Some university executives drive their staff to do more. Bernard Tan’s preoccupation is ensuring that they do less.
As senior vice-provost (undergraduate education) at the National University of Singapore, Professor Tan launches regular campaigns against unnecessary processes. The prime motivation is not to increase efficiency, he insists, but rather to boost the university’s appeal.
“We like to think that we are always innovating, so that prospective students will find us fresh,” said Professor Tan. “We are a 100-year-old university. It doesn’t mean we have to act like an old person.
“As a top university, we have a reputation to uphold. When students go into the grocery store or subway, the services are high-tech. It cannot be that when they start applying to university they are back to the Stone Age.”
A “forward-looking” admissions office has helped to put recruitment processes at the top of Professor Tan’s hit list. The university is jettisoning printed advertisements, which Tan insists are never seen by students – only their parents – and replacing them with apps that can read QR codes and minimise the workload of enrolling.
Professor Tan is also whittling down the process of re-enrolments – which students must endure several times a year if they sign up for “special” semesters in the main term breaks – from 10 steps to five. And he is looking at how to automatically review the occasionally “weird” subject combinations that students propose for double degrees.
This task, Professor Tan admitted, still requires human oversight. “But in time to come, when we have enough detail, we’ll be able to use machine learning to capture the common patterns. The system will be able to say, ‘Are you sure this is what you want to do?’
“We used to have people sitting in the admissions office and checking bookings, clicking a button that says ‘offer’. I asked them, why are you playing the role of a robot? Now the robots do the work that robots ought to do. The humans do the work that humans ought to do.”
Professor Tan’s fixation on streamlining is spurred by a recognition that universities can be “crushed” by bureaucratic complexity. “So many things are obsolete. People do them for years and never ask, ‘Why am I doing this?’
“I tell my staff, ‘Why don’t each of you spend some time telling me some things you shouldn’t have to do. When you have a whole list of things, and you give me a convincing reason, I think you are ready to get a prize.’ I need to reward them for thinking about what they should not do – not what they should do more of.”
He said that admissions staff stopped producing printed publicity items such as handbooks, guides and brochures – even though they had consistently won international awards – after finding the material littering the gutters at the end of open days.
The material appealed to the award judges, who belonged to the parents’ generation, but students never read it, Professor Tan said. “I told staff, ‘Why don’t we leave on a winning note and stop doing these things?’
“When they started doing the apps, they realised there was a competition for apps, too, and they are still winning prizes.”
Professor Tan also aspires to slash the number of end-of-semester exams. Where they must be retained, he wants to replace written tests with electronic versions.
Electronic exams are markedly preferable, he believes, arguing that multimedia tools can boost the sophistication of the questions, blunting the benefits of rote learning, and can enforce essay word limits.
Professor Tan shrugged off integrity concerns around e-testing, saying that multiple-choice questions, for example, can be “randomised” to prevent cheating. He said that exams now provided only 20 per cent to 30 per cent of assessment marks in any case, and stated that university authorities should not allow paranoia to be the guiding principle of exam design.
The NUS has also made inroads against redundancy, Professor Tan said, by moving away from the passive learning approach that still dominates some Asian higher education systems. The university’s emphasis, instead, is on arming students to question assumptions.
“Nowadays, there is only one sage on a stage, and it is called Google. Instead of dumping students with knowledge, we teach them how to be discerning about what’s real and what’s fake,” he said. “We are looking at how to use technology, internships, experiential learning – things they could not do without having a university as a platform.”
Passive learning produces people with “a head full of knowledge that will become obsolete anyway”, Professor Tan said. “When there’s big change in industry, in the job environment, they will be the first to be displaced.”