills and knowledge upgrading pathways for working adults. It has developed expertise over the years.
One of its practices is its "funnel approach" to admission, where UniSIM gives applicants with work experience, but not necessarily very high academic grades, a chance to prove their ability to cope with the rigours of a degree programme by taking relevant foundation modules. Those who do well can then progress to the corresponding degree programmes.
As Mr Ong said, the practice "strikes a good balance" between providing opportunities, while at the same time, maintaining standards in the degree courses.
UniSIM's expertise in adult learning is also evident in how well the courses are packaged for working adults - blending online and face-to-face instruction. Course materials are digitised, and videos of lectures are put online so that students can catch up on lessons in their own time.
Classes are also made up of students of different ages and backgrounds. Even the full-time degree students are required to take some classes with the working adults in the evenings, so that their education experience will be enriched by mixing with adults already in the workplace.
UniSIM's practices and expertise in the area of adult education should be preserved, even strengthened.
As UniSIM president Cheong Hee Kiat said after the announcement yesterday, as an autonomous university, UniSIM will have more resources to deepen its expertise and provide more for its more mature learners who juggle work and study.
The Government has diversified the higher education landscape in recent years, through introduction of new applied degree pathways and, more recently, the SkillsFuture Earn and Learn Programmes, and skills-based modular courses.
UniSIM as Singapore's sixth autonomous university would add to this vibrant education and training landscape.
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