Letting tigers off the leash

March 3, 2000

Singapore wants 'thinking schools' for a 'learning nation', but it won't set education free, says Tony Tysome

Singapore's name belies a split personality: derived from the Sanskrit Singa pura, it means "city of the lion" - yet tigers, not lions, were originally found on the island. Today, the republic knows it wants to be a big cat among the world's economies, but it is not quite sure what kind.

This state of two minds is reflected in an economic strategy that is driving Singapore's new high-profile education policy. It hankers after an American-style free market, yet is unwilling to loosen the reins of a command-and-control regime that has served well for the past 35 years.

Singapore's ministry of education has even set itself two missions. It wants "thinking schools" and a "learning nation"; yet it sees itself, not individuals, as "moulding the future of the nation".

The educational aspiration comes from a realisation that

Singaporeans need to learn to think for themselves a bit more. As their country's only natural resource, they must be steered away from traditional exams-based rote learning, towards more creativity and innovation - key attributes for a population aiming to build a knowledge-based economy.

The ministry wants the higher education sector to lead the way in making reforms that it hopes will bring about the necessary culture change.

It is conducting a review of university funding and governance, with a view to raising levels of autonomy and accountability. It has also ordered a review of university entrance criteria - until now based rigidly on A-level point scores.

The latter review has persuaded Singapore's two public universities, the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University, to introduce verbal and numerical reasoning tests, project work and interviews as new entry tests and to reduce the importance of A-level scores by 2002. A new private university that began recruiting this year, Singapore Management University, is already using the new criteria.

John Lim, the ministry's higher education director, says the trend is towards greater autonomy and an environment where students are more challenged intellectually. The ministry believes it needs to send a signal to the schools system that in changing the university system it will be looking at more than just performance.

Ministers genuinely hope that by encouraging universities to act more freely and flexibly, they will exert a downward pressure on the schools to follow suit. But they are not prepared for full-blown autonomy in the western sense. They want to give universities "considerable" autonomy within some broad guidelines while maintaining some control over what is studied. The ministry also wants "accountability indicators".

Flexibility will not mean United States-style open access, either. The government will continue to determine the number of students in universities and Singapore's four non-degree-awarding polytechnics, and it will also continue to restrict the ladders and bridges between them. The government is aiming to increase the proportion of young Singaporeans going to university from 20 per cent to 25 per cent. But it wants to maintain the proportion in polytechnics at 40 per cent.

The minister of education, Teo Chee Hean, maintains that this will mean 65 per cent of young Singaporeans are going on to higher education, even though the polytechnics will be kept firmly in their place at sub-degree level.

The polytechnics are seen as a success story, with anecdotal evidence showing that they have proved better than the universities at producing the kind of entrepreneurs Singapore says it wants. But there are no signs that the ministry believes more polytechnic graduates should be allowed to progress to university, or that the universities should learn from the polytechnics.

A committee headed by the ministry for manpower is planning a new continuing education system that will bring access for the masses.

But influential figures, such as Shih Choon Fong, deputy vice-chancellor at the National University of Singapore, suggest more radical changes are needed, with real flexibility between the tiers of tertiary education.

Tipped to be the university's next vice-chancellor, Shih Choon Fong says his experience in the US suggests that "gems" - people with unusual abilities whose talent does not show in time-based examinations - are being lost through rigid assessment.

A polytechnic graduate himself, he believes that it is a mistake for the universities and the ministry to think the universities have nothing to learn from the polytechnics. The universities, he says, cannot afford to be complacent and should concentrate more on preparing students for life in the modern world.

For Janice Bellace, provost of the new Singapore Management University, the problems of higher education require action now, not in two years' time. She says her university will encourage its students to challenge faculty and to become active participants in all forms of learning. Although this may be a culture shock to some students, she continues, it will help them to assume the kind of leadership roles that Singapore's business world needs to fill.

Val Ortega, executive director of Informatics, Singapore's burgeoning private information technology and business training company, suggests that private institutions would help.

"If you want to be creative and innovative you must make mistakes. Our system does not allow for that: if you missed the boat, you missed the boat. The role of the private sector must be recognised to fill the gap."

Tony Tysome is a THES reporter.

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