Minister: traditional higher education model ‘no longer relevant’

Long-standing divides between schooling, employment and industry will be disrupted, predicts Singapore MP

February 5, 2021
Many doors
Source: iStock

Universities should offer multiple points of entry to students throughout their lifetimes, including part-time degrees and modular-level study, Singapore’s education minister has said.

Lawrence Wong told an online forum that the traditional model of “a fixed period of education, and then a fixed period of work” was “no longer relevant today”.

“The university of the future needs to be plural, rather than singular. It should be more of a ‘multi-versity’, rather than a university,” he told the event hosted by The Straits Times and Singapore Management University (SMU).

Multiple points of entry should allow for the creation of a “rotational model” of education, Mr Wong said. “All our universities are looking at ways to provide more holistic learning,” he continued.

“We are also looking at greater breadth, and more interdisciplinary and cross-domain knowledge, for example, in areas like digital literacy, innovation, entrepreneurship and communication.”

The National University of Singapore, for example, will open a cross-disciplinary College of Humanities and Sciences in the 2021-22 academic year. 

Mr Wong warned universities about the consequences of not working more closely with industry, citing the UK’s Dyson Institute of Engineering and Technology as a cautionary tale of a corporation setting up its own degree-granting higher education institution when its staffing needs were unmet.  

“When universities don’t move fast enough, they become at risk of being disrupted,” he said. “I don’t think we need to go there, but our universities should strengthen and deepen their collaboration with companies here in Singapore.”

Mr Wong also said that the recent shift to online learning should be seen as part of a longer transformation, and not merely a reaction to the Covid-19 pandemic.

He dispelled the idea that online education was cheaper to deliver, because staff salaries make up the bulk of expenditure whether courses are in-person or not.

“There is a view that, ‘So much of this is going online, surely it can be cheaper,’” he said. “If everything is 100 per cent online, sure, but that’s not university education. You’re not going to get a university education by signing up to Moocs [massive open online courses] for four years.”

Lily Kong, SMU’s president, also spoke at the event and warned against using technology for technology’s sake.

“The much more important question is: what are the outcomes of higher education that we hope to see and what is the best way of delivering those outcomes?” she asked.

Professor Kong said that previous projections that education would go virtual have not quite come true. She cited Disrupting Class (2008), a book by Harvard professor Clayton Christensen, who predicted that half of secondary school classes would be online by 2019.

“We all know that that hasn’t happened,” she said. “Some people believe that it will still happen, aided by Covid-19, but the jury is out.”

So far, technology was being used to “make the best of the situation” due to Covid limitations. However, the hope is that full travel and campus life can return soon.

“We will deliver the best experiences that we can until such time that we can pivot offline,” Professor Kong said.  

joyce.lau@timeshighereducation.com 

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