The Great Read in a Nutshell: Are S’pore Universities Agile Enough to Stay Relevant?

SINGAPORE — Long before Covid-19 made online education a necessity as people around the world sought to minimize face-to-face interactions, platforms offering online courses with open access via the internet or Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) as they are called, are already in full swing.

In fact, the New York Times declared ten years ago that 2012 should be “the year of the MOOC”. In 2019, just before Covid-19 hit the world, some researchers predicted that the global online education market size would reach US$350 billion (S$476 billion) by 2025.

The pandemic of the past two years has put the industry into overdrive and researchers have been reaching for their calculators – latest figures show the sector hit US$309 billion last year and by the end of 2028 it is expected to worth 1.37 US dollars. trillion.

MOOCs allow users to access courses on a wide range of subjects, from theology to data science, from various universities, including top universities such as Harvard and Stanford, all with the click of a button.

The rise of MOOCs, particularly over the past two years, and the disruption wrought by Covid-19 – both in the higher education sector and in society at large – have again raised the question of whether whether traditional universities, including those in Singapore, are doing enough to adapt to changes in higher education. Can they continue to meet the needs of citizens to equip them with the skills to thrive in an increasingly complex and ever-changing environment, where topical issues typically cut across different domains and require systems thinking?

After all, does it still make sense to spend three to four years and at least tens of thousands of dollars to earn a degree – especially when the pace of change in nearly every industry is so rapid that workers must keep updating? update their knowledge and skills so as not to become obsolete?

Meanwhile, recent research has shown a weak correlation between education level and job performance, according to a Harvard Business Review report in 2019. Employers are starting to recognize this, with large companies such as Google, Apple, Penguin Random House and Ernst & Young UK no longer list a degree as a prerequisite for employment with them.

What makes the situation worse for universities is that even the companies themselves – Google being a well-known example – run courses for people to get the necessary certification in the end to land a job with the same company.

Young adults around the world are beginning to question the value of a degree. In 2018, India saw over 800 engineering colleges across the country shut down due to lack of demand.

In the United States, a report released in January this year by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found that undergraduate enrollment in the country had been on a downward trend. This has been attributed to factors such as declining birth rates, the widespread ready availability of jobs and growing skepticism about the need for higher education, according to a Washington Post report.

Back home, Education Minister Chan Chun Sing reiterated in a speech last month that Singapore’s universities must evolve to meet business demands.

“Our universities can be more deeply integrated into our broader industrial, commercial and social ecosystem,” he told the Straits Times Education Forum. “We have a responsibility to lead to help connect, collaborate and create. This will help universities better understand the challenges of our community, our industry and the world, so that we can apply our knowledge, ideas and skills. to create better solutions for Singapore and the world.”

The topic also came up again during the budget and supply committee debates earlier this month.

Speaking on the need to encourage lifelong learning, West Coast GRC Member of Parliament (MP) Ang Wei Neng offered what he described as a “radical idea” of put a timestamp on the degrees conferred by the Institutes of Higher Education (IHL) in Singapore. Graduates should take courses to upgrade every five years and failure to do so would cause their degrees to lapse, he suggested.

The idea was shot down and Mr Ang later took to Facebook to clarify that his intention was to ‘highlight the need for Singaporeans to continually upskill themselves to stay relevant in the modern economy’ and to ‘ignite a conversation on the role of higher education institutions”. can play in it.

During the debate on Department of Education spending earlier this week, MPs Denise Phua and Patrick Tay also spoke about future trends in education and stressed the need for universities to evolve.

In response, Mr. Chan described three driving forces shaping Singapore’s education system: compressed technology and economic cycles, an increasingly polarized and fragmented world, and a changing social fabric.

Unlike some countries facing declining university enrolments, the number of adult learners educated by Singapore’s IHLs has more than doubled from around 165,000 in 2018 to 345,000 in 2020. And that number is expected to continue. increase, Chan said.

Nevertheless, he added that to meet the needs of more diverse learners, DIH needs to review its curricula.

Singapore’s six autonomous universities – Nanyang Technological University (NTU), National University of Singapore (NUS), Singapore Management University (SMU), Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT), Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS) and Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) – have each responded to these perennial calls for reform in their own way.

But more needs to be done to break down academic silos at universities and encourage a more multidisciplinary approach, educators and industry watchers have said.