Universities ‘need full transformation’ towards lifelong learning

‘Tinkering with an outmoded’ approach is not enough, Tan Eng Chye tells THE event

June 1, 2021
Tan Eng Chye

Building a “spirit” of lifelong learning in universities is “critical” if higher education is to tackle the economic challenges accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic, the president of one of Asia’s top universities has said.

In a keynote address to open Times Higher Education’s Asia Universities Summit, Tan Eng Chye, president of the National University of Singapore, said a “full transformation” was needed in universities’ approach.

Professor Tan explained that NUS had made lifelong learning “the key central piece of our educational framework” by pivoting to a model where undergraduate degrees were just the start of students’ educational association with the institution.

Its Lifelong Learners Programme – which, he said, already allowed tens of thousands of workers to take modular degree and non-degree courses in “close alignment” with industry needs – needed to “scale up even more”.

NUS was also changing its undergraduate programmes to allow for more interdisciplinary teaching and course structure in a bid to give graduates a better platform for a lifelong education, he said.

“We need a full transformation and not just tinkering with an outmoded approach,” said Professor Tan.

“Four years of undergraduate education is insufficient, and imbuing a spirit of lifelong learning is critical. For universities to pivot to lifelong education, our operational model and mindset must shift greatly.

“Learning is no longer a fixed trajectory,” he added. “As a university, we can now help to develop learners with a wide array of perspectives and skill sets which will be critical to solving the challenges of our common future.”

Answering questions after his keynote, he said students at NUS had been a bit “apprehensive” about the changes but there was “very strong support” from alumni, who “understand the need for graduates to be more multifaceted in terms of their skills and abilities”.

Professor Tan added that while he thought he could persuade today’s students of the need for change, parents “seem the most rigid” in accepting NUS’ new approach.

“That could be that they were used to a world that was quite different…and they don’t see the rapid and abrupt changes and disruptions.”

He said his “fear” was that the economic repercussions of the pandemic and the “disruptions” it had accelerated would affect his students “within the next five years or so”, which was why “we need to really respond much faster than usual”.

The summit, being held in partnership with Fujita Health University in Japan, continues until 3 June.

simon.baker@timeshighereducation.com

Click here to register for the Times Higher Education Asia Universities Summit 2021

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