Higher education participation rate to rise to 40% by 2020 – PM

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has announced that the proportion of young people attending higher education will rise to 40% by 2020 compared to 27% now, with two new publicly backed universities planned for the city-state.

Education is “Singapore’s most important long-term investment in its people and it is a key response to the changing world”, Lee said during his annual National Day Rally policy speech, delivered at the Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) on 26 August.

Lee said that SIT and the Singapore Institute of Management University (UniSIM) would be upgraded to become Singapore’s fifth and sixth universities, offering applied as well as part-time degrees.

This would open up an additional 3,000 full-time university places, offering 16,000 university places by 2020 against the current 13,000.

The Ministry of Education, in a statement on 28 August, described the expansion as “carefully calibrated”.

The figures include planned increases in enrolment at Singapore’s main existing universities, including the National University of Singapore in collaboration with Yale University in the US; Nanyang Technological University; Singapore Management University; the new Singapore University of Technology and Design in collaboration with Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and two arts education institutions.

Panel review of university education

The prime minister’s announcement comes a year after he initiated a wide ranging review of university education, to investigate how to increase the number of university places available for Singaporeans.

Lee said the review panel led by Senior Minister of State for Education Lawrence Wong “concluded that we should create more university places”, but that “we should focus on applied practice-oriented degrees, for example, engineers, physiotherapists, social workers – skills that are in demand and which will help get graduates jobs, and we should not just churn out graduates regardless of the quality or employment opportunities”.

Pointing to some other countries, including Britain, the United States and China, with unemployment or underemployment of graduates, he added: "Singapore must avoid leading people up the wrong path, misleading them that if you spend three years of your life doing this, at the end you will have a happy outcome.”

"We must make sure that if we encourage people to go that way, that at the end the prospects are good."

UniSIM, a private college that is part of the Singapore Institute of Management, currently offers only part-time programmes but will add full-time programmes.

Meanwhile, part-time undergraduate students, including working adults at UniSIM, could become eligible for government grants and loans to enable them to “get the same support” as students at the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University, Lee said – although UniSIM would remain a private university.

Providing more details, the Ministry of Education said UniSIM had a strong track record in providing part-time degree programmes in close collaboration with industry, and provided “a good balance of theoretical and real-world education”.

The review panel noted in its final report published this month: “UniSIM remains the only private institution to date that the Ministry of Education has assessed as being of sufficient quality to be accorded university status and degree-awarding powers.”

SIT, a multi-campus institution designed to allow polytechnic students to upgrade their qualifications, would begin to award its own degrees, the ministry said.

Instructive experience of other countries

The decision to increase university enrolment without expanding Singapore’s research-intensive universities further, or opening new research universities, was based on an examination by the review panel of higher education in the UK, Hong Kong, Germany, France, Canada and Finland.

The panel said problems with the UK university system had been “particularly instructive”.

In 1992 the UK government granted university status to polytechnics, which had been mainly teaching institutions

“This proved to be a double loss for the wider higher education sector – the vast majority of these post-1992 new universities still struggle with their new mission and are unable to rise in quality and standing; and the UK tertiary system is now devoid of a tier of institutions that was previously instrumental in producing a technically skilled workforce,” the panel said.

“Therefore, it would be prudent for us to avoid this path while there are other more viable options.”

Singapore also has around 70 registered private higher education institutions offering external degree programmes of overseas university partners. They enrolled some 47,500 Singaporean students full-time and part-time in 2011.