Lifelong learning could prove a lifesaver for Singapore’s people and their city state. And the island’s size, political fixedness and “open society” will help it to embrace the habit, according to Singapore Institute of Technology president Tan Thiam Soon.
Professor Tan told Times Higher Education that with its scant resources, Singapore was particularly vulnerable to a future in which “ordinary jobs” were headed for extinction and algorithms would erase the need for many marketable skills.
“If we don’t get this right, we are in trouble,” Professor Tan said. “Anyone who’s left behind will have a bleak future.
“I often tell my students, ‘I don’t care which university you go to, or whether you are ranked first or last – no amount of formal education is ever going to be enough.’ That’s our constant harping message to the students: when you graduate, you don’t graduate.”
SIT has enshrined the message in a motto that plays on the institution’s acronym: “Once a SITizen, always a SITizen.” It is a variation on the National University of Singapore’s move earlier this year to pioneer 20-year enrolments for its new undergraduates.
Singapore’s government is also supporting practical measures to boost continuous learning. SkillsFuture is a multifaceted scheme designed “to provide Singaporeans with the opportunities to develop their fullest potential throughout life”, according to the programme’s website. It grants each Singaporean a unique 25th birthday present: a S$500 (£280) “credit account” to purchase further education or training.
Professor Tan is part of the 30-strong Future Economy Council charged with developing SkillsFuture initiatives and implementing recommendations of the Committee on the Future Economy. He said that the administration had promised to use future surpluses to “top up” the accounts, provided they are well used.
“It is part of the government’s effort to get people used to the idea that going back to school to pick up a new skill is going to be part and parcel of life,” Professor Tan said.
“This is one of numerous initiatives. For example, if lose your job and need to change [occupations] the government will underwrite 90 per cent of the cost of the retraining.”
Other efforts include a budget allocation to bankroll the professional development of workers, including people in their sixties. Last year the government rolled out an “Attach and Train” scheme aimed at skilling up workers for emerging industries deemed to have good growth prospects, but where companies are not yet ready to recruit.
Professor Tan said that measures like this require long-term thinking. Having been governed by the same party for almost 60 years, Singapore is free of the “very short” political cycles that constrain policy elsewhere, he said.
The country’s modest size also makes it relatively feasible to implement such programmes at the scale required to make a difference. Professor Tan said a culture of transparency was vital, too.
“No matter what people say, we are a really open society,” he insisted. “The people are aware. They can see their livelihoods being trampled. Nobody says, ‘Don’t worry, I will shield you from the whole thing.’”
Citing futurist Alvin Toffler’s maxim of “learn, unlearn and relearn”, Professor Tan said that erasing what you’ve learned is a simple idea that is “hard to do”. He said: “It’s the courage to say I’ve learned something [but] I can see it’s becoming useless.”
Professor Tan said that Singapore’s espousal of the principle is reflected in its decision to grace Changi Airport – one of the world’s busiest – with a gigantic fifth terminal, and to build a new seaport on the island’s western tip.
“Singapore’s already the second biggest port in the world. Why would the government go out to the western end and build a mega-port? Because if you stick to being the second biggest port, in another five or 10 years you won’t be.
“It’s important to ensure that our port and airport continue to be vibrant hubs. We have no choice but to keep one, two or three steps ahead of the competition.”
SIT has seen massive change since Professor Tan took over in 2012, after a long career at NUS, and guided its transformation from a provider of a host of foreign-taught courses – the “Uber of higher education”, he joked – to a degree granter in its own right, as the country’s designated university of applied learning.
He said that the leadership debated whether to mark the evolution with a name change, and decided against it. “The president – me – had been educated at the California Institute of Technology. My provost was educated at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“Institutes of technology, frankly, are fine. We don’t need the word ‘university’ to remind people that we are a university.”