Lifelong learning role creates new business model for HE

With one of the world’s lowest fertility rates, Singapore is seeing falling student numbers. But the key role of universities in the government’s lifelong learning initiatives could mean that Singapore's universities will be less affected by declining numbers than those in other countries in Asia with declining populations, like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.

Singapore’s ‘total fertility rate’ (TFR) dropped to 1.2 last year, the lowest in the world for the third year running. But low birth rates for more than a decade have meant falling student numbers which led to the merger last year of a number of publicly-funded junior colleges which feed into the university system.

Singapore’s public universities are yet to feel the pinch and are still in high demand due to their high performance in international university rankings. But the demographic dip has already started to affect Polytechnics.

“Polys will also see a much smaller cohort. All the Polys' funding will be cut accordingly, and so not only are Polys cutting out the use of part-timers [lecturers], they are also making full-timers launch courses for continuing education, just to bring in income to justify our salaries,” said a polytechnic lecturer in Singapore who did not want to be named.

This includes running school vacation programmes for secondary-level students and weekend courses under the government’s National Silver Academy scheme to help senior citizens age in a ‘dignified’ manner. It includes new ‘hobbies’, especially using digital technologies.

For universities, any drop in demand due to the reduced cohort size “is expected to be moderated by the increase in demand for courses catering to adult learners”, says Kelvin Seah, economics lecturer at the National University of Singapore.

International students

Josephine Teo, in charge of population matters at the Prime Minister’s Office, told parliament in March that Singapore needs to achieve a TFR of 2.1 to keep the population at the current levels and warned that the government will have to depend on immigration to achieve that level – an unpopular proposition in Singapore, which recently scrapped its target to reach 150,000 international students.

Seah believes the demand from international students, particularly from Asia, for places at Singapore universities will remain high due to the good reputation of Singapore’s universities within the region.

Some countries in Asia are hoping to keep student numbers up in the face of declining demographic trends by recruiting more international students.

“There are plans to increase the funding to universities. Some of this increase in funding will come from the removal of subsidies currently enjoyed by international students enrolled in postgraduate degree by coursework programmes,” Seah says.

Under its SkillsFuture initiative, the government will provide a subsidy of up to 70% of the course fee for Singapore citizens and permanent residents, and this could help ensure long-term funding for universities, Seah says.

Viswa Sadhasivan, a strategic communication specialist and former nominated member of the Singapore parliament, argues that there is no need to increase the foreign student intake to keep universities economically viable because lifelong learning will create a new business model for institutions “to attract repeat customers”.

A university degree is no longer a guarantee for many jobs. “We are seeing trends where only about 40% of law and accountancy graduates are getting placed in jobs that they received training for,” he told University World News.

“So, the emphasis – increasingly so – would be to encourage Singaporeans of all ages to go for shorter academic programmes and then, on a lifelong basis, continue to up-skill or right-skill through accredited certification courses to stay relevant in the workforce.”

Upskilling for the future

“Local universities have recently been tasked by Singapore’s Ministry of Education to offer a range of industry-relevant courses in emerging areas such as data analytics, cybersecurity, and advanced manufacturing to working adults under a scheme known as SkillsFuture,” Seah told University World News.

Last October, the government launched programmes in eight priority and emerging areas to help equip working adults with the skills required for new hi-tech industries. These will be rolled out at Singapore’s six autonomous universities, five polytechnics and the Institute of Technical Education.

“Each autonomous university is currently in the process of preparing for this initiative. And there are plans to have the courses rolled out soon,” Seah says.

“The National University of Singapore (NUS), for instance, has announced that students and alumni will be able to access these skills-based courses beginning August 2018. The first edition of the full NUS catalogue will offer about 500 courses. The courses will be launched in phases,” he adds.

NUS is offering courses in data analytics; Singapore Management University in the application of technology in design, delivery and governance of financial services; Singapore University of Social Sciences in technology-based applications in services-related industries; Singapore University of Technology and Design in cybersecurity; and Nanyang Technological University in advanced manufacturing.

New facilities, such as the Lifelong Learning Institute, with modern libraries and study space facilities, opened in 2013 – one of two Continuing Education and Training campuses.

Ministry of Education officials point out that these initiatives were not sparked by the possibility of falling cohorts’ impact on universities, but to upgrade the skills of Singapore’s workforce for new hi-tech industries.

“The idea is to equip Singaporeans with skills that are critical in the future and future-proof the country from threats posed from what has been termed the fourth industrial revolution,” says Sadhasivan.