Learning, Re-learning & Unlearning – the pillars of Singapore’s education system

Meritocracy is a word that one hears in the Singapore context often, being one of the founding principles of the city-state. It is even referred to as a ‘national ideology’. Considerable effort continues to be expended in constant reinforcement of the fundamental premise of this principle that “opportunities are equalised, not outcomes”.

Education has been at the core of the push to create a meritocratic Singapore. Over the years, the emphasis of education has evolved in tune with the ever changing demands of a rapidly-evolving global and regional economy.

What has remained intact though is the sharp focus on creating an educated population and a highly-skilled workforce that can compete in an increasingly competitive world, the results of which are visible in the country’s standing for talent competitiveness.

Ranking high on Global Talent Competitiveness, Education & Skills Development
Singapore is placed 2nd in the 2014 Global Talent Competitiveness Index (GTCI) released by leading business school INSEAD. The study was prepared in collaboration with the Human Capital Leadership Institute of Singapore (HCLI) and Adecco Group. Only two Asian countries, Singapore (rank:2) and Japan (rank: 20) figured in the top 20 countries in the GTCI. The report highlighted the importance of vocational education and the need for vocational education to be integrated into secondary education.

“Countries have to take vocational learning- that is, employability- much more seriously,” says Paul Evans, a co-editor of the report. Two of the six factors that the study mentions as being critical in maintaining talent competitiveness of countries of different GDP per capita and development levels are related to education and skills development. These are excerpted below:

• Countries must consider employability or risk high unemployment: ‘talent for growth’ means meeting the actual needs of a national economy. Switzerland, Singapore and the Nordic countries customise their education systems towards appropriate levels of ‘employable skills’.
• Education systems need to reconsider traditional learning: talent development in the 21st century must go beyond traditional formal education and develop vocational skills.

Singapore’s education system is well-positioned to continue to meet the above-mentioned criteria as the system is being retuned for the future. But before we look into the direction for the future, it is useful to get a snapshot of how it is today.

The education eco-system
The primary and secondary school system creates multiple pathways for students to embark on their higher education and professional careers through an eco-system comprising 6 autonomous local Universities; five polytechnics; Institute of Technical Education (ITE) with three schools, two private institutions providing education in the arts, other government-affiliated educational institutions such as the BCA academy, and a whole plethora of private educational institutions (PEIs).

Singapore universities are well recognised and have a stellar reputation among academics worldwide. According to the latest Times Higher Education World Reputation Rankings, released in March 2015, the National University of Singapore was ranked among the top 25 universities in the world and the 2nd among Asian universities, second only to the University of Tokyo. The Nanyang Technical University (NTU) also figures among the top 100 universities in the world. The curriculum of the Singapore Management University (SMU) is modelled after the world-renowned Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

The polytechnics are an important source for the technically-competent and knowledge workforce that Singapore needs. The ITE, which also provides highly skilled graduates in multiple disciplines, is now the national authority for establishing requisite skills standards and providing the certification of skills.

Both the Polytechnics and the ITE play a vital role in the direction towards continuous learning for Singaporeans with numerous options for the existing workforce to add, complement or enhance their skillsets. In fact, from this year, the ITE is embarking on its fifth five-year strategic roadmap, named ITE Trailblazer (2015-2019).

‘ITE Trailblazer’ is the institutions’ response to meet the manpower needs for the country’s next phase of development as an advanced economy and society. The focus is very much on students to be “career-ready and world-ready”. The new strategic roadmap is aligned with the government’s SkillsFuture initiative- a movement to develop an economy and society where everyone can develop to their fullest- and aims to empower students with more career pathways as well as greater opportunities for mastering in-demand skills.

Private educational institutions and Singapore as a regional education hub
According to the government agency SPRING, the private education sector is a growing industry in Singapore. Moreover, with Asia expected to account for 70% of global demand for international higher education and sizeable chunk of the estimated US$2.2 trillion global education market, opportunities abound for SMEs in the education space.

These include the entire gamut, from early-stage/ pre-school education to continuing education for working professionals. Leading providers in this space such as Kaplan, PSB Academy, FTMS Global Academy and East Asia Institute of Management- to name a few- not only provide specialist courses but also enable local students to get degrees and diplomas from Universities around the world including the UK, US and Australia.

Not surprisingly, the local education industry includes over 5,000 companies with revenues of over S$3.7 billion, value-added of S$2.1 billion and contributing 0.7% of GDP.

“Education has always been of great importance in Singapore and the city is perceived as the ‘Educational hub for South East Asia’ ,”says Dr.Easwaramoorthy Rangaswamy, Principal of Amity Global Business School in Singapore. “The lively country has a great instructive framework, giving numerous opportunities to internationals students who wish to study here. Another incredible thing that makes Singapore an advanced education hub are the solid connections with industry; as a student you will have the opportunity to gain useful experience and find ease of employability here.”

While degrees and diplomas from a foreign university seem to be alluring, it seems that their popularity is more due to the practicality and flexibility that they accord students rather than improved employability. “It doesn’t matter whether a student is from a local or overseas university as far as job prospects are concerned, says Julie Wong, HR Manager at Global Sources, a Nasdaq-listed B2B media company that has operations in Singapore. “Employability really depends on the individual. During the recruitment process, we aren’t concerned whether the candidate has graduated from a local institution or from overseas.”

Business/ management education in Singapore
Considering Singapore’s standing as a first-world city that serves as a regional financial services and management hub for several multi-national corporations, it is not surprising that the city is home to some leading business/ management institutions in the world.

According to The Financial Times (FT) Global MBA Ranking 2015, Singapore’s National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School and the Nanyang Business School were ranked 31 and 40, respectively. NUS Business Schools also ranks in the Top 10 amongst international business schools (excluding those in the US) in the Forbes Top International Business Schools rankings.

Several top-notch international business schools have also set up campuses in Singapore. These include INSEAD, ranked 5th in the world by the FT rankings; University of Singapore Booth School of Business, James Cook University, S.P.Jain School of Global Management and Amity Global Business School, to name a few. What is more, some of these business schools are expanding rapidly.

In January 2015, INSEAD opened a 10,000m2 S$55 million Leadership Development Centre in Singapore with the support of the Singapore Economic Development Board to serve as a “premier business innovation and education hub” for the region. Expected to significantly increase the number of students, executives, top scholars and practitioners on-site, the new centre is aimed at meeting the growing demand for management and leadership education in Asia.

The Amity Global Business School in Singapore has also grown rapidly with over 1100 students graduating since starting with around 50 students in 2010. The school has attracted students from over 30 nationalities besides Singapore.
“The mission of our Singapore campus is to educate students to be both globally-minded businesspeople and socially responsible citizens. This means focusing on innovation- and knowledge-based management, customer-oriented business design, and developing a higher-than-average level of cultural Intelligence,” says Dr.Easwaramoorthy Rangaswamy, Principal of Amity Global Business School, Singapore.

“Singapore’s role as a regional and global business centre has a great influence on the student experience at our campus here. Lecturers draw from rich local sources of corporate best practices, entrepreneurial innovation, and governmental policy examples to provide real-life illustration to the topics and subjects throughout the curriculum, while students to experience first-hand the vibrant business culture of this country.”

Closer industry-institution collaboration and the need for work-based learning is a recurring theme among both technical institutions as well as business schools. Elaborating on this theme, Dr.Abhishek Bhati, Associate Dean (Business & IT) of James Cook University, Singapore, says,” James Cook University is committed to improving the productivity levels of industry and encourage sustainable practices in Singapore. The aim is to integrate work experience flexibly into a research report/dissertation. Students who have no current employer may identify a suitable work-based applied research project through a centralized collaboration between faculty and industry-based partners, including community-based organizations.

“The key challenge for higher education institutions like ours is to offer courses and programs in business administration that are relevant to the industry. Another challenge is to produce graduates who are work ready. Feedback from our industry partners and research suggest that graduates from programs with ‘work integrated learning’ and application of knowledge tend to fit easily in the work environment. Thus, institutions should incorporate practical and applied learning outcomes in the subjects and programs.”

Job readiness or employability of fresh graduates is often one of the key expectations from educational institutions. However, the onus is on the students themselves, according to Julie Wong of Global Sources. “Most fresh graduates do not have work-related experience and company needs to provide on-the-job training. However, I expect the fresh graduates to have a good attitude and the willingness to learn,” she says.

Future direction of education and learning in Singapore
Education in Singapore is at the cusp of undergoing a fundamental shift in focus. From a “study book” system- one that has served the country well in its first fifty years as an independent nation- where grades and qualifications often became the primary differentiator, the roadmap for the future points to “Learning for mastery, Learning throughout life, Learning for life.”

As Education Minister Mr.Heng Swee Keat said in a speech in Parliament recently, “(This pioneering path) will have learning on-the-job, learning-just-in-time, learning-in-the-right-place-at-the-right-time. Learning without boundaries – without the boundaries of institutional walls, age, place or time.”

The shift in direction takes into account the recommendations of the Applied Study in Polytechnics and ITE Review (ASPIRE) committee which submitted its report in August 2014, based on a thorough review of the applied education landscape in Singapore. The recommendations focused on four key areas:

a) Strengthen education and career guidance significantly to help young Singaporeans make well-informed choices about their education and career pathways.

b) Equip young Singaporeans with a good skills foundation; work more closely with industry in the development of applied programs.

c) Enable individuals to better acquire the right skills that can help them in their careers. Introduce learning options that will help students to deepen skills after graduation.

d) Create pathways for progression based on skills, contribution and experience. Recommend developing skills frameworks, and offer more modular CET opportunities.

The Institutions of Higher Learning (IHLs) will play an important role in this direction by working closely with companies. Various “Earn and Learn” programmes will also provide opportunities for students to acquire on-the-job training and other skills even as they graduate from the academic system.

Polytechnics and universities here are expected to offer over 300 Skills-based modular courses by the end of the year in a wide range of specialist areas. These include Digital Forensics and Investigation, Functional Genomics Coaching & Counselling Skills, to name a few.

To ensure that critical manpower requirements are met, particularly in the identified high-growth sectors, select IHLs will serve as “sector coordinators”. Initially, there will be 17 such strategic sectors with coordinators. The selected IHLs will work with companies to devise comprehensive programs to help students get higher skills in a specialist area while being on-the-job and getting paid in the process.

“Our focus must be on the ends – acquiring, mastering and using deep skills. If workers or companies attend courses to meet quotas, or because of incentives for it, very little will be achieved from attending the courses. But if companies make the best use of the higher skills of workers, it leads to higher productivity, higher margins; in turn, they can pay higher wages. Higher skills, higher wages, higher productivity. This is the virtuous circle that we must seek to achieve,” said Mr.Heng Swee Keat in his speech in Parliament.

Supporting this new direction of lifelong learning will be various initiatives by the SkillsFuture Council, which is working to “develop an integrated system of education, training and career progression for all Singaporeans, promote industry support for individuals to advance based on skills, and foster a culture of lifelong learning.”
Staying ahead by thinking ahead

The re-setting of the priorities for education is another case in point of Singapore planning well ahead to maintain its competitiveness, which is vital for the country’s continued progress.

It is also a testament to the pragmatism that underpins almost everything that the country undertakes. “Whatever works” is an oft-heard mantra here; and it is clear that only education that can contribute to better employability and quality of life will be the way forward.

After all, relearning and unlearning are equally critical aspects of the learning journey.

- By Manoj Aravindakshan
This is an edited version of an article I wrote for a commemorative publication “Sustaining Singapore’s Success” brought out by the Singapore International Chamber of Commerce (SICC) on the occasion of Singapore’s 50th independence anniversary celebrations.

MOE; Financial Times ; Forbes ; INSEAD ; ICEF; and, SPRING Singapore.

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