Singapore’s university sector no longer needs to catch up with the rest of the world and should not slavishly follow Western models, simply expanding to produce more “carbon copy” graduates, according to a high-level international panel advising the government on its strategic higher education policies.
The eminent International Academic Advisory Panel that met in Singapore earlier this month cautioned the city-state against expanding the university sector without taking into account the needs of students and the economy.
This had happened in some countries where the value of the degree had become eroded and job prospects for graduates reduced, while university drop-out rates had risen, the panel said.
In particular, it warned against “the risk of gradual homogenisation of the university landscape as seen in other countries, where what started out as different models and institutions eventually drifted towards an increasingly similar, academically and research-oriented model of universities”.
The 12-member panel, headed by Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, includes: Andrew Hamilton, vice-chancellor of Oxford University; Paul Romer, professor of economics at New York University; Yang Wei, president of Zhejiang University; Sanjay Dhande, director of the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur; and other university leaders from the United States, Finland and The Netherlands.
They also held discussions with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Education Minister Heng Swee Keat this month.
“We are no longer in catch-up mode. We should keep taking lessons from the rest of the world but we should have the confidence to develop new pathways and models,” said Tharman during a 4 July press conference.
With an unclear economic climate and unknown future, a diverse education system was the best way to prepare young people. “Singapore must not put all its eggs into one basket,” Tharman said.
The panel highlighted the risks of rapidly expanding traditional, academically oriented degrees in advanced and emerging economies. The consequences apparent in other countries have been “high attrition rates, reduced graduate employability and a dilution in the value of new university degrees.
“The expansion of the university sector should not simply be about producing more graduates, but should focus on ensuring quality in education and the development of skills of an applied nature, which would ensure good employment outcomes and careers,” the panel said in a statement released at the end of three days of deliberations.
While supporting an expansion of public higher education, the panel said new institutions should offer something different from existing universities.
“New models of applied education should seek to complement the existing universities and offer a ‘unique value proposition’. This distinctive model of education should nurture a different type of graduate, one who is practice-oriented and has a strong entrepreneurial and innovative bent.”
The Singaporean government has been examining whether to set up a fifth public university or invest public money in more vocationally oriented or applied higher education – for example, by expanding the number of places in polytechnics and other non-research institutions – as it moves towards admitting a third of the school-leaving cohort into tertiary education by 2015 compared to 25% now.
The panel’s message was echoed by the prime minister, who said on 7 July that Singapore had diversified the university sector and would continue to do so. Lee Hsien Loong was speaking at the ground-breaking ceremony for the new Yale-National University of Singapore liberal arts college.
Singapore would enlarge its higher education sector “not by doing more of the same but by diversifying the tertiary landscape”, including looking at alternative pathways for ‘applied’ degrees, Lee said.
Social science and humanities research
The advisory panel also backed government proposals to expand social sciences and humanities research, “which would provide research on new ways to prepare people for a rapidly changing world”, according to Romer of NYU’s Stern School of Business.
There was also a need for a research council that focused funding on the social sciences and humanities while building linkages with other areas of research excellence in Singapore, the panel said.
“These linkages could advance knowledge in areas that are of local and global interest, such as in healthcare services and sustainable development.”
Other niches to develop research excellence in Singapore could include: Asian societies and markets; management of multi-ethnic social compacts; challenges and opportunities facing cities, especially global cities (for instance, sustainable urban living and social support systems); and comparative studies of governance models and practices.
The panel was established by the Ministry of Education in 1997 to advise the government on major trends and directions in university education and research, with a view to developing Singapore’s universities into world-class institutions.
It has since been broadened to provide strategic guidance on Singapore’s higher education system as a whole
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