What lessons can Singapore teach about lifelong learning?

As AI makes giant strides, threatening to digitise a whole host of graduate careers, the need to ensure that human employees can regularly upskill and retrain is more urgent than ever. An early pioneer of mass lifelong learning, does Singapore point the way forwards? Pola Lem reports from the Lion City

April 13, 2023
Statue of a Buddha reading at Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Temple in Singapore to illustrate What lessons can Singapore teach about lifelong learning
Source: Getty

The students who attend Norhayati Ismail’s business communication class on a weekday morning don’t look like typical undergraduates – and they aren’t. Their heads are more likely to be covered by grey hair than by hoodies. Most of them have nine-to-five corporate jobs. And they don’t care much about grades because they already have degrees.

In total, they’ll spend two six-hour days together, a week apart – a marked departure from most students’ experience at the National University of Singapore (NUS). After the course, they’ll go back home, make dinner and put their children to sleep. The next day, they’ll be back at work.

Mature students like these may not fit the profile of a typical undergraduate, but they are the target audience of lifelong learning classes at a time when universities around the world are facing more pressure to keep their graduates employable well beyond their early twenties. With artificial intelligence tools such as ChatGPT increasingly raising questions around firms’ future need for human employees, the need for upskilling and retraining has become more acute than ever. And in Singapore, that is a particularly salient fact. 

Measuring 275 square miles, the tropical island nation at the tip of the Malay peninsula is one of the most densely populated countries on earth, home to 5.4 million people. In the decades since it gained sovereignty in 1965, it has transformed itself into a global trading capital of glittering tower blocks, but it has little to fall back on if human capital suddenly loses its value. As Gan Chee Lip, associate provost for undergraduate education at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), puts it, “The only thing Singapore has, without natural resources, is people.” That is why Singapore is among the first countries in the world to really start to take lifelong learning seriously.

In 2014, Singapore’s government introduced the SkillsFuture programme, with the motto “Develop Our People”. Meant to provide Singaporeans with “opportunities to develop their fullest potential throughout life”, it gives every citizen aged 25 or older S$500 (£310) of credit that they can spend on further education or training.

The key, Gan says, is to take up training opportunities sooner rather than later. “We’re trying to encourage the idea that lifelong learning doesn’t start after you graduate,” he says. “Even as students, how do you build that kind of mindset?” Beyond graduation, people should not wait until they are literally made redundant by machines before readying themselves to pursue career trajectories with more longevity. For universities, the question becomes: “Can you intervene before the person becomes obsolete?”

To that end, Nanyang has started encouraging alumni to regularly return to campus to keep their skills relevant: the academic equivalent of an annual dental check-up and cleaning. The university has also made it easier for older learners to combine modular courses to get a degree. Its FlexiMasters microcredentials allow learners to take modules at their own pace, with credits valid for five years. Once they accrue 15 credits, students receive a FlexiMasters qualification – and since the programme was launched in April 2020, 848 people have done so.

“I think it’s slowly getting very good traction in industry,” says Tjin Swee Chuan, Nanyang’s associate provost for continuing education and chief executive of its Centre for Professional and Continuing Education. “When we speak to companies, they like [that] you don’t need to commit yourself to a full master’s.”

But he acknowledges that it may take time to build momentum. “I wouldn’t say right now that we have lots of people queuing up, but over the next few years, I believe this will be a good path for them,” he says.

Relevant FlexiMasters credits can be put towards a fully fledged master’s programme if students are admitted to one. But because admission to the FlexiMasters programme – uniquely among Singaporean master’s programmes – does not require an undergraduate diploma, it has taken some reassurance to convince academics that quality of learning won’t suffer.

“Most faculty will say, ‘They do not have fundamentals. How can I teach them?’” notes Tjin. “But we should not be stopping those people who are capable.” 

Twenty minutes away from Nanyang, on NUS’ hilly campus, work is also under way to entice older learners by making course offerings more flexible. For Jonathan Sim, who runs lifelong learning classes in computation and in philosophy, the experience has kept him on his toes. Unlike his undergraduate students, who accept what they’re told “at face value”, the adults he teaches will sometimes question the examples he uses.

“They tend to ask more application-type questions,” he says. For instance, when presented with a hypothetical work scenario, sometimes they’ll push back, telling him, “If we do this then we won’t actually meet our KPIs.”

But such feedback has the upside of informing his teaching of university-age learners. “Sometimes, when you’re at the university for too long, you wonder: ‘Are these things I’m teaching applicable in the real world?’” he says. His ability to assure anyone who asks that his teaching is indeed applicable “gives my undergraduate students added faith”.

But the real world is not always an easy place in which to pursue higher education. Sim has had to learn to make more accommodations, such as by developing more “family friendly” homework. “Working adults will tell me they plan to do all their assignments on weekend nights. A mother says she takes her kids out all day and lets them run around until they’re completely exhausted [so that she can work in the evenings]. So I found myself tweaking assessments because they have these heavy family commitments,” he says.

NUS’s Ismail, who teaches business communication, also says there’s a different dynamic with older learners. She sees herself as a mentor to her undergraduates, sharing experience they may lack, as well as imparting knowledge. With older students, it’s different.

“When I teach adult learners, I see myself more as a coach,” she says. “[My approach is:] ‘Let’s see how together we can tackle the problem’ – so it’s very collaborative.”

In a way, the classes also function as a support group. For many of Ismail’s students, the process of dissecting workplace problems and talking openly with peers from other professions can be as useful for their careers as learning a new skill, she says. “They get to know, ‘I’m not the only one who has this challenge’ – it’s very comforting for them knowing that.”

Lee Wing On, executive director of the Institute for Adult Learning Singapore (IAL), which is part of the Singapore University of Social Sciences, echoes the point. 

“The most common discussion is around problem-solving. For some people…they feel stuck,” he says of IAL’s learners, many of whom are professionals in their forties and fifties.

Established in 2008, the institute taught more than 4,000 people workplace skills in 2021 alone. It also trains teachers of adult learning, with the aim of professionalising the sector. It offers programmes lasting three to nine months, as well as short-term continuing professional development courses.

Its students turn to their peers to figure out how to navigate office politics, solve personnel issues and motivate staff. Lee relays an example of one student who had started a company many years ago with a friend. Over time, the friend had become less and less involved in running the business but was still drawing the same salary. For the student, the quandary was whether to part ways with his partner – something his peers helped him see was necessary.

Elderly Chinese Man and Young Chinese Man with Laptop in Alley to illustrate older people learning

Such real-life examples are undeniably beneficial for working professionals, say those who teach them. The trouble is, much of that demographic remains reluctant to engage.

Sim’s adult students have ranged from twentysomethings to seventysomethings, but his courses have proved particularly popular with retirees. For instance, his life philosophy course – a partnership with senior citizens’ organisation the National Silver Academy – is heavily oversubscribed, with 150 applicants vying for 25 slots. Teaching mature learners has its own challenges, but Sim has found it very rewarding. Whereas university students are compelled to attend classes and do assignments at least in part so that they can get “a piece of paper” at the end of it, his adult learners don’t have this pressure.

“Once you strip all these mandatory requirements, you start to realise the social aspects of learning come to the fore,” Sim says. “With my adult students we laugh a lot more.” 

But the social aspects of learning are not what draw working-age students, and attracting early- and mid-career professionals has proved difficult. For many of them, the idea that a short, non-degree course can put them on stronger professional footing is still hard to absorb, especially given Singaporeans’ traditional focus on degree courses, says Sim. In that sense, branding is important. “When you give it the name of ‘master’s’, people believe it’s more capable of transferring skills – but they’re less confident if you call it something else,” he says.

Seeking to overcome older students’ time constraints and reluctance to take short, non-degree courses, the NUS has made it easier for alumni to enrol. In 2018, the university caught the world’s attention when it announced that all its graduates would remain enrolled at the university for at least 20 years from the point of admission, making them automatically eligible for its 700-odd continuing education courses. As a result, some 300,000 alumni have been offered access to the courses, many of them with subsidies from the university or government. They also have the option of stacking credits towards graduate certificates or master’s degrees.

NUS’ shorter courses currently enrol about 1,000 alumni annually, plus thousands of learners from outside the university. Eventually, it hopes to attract 3,500 NUS alumni to take a course each year, with graduates returning every five years, at minimum.

NUS president Tan Eng Chye wants every alumnus to take a course per year, but like his colleagues at Nanyang, he concedes that graduates are not yet ready to undertake such a commitment. The benefits of doing so have “not sunk in yet. It will take a while to get enough graduates to have that mindset.” Still, Tan is confident that the time is ripe for universities, both in Singapore and the broader region, to embrace the growing demand for lifelong learning.

But doing so won’t come without challenges. Institutions will have to adapt, making courses more flexible and taking advantage of online materials and groupwork to complement face-to-face instruction, he says. From a logistics standpoint, universities will also need to have a way of attracting a critical mass of students; otherwise courses may be “very expensive" to run, Tan warns. While advertising helps, “you have to be quite savvy” about which courses are offered. To reach the under-forties, institutions need to work with industries and companies to know which critical skills are lacking – and then fill those gaps.

Of course, the best form of advertising is word of mouth from previous students. But that relies on students having received high-quality provision. The problem is that often institutions still treat adult education as something of an afterthought, set apart from mainstream academic activity and often staffed by adjunct academic or industry staff. Hence, work is also under way in Singapore to mainstream and professionalise the adult education sector, improving teachers’ skills.

“We want them to become recognised as professors,” says the Institute for Adult Learning’s Lee. However, he concedes that “we’re only at the start of the experiment”.

Given the global concerns about the future of employability, this and other Singaporean experiments to boost lifelong learning will be closely watched and, potentially, widely imitated. But by stealing a march on its international rivals, the Lion City hopes to avoid the roars of dismay likely to be heard elsewhere when even highly educated knowledge workers find themselves replaced by machines.

No more gold watches: lifelong learning in the UK

In another island nation nearly 7,000 miles away from Singapore, thinking around education and careers still remains largely outdated, believes David Latchman, vice-chancellor of Birkbeck, University of London

“In the UK, we still have a system that’s predicated on you going to university for three years…and [then] getting a job. We don’t have a system that’s recognised the need for reskilling,” says Latchman, whose institution focuses on providing evening classes to mature students but which has run into financial trouble amid a series of policy moves that have driven down part-time learning.

“We at Birkbeck have no choice but to support lifelong learning because it’s our business…But, for other universities, they need to see that this is going to be the central plank of government policies going forward,” Latchman says.

The majority of Birkbeck’s adult learners are in their mid-twenties to mid-thirties, although its oldest student enrolled at age 97. They include people who come back to get a master’s degree, or who went straight into a job after school and then decided to continue their education, having seen their degree-holding colleagues being promoted ahead of them.

“We’ve had people go through to the PhD who…were thrown on the scrap heap at 16,” Latchman says. “We try to admit people on ability and motivation rather than on the basis of past qualifications.”

While certain companies have approached Birkbeck to help them upskill employees, this phenomenon is still far rarer in the UK than in Singapore – and something “we want to develop much more”.

Ultimately, government policies will be the largest determining factor in a more widespread adoption of lifelong learning, Latchman believes. “It really depends on how well it’s incentivised.”

He is optimistic; in Westminster, there is movement afoot. Following a “long period where nobody took much notice”, it looks as though policymakers are starting to pay attention. This spring, the government is expected to introduce a bill instituting a lifelong loan entitlement, which, from 2025, will give people in England access to student loans worth the equivalent of four years of post-18 education to use over the course of their working lives.

Sector figures have also welcomed the government’s recent announcement that it will scrap its ban on accessing public funding for a course at an equivalent or lower level than a qualification the student already has (known as the ELQ rule), which was widely perceived to be a bar to reskilling.

“The reality is, people don’t work for 40 years and get the gold watch any more,” says Latchman. “We need to move forward with this.”

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Reader's comments (1)

The difference between Singapore and the UK is that Singapore values its citizens and the contributions they make to national well-being.