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A worthy journey to rethink how, what, where and when we learn

While higher education must help people uncover and pursue their passions, it should also serve national and societal needs and interests, said Acting Education Minister (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung today (Oct 14). Speaking at the OECD-Singapore Conference on Higher Education Futures, Mr Ong added that with rapid global changes, a learner’s experience will have to evolve to become innovative, less extractive, and more attuned to the complexity and diversity of students’ individual identities. That is a major challenge all higher education institutions are grappling with. The following is a transcript of his speech.

A worthy journey to rethink how, what, where and when we learn

Acting Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung speaking on the first day of the OECD-Singapore Conference on Higher Education Futures at Resorts World Sentosa.Photo: MOE

While higher education must help people uncover and pursue their passions, it should also serve national and societal needs and interests, said Acting Education Minister (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung today (Oct 14). Speaking at the OECD-Singapore Conference on Higher Education Futures, Mr Ong added that with rapid global changes, a learner’s experience will have to evolve to become innovative, less extractive, and more attuned to the complexity and diversity of students’ individual identities. That is a major challenge all higher education institutions are grappling with. The following is a transcript of his speech.


I was a bit undecided as to the kind of speech I would give today, my first public speech as Acting Minister in charge of Higher Education and Skills. So, instinct is let’s play it safe, make some observations, congratulate ourselves for all the great work we’ve done. Or, I can try to speak more frankly, about what I see as the tensions present in higher education, the global anxieties across societies, and the policy dilemmas we face. I decided to be a bit braver and speak on the latter. It is a more difficult choice, but I also felt that this is a rare occasion to have the talents, ideas and experience around this conference room all gathered here today, and for us to benefit from your ideas and thinking on the future of higher education.

What is the objective of higher education? In one sense, the answer is obvious — education is intrinsically valuable. But perhaps it is more complex than that. I would like to address one group of potential tensions that is particularly significant. Individuals naturally wish to make their own choices in education based on their aspirations and needs. However, this often has to be balanced with the broader role of education to serve a country’s needs, and the implication that people are educated to the ends of the collective goal. I would discuss each of these in turn and why these tensions may perhaps be constructive.


A discussion on higher education must involve a discussion of our economy and society, our present circumstances and our future developments. Because education systems exist and have meaning only in context. These very contexts are evolving, with significant implications on higher education. The world as we know is changing rapidly and profoundly. An age of globalisation and the Internet, of great and increasing speed and consequence. Industries are becoming less extractive. Less about using natural traditional resources to make or do things, and more about innovation and ideas. In line with that, energy sources are diversifying — from conventional fossil fuels to renewables and unconventionals. A company can no longer become competitive and stay successful by lowering cost and enlarging scale. It has to be innovative and make its products special to customers — offering utility not only in the physical sense, but also in the psychological and emotional sense.

A big shift took place when production was no longer limited to a local economy. Today, the world works as one big complex production ecosystem, and production becomes modular as a result. The traditional lines between products and services are becoming increasingly blurred. In a similar vein, value chains are more truncated than before. Today, one can offer a taxi service without owning any vehicles, offer hotel services without owning any rooms or buildings. And soon we may have a big successful university that has no classrooms.

Societies, too, are changing. People are increasingly educated, and technology and the Internet have created opportunities for mobility and progress in a big way. People continue to be on the move and have rising aspirations. Beyond urbanising around cities for economic opportunities, populations are crossing borders, congregating around cultural nodes for lifestyle, spiritual well-being and personal 

People have multiple layers of identities and affiliations — based on their locality, nationality, ethnicity and the communities — local and global, physical and virtual — they are connected and can relate to. So in Singapore, you can grow up as a Sembawang boy, be a patriotic Singaporean and maybe a fervent member of the Manchester United fan club or Star Wars fan club, multiple layers of identities. But you go to war for only one identity.

The system of higher education exists and evolves within these larger social, economic and technological contexts. If we look back in history, we see how the industrial revolution led to the division of labour, and how the division of labour led to the setting up of factories to do individual work. That, in turn, led to education institutions and schools that taught workers how to do that work. Since then, education has become synonymous with schools and, indeed, universities. In a different world, what would our future universities and other higher education institutions look like?

The OECD Skills Outlook says that high skills will be in increasing demand, low skills will be in constant demand, and medium skills will be in decreasing demand. Advances in technology have the potential to replace or transform jobs that do not just involve manual work, but also cognitive and increasingly complex intellectual tasks.

To prepare people well for this reality, educational institutions must be well plugged into the needs of industries and the real and unpredictable world.

Education should, as much as possible, be like the life for which it prepares. If that is the case, then a learner’s experience in higher education will also have to evolve to become innovative, less extractive, more connected to the world, more modular in course delivery, more attuned to the complexity and diversity of students’ ­individual identities. That is a major challenge all higher education institutions are grappling with.

This is one key imperative of education, to serve national and societal needs and interests. Our system in Singapore started off that way — to survive, earn our own living, create jobs for our people and train our people well so that investments would come to Singapore. Like many universities around the world, the system also imbues common values, languages, foundational skills and a world view among our young. Such a system is top-down, functional, preserving and integrating.


But to a young person, he or she may be much less attracted by the national imperatives of education. For them, I suspect, education is often about choices — where and how to channel their energies and passions. To them, this life choice can be confusing and intimidating.

Children possess a natural fascination, so when we ask a child what he wants to be when he grows up, he has spontaneous answers. I asked my friends through WhatsApp to survey their young kids recently — the answers came in fast and furious — policeman, fireman, teacher, aerospace engineer, scientist, doctor, pilot, soccer player. Many are in fact skills-based, and rarely does a kid say he wants to work in a cubicle or office. One did say he wanted to be a boss. Another said, politician. Kids want to grow into vocations, professions and careers that allow them to protect the ones they love, to walk through fire to save those who cannot save themselves, to cure the sick, to build cars, to fly to the moon, to understand Mother Nature. In this era of individual empowerment and global opportunities, we must not fail our young. We cannot just offer them career counselling and introduce to them the variety of job possibilities when what they really want to know is how these jobs have meaning. We cannot talk to them about international standings and rankings when they want conversations about society and the nation, and the contributions that they can make. So, the second group of answers to the question of the objective of education is that each of us has innate talents, abilities and interests, and the higher education system must help people uncover and pursue their passions, and chase their respective rainbows. Such a system is bottom-up, aspirational, changing and diversifying. Two groups of answers on the objective of education: Integrating and diversifying; collective and individual; change and stasis.


In many ways, these dialectic forces are ever present in societies — giving rise to a healthy tension between stability and change. Amid these forces and tensions, higher education institutions establish their roles. In many institutions, legacy, tradition and inertia are immensely powerful, and change is difficult. In Singapore, we have the advantage of being young and small, and it has become a habit for us — a crucial one, in fact — to experiment and innovate.

It is a common Singapore narrative — almost the SG50 story — to say that in the past, we were all for our stomachs, good economy, we wanted a job and a roof over our heads. Now our goals are more complex, we have the luxury of allowing people to pursue more diverse goals, from engineering and medicine to music, the arts and sports. The rethinking of the meaning of higher education must include the fact that the collective good is attained, or in fact, can only be attained — by the ability of individuals to pursue their own talents and passion. Every Singaporean counts, and he or she can only count if the system allows maximum play of what he or she is best at doing. In this evolution, Singapore as a whole becomes stronger, better, more sure of our place in the world. By setting ourselves on this course, we will encounter many requests that we cannot meet and expectations we cannot fulfil. Behind every one of these requests is a passionate person yearning to get into a particular programme, but who was somehow rejected.

But one thing I noticed about the Ministry of Education when I first arrived here is that the staff begin all their presentations with a picture of a starfish. This alludes to the story about the boy who saves starfishes stranded on the beach by throwing them back into the sea one at a time. Our efforts are indeed about opening pathways to fulfil aspirations — one person at a time. That is a key reason why we are increasing the university cohort participation rate of our students to 40 per cent by 2020 — an eight-fold increase since 1980.

We are growing the number of university places for our people not by adding more of the same, but in the form of new programmes and new institutions. It is not cookie-cutter but a full range — square pegs, round pegs, and new and fantastical shapes. Diversity will not merely be in terms of course choices, but will be multi-dimensional. It means rethinking what we learn, when we learn, where and how we learn, and the kind of credentials we achieve at the end of the training, as well as how society recognises and regards those credentials.


In Singapore, this multi-dimensional, qualitative change will be done through SkillsFuture. This is the movement launched last year, to provide Singaporeans with the opportunities to develop to their fullest potential throughout life, regardless of their starting points. In terms of what we learn, the range of possibilities and choices in our university sector has grown tremendously, especially in the past 10 to 15 years. We are on the cusp of a new wave of growth as we grow our applied degree space through the Singapore Institute of Technology and SIM University.

Our polytechnics and Institutes of Technical Education (ITEs) have also established themselves as world-class providers of technical education. To help our students navigate these possibilities, we have introduced Education and Career Guidance in our schools and higher education institutions. We are not transplanting, but learning from the systems in other countries, such as the apprenticeships and universities of applied sciences in Germany.

In terms of when we learn, the answer is simply throughout our lives. Study and work will no longer be sequential, but interspersed with each other throughout a person’s life. We are moving from education as a concept of flow, i.e. preparing young students to enter the workforce, to a concept of stock, i.e. helping everyone in society learn throughout their lives.

More fundamentally, we should, over time, blur the differentiation between PET (pre-employment training) and CET (continuing education and training). Learning as a concept has to be inherently lifelong.

In terms of where and how we learn, learning will still be centred on, but not confined to, schools and higher-education institutions. Much of our learning can be online, through peer-to-peer interaction, and importantly, at the workplace and on the job. There will be a greater use of technology. The Internet as an infrastructure for learning is not only a conduit for e-learning. We have outsourced a significant portion of memory and knowledge accumulation to the Internet, although much curation work remains. And the spirit of outsourcing means we must focus on what matters most to us — our most-needed core 

Our vocational institutions — the ITEs and polytechnics — are developing modern apprenticeship programmes, called Earn and Learn Programmes (ELP). Under the ELP, a learner will go into the industry of his choice, and undergo a formalised work and study arrangement, at the end of which he will get formal industry-recognised certificates or qualifications.

For an ITE graduate, these credentials could be stacked towards a poly­technic diploma. For a polytechnic graduate, they could stack towards an applied degree, or qualification certifying mastery in a specific field.

In terms of credentials — these will continue to be important. There is nothing wrong with paper qualifications, because how else will industries and employers know your level of knowledge and proficiency? What we do want to prevent is a paper chase for its own sake, and an over-emphasis on one particular type of paper 

We are already seeing more diversity in higher-education credentials. Beyond traditional academic qualifications, there is a burgeoning market for alternative qualifications globally — graduate certifications, even “badges”, transcripts and portfolios are becoming credentials in their own right.

If we succeed in our effort, we will have a better balance between knowledge and skills pursuits, between academic and competency accomplishments, and across a wide spectrum of disciplines that is more reflective of the needs of the economy and personal aspirations.

More importantly, there will have to be interoperability between qualifications systems — those belonging to our vocational institutions, under our adult learning frameworks, industry trade certifications and university degrees. They must speak the same language and use similar source codes. It is imperative that we achieve this because this will bring about a significant step towards making learning modular, flexible, progressive, 
and lifelong.

Under SkillsFuture, we will open up the learning of skills and pursuit of mastery as a broad pathway for Singaporeans. Pursuit of mastery of skills and advancement of knowledge exist alongside and overlap significantly with each other, and can be strongly complementary and reinforcing. Mastery of skills can deepen fundamental academic understanding of a subject matter and even spark innovation. It is noteworthy that many genius entrepreneurs started by fiddling with their inventions in their garages, and artistry can rarely be achieved without using one’s hands. Conversely, stronger academic foundations can improve the ability to acquire and apply skills.

If we do this right, from a broader economic and social standpoint, we will not only add value but also create value, not only make things but also invent things. The definition of merit and success will be broadened. But what is beyond the Government’s control — and rightly so — is how society regards and recognises a skilled worker, a craftsman and a master. This will have to be part of our continuing evolution as a society.

This is a long journey. An experienced and retired educator told me it is like pushing a boulder up a hill. If we ever rest, the boulder will roll over us and roll back down. But we must not rest. It is a worthwhile journey that will transform our higher education landscape, our economy and our lives. This is the purpose and the sparkle, which inspires all of us who work in education.

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