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Credit: APAIE 2018

Credit: APAIE 2018

Singapore Minister of Education on the importance of higher education reform for Industry 4.0

Industry 4.0 and its impact on education is the central theme of this year’s annual conference and exhibition of the Asia-Pacific Association for International Education (APAIE). As we live in the time of Industry 4.0, we increasingly find that we must change the way we learn, work and live, in order to adapt and survive in this digital revolution.

At the APAIE 2018 Conference, Singapore Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Mr Ong Ye Kung shared about Singapore’s latest efforts as well as key considerations in higher education reform.

According to Minister Ong, education is a “key conduit for social policies to address issues such as income disparity and social stratification”.

Industrialisation changes education

Minister Ong started his speech by tracing the impact of industrialisation on work and education. Historically, prior to industrialisation, people learned in guilds and from masters. But when industrialisation led to the division of labour and the rise of factories, schools were established and configured to teach the young how to fit into industrialised job.

“Since a key function of education is to produce workers for the economy, industrialisation naturally had a profound impact on how education is being delivered and how teaching is done,” said Minister Ong.

According to him, the essence of the current phase of change is not that different from the previous revolutions – technologically-driven, disruptive, and turning the known order upside down.

As we ride a new wave of industrialisation today, we should naturally expect and push for the shape of education to change.

However, the nature of change is very different now. The minister said there is no longer “straightforward equation” as technology advancement is re-organising work so drastically that we no longer know what jobs of the future will look like.

“We must now foster human ingenuity and resilience so that our children will grow up and thrive in an environment we cannot yet fully fathom or discern,” he emphasised.

Education in Industry 4.0

According to Minister Ong, in the new wave of industrialisation, education system must focus on achieving and measuring learning outcomes and avoid over-emphasising the importance of academic grades.

“We need to examine more carefully the pathways that are most suitable for different groups of students, to help them achieve these good outcomes,” he said.

This also applies to universities, that their success cannot be measured merely by pass rates, employment outcomes, or international rankings, but the long-term resilience of students, and students’ willingness to take risks, innovate, and create.

To do so, Minister Ong stressed on the importance of an education system that supports lifelong learning. The whole education system must recognise the diversity of strengths and talents amongst the young, and that only a passion-driven learning process will be self-directed, lifelong, and resilient to disruption because the young person is motivated to learn, unlearn and re-learn.

Credit: APAIE 2018

Singapore’s approach to higher education reform

(1)    Experiential learning

While Education Minister stated that higher education should simulate and prepare students for real life as much as possible, he also pointed out that knowledge no longer carries the same premium it used to because technology has made knowledge very accessible.

“What is highly valued today is how someone applies knowledge in real life – in other words, skills. That comes with experience and with practice,” he said.

“Learning at the universities have to become experiential.”

As such, industry attachments have become the norm so that students are fully immersed in real-life work. It is also because universities are beginning to recognise that there is value of co-operative programmes by bringing companies into campuses, and vice versa.

(2)    Promote digital literacy

According to Minister Ong, universities in Singapore are also making curriculum changes to ensure that students are well-versed in the latest lingua franca of international commerce – digital literacy.

“Most of our universities have made quantitative reasoning and computational thinking compulsory subjects for all students,” he said.

In SkillsFuture, IT and digital literacy-related course are also some of the most popular choices.

(3)    Diversify higher education pathways

Minister Ong emphasised the importance of helping students identify and pursue their interest, as it will keep them motivated to learn through life and achieve mastery in the process.

A way to achieve this is to create diverse higher education pathways to cater to different students’ inclinations and learning styles.

Another way is to diversify the recognition and admission of students. Minister cited studies by the Ministry of Education (MOE) which reveal that polytechnic students admitted based on aptitude and interest in the course perform better in their studies, compared to their counterparts with similar O-Level aggregate scores. These students are also far more likely to embark on careers in the sectors in which they were trained, compared to those admitted based solely on academic grades.

For younger students, MOE is putting in place a systemic Education and Career Guidance programme, starting in secondary schools, to help students get a better sense of where their interests and their strengths lie. As education becomes more experiential, students will also learn about and come into contact with different vocations and professions earlier.

(4)    Encourage lifelong learning

SkillsFuture is Singapore’s major initiative for lifelong learning, which Minister Ong described as “a national movement to provide Singaporeans with the opportunities to develop their fullest potential throughout their lives, regardless of their starting points”.

“It is about recognising diverse interests and talents, encouraging a lifelong pursuit of mastery through multiple pathways, embracing an even broader definition of meritocracy based on skills mastery, rather than past academic results,” he said.

“It is about celebrating diverse talents, social mobility, economic competitiveness and well-being of the Singapore society.”

To this end, a major change is the restructuring of the country’s Institutes of Higher Learning to break from their traditional mould and become “centres of lifelong learning”. By actively ramping up courses for adult workers, 54,000 adult learners passed through Singapore’s various Institutes of Higher Learning in 2017 alone.

“Now, universities as centres of lifelong learning have realised that they do not have 3 to 4 years, but 20, 30 years to work with students, because they will keep returning for more knowledge and skills after graduation. So, the old mindset of front-loading education will change, as universities learn to embrace lifelong learning as part of their mission,” Minister Ong stated.

(5)    Broadening the role of universities

In Singapore’s pursuit of a culture for lifelong learning, Minister Ong commented that the National University of Singapore is blazing the trail for the higher education sector in Singapore. 

Last year, NUS announced that all alumni are entitled to 2 free modules over a 3-year period. According to Minister Ong, the response was so overwhelming that NUS is expanding the programme to become one that treats every student enrolment as lasting for 20 years, helping their students to build their careers and learn for life. As such, the concept of alumni is therefore also changing.

Minister Ong pointed out that universities are player broader roles in education.

“In particular, a university’s impact is no longer confined to education and changing the lives of students – it has now broadened to driving innovation and enterprise, providing a launch pad for future entrepreneurs and start-ups, keeping our industries at the forefront of the pack,” he concluded.

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