Saturday, 29 October 2011

Additional university places for Singaporeans

Any new varsity 'must find niche to be special'
Singapore team on study trip finds that maintaining quality is a challenge
By Sandra Davie, The Straits Times, 29 Oct 2011

PARIS: Singapore's university system is at a crossroads, where it will have to find the right niches if it is to expand further, said Minister of State for Education Lawrence Wong. He added that focusing on quality while expanding the university sector is a challenge facing not just Singapore, but also developed countries with established higher education systems, such as Finland and France, which he visited this week.

Both countries had grown their higher-education systems to provide their citizens with wider access to degree studies. But the system has become fragmented and diffused, resulting in uneven quality across the sector.

Now there is an attempt to consolidate the institutions and raise their quality all round. There is also a push by governments to make some of them 'global, world-class universities'.

On this, Mr Wong said it is important to realise that not all institutions in a country can aim to be world-class.

'You need to push for quality in a few institutions, and for the others, which will serve different purposes, you find niches of excellence and you ensure that the graduates will come out with good marketable skills.'

He said that over the past decade, Singapore has done well in building a diverse yet high-quality university sector.

The National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University have become world-class universities.

The others, including Singapore Management University and Singapore Institute of Technology, which partners top-ranking overseas universities to offer degrees to polytechnic upgraders, are recognised for providing high-quality education to their students, even though they are smaller, niche institutions.

But if the Government were to set up another university to offer places to more than 30 per cent of each Primary 1 cohort, it must find a niche that will make the new institution 'special' and 'exceptional in its own way'.

'Our challenge now is to find another niche, another product, that will allow us to provide degree opportunities for more students and prepare them well for the workplace of the future,' said Mr Wong, who heads a 15-member committee looking into how more university places and pathways can be opened up.

He and some of his committee members, as well as Education Ministry officials, visited two leading French institutions in Paris on Thursday: the Sorbonne and the Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris, or Sciences Po as it is more commonly known.

Earlier in the week, they had looked at Finnish higher-education institutions.

Mr Wong noted efforts by French institutions such as Sciences Po to build 'softer skills' - such as communication skills and cross-cultural understanding - in their students, and said the new institution must emphasise such skills to give its graduates good employment prospects.

'Employers in any industry want people who can handle complex tasks in an environment of uncertainty, who can make decisions, and can collaborate well with teams both within Singapore and across cultures,' he said.

One of the committee members on the visit, Mr Kenneth Neo, 40, managing director of precision engineering company Advanced Tech Automation, agreed that employers like him look for people 'with more than book smarts'.

'I, for one, look for people who can work independently, multitask, and are problem solvers,' said Mr Neo, who went from the Institute of Technical Education to polytechnic, and then to Lough-borough University in Britain.

He was also all for differentiated institutions that will produce different kinds of graduates.

'As an employer, I need different types of workers to take on different roles in the company,' he said.

Another committee member on the visit, Pioneer Junior College principal Tan-Kek Lee Yong, stressed that the new institution must have quality to give its graduates a good education and good job prospects.

Mr Wong said that as the Government adds more tertiary institutions, it will aim to keep the system 'open, diverse, with multiple entry points and no dead ends'.

'A student who has the interest and motivation can start at one institution and move up to another to acquire a specialised degree or master's degree, or even a PhD,' he said.

More new varsity places for poly grads
New degree programmes must be relevant to industry: Lawrence Wong
By Sandra Davie, The Straits Times, 28 Oct 2011

HELSINKI - When the Government expands the university sector to give places to more than 30 per cent of students from each cohort, more of these places will go to polytechnic graduates, said Minister of State for Education Lawrence Wong.

But it must ensure that the new degree programmes remain relevant to the industry and focus on hands-on practice.

'We have to think of providing a university pathway that will build on the strengths of their polytechnic education and allow them to maximise their potential in areas they are good at,' he added.

Doing so will ensure that these students enjoy good job prospects when they graduate, he noted on Wednesday, after visiting two Finnish universities.

As it was, he noted, employers appreciated the fact that Singapore's polytechnics offered courses that were relevant to the industry and were practice-oriented, making them attractive in the job market.

Mr Wong, who heads a committee looking at ways to provide Singaporeans with more university places, is on a study trip to Finland and France to look at university education in Europe.

By 2015, Singapore's four universities, together with the Singapore Institute of Technology, which offers degrees for polytechnic upgraders, will be able to take in 14,000 Singaporeans each year.

This means 30 per cent of each Primary 1 cohort will get to go to a local university.

By then, 20 per cent of each polytechnic cohort will be given places in these universities, up from the current 15 per cent. More than 70 per cent of junior college students go on to local universities.

Mr Wong said: 'The larger proportion of the people who will benefit from this expansion of the university sector will be the poly graduates.'

On Wednesday, he and his delegation visited the research-intensive University of Helsinki and the Metropolia University of Applied Sciences, referred to as a 'polytechnic' in the Finnish system.

The first university offers a five-year track for students aiming to graduate with bachelor's and master's degrees, while the second offers more job-specific, four-year degree programmes in areas ranging from engineering and IT to nursing.

Mr Wong said one of the strong points of the Finnish university system was that it offered two distinct tracks to young Finns - one more 'job specific and vocational' and the other more 'academic'.

Graduates from both universities were sought after by employers, with those from the University of Helsinki heading to the public sector and those from Metropolia getting private sector jobs.

He said creating these distinctive tracks to nurture different types of graduates was an 'important point to bear in mind' for the 15-member university review committee.

He also noted that if the committee, at the end of the review, recommends setting up a new university, it is 'more likely' to be a teaching university, rather than a research-oriented one like the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University.

He added that the committee has to ask itself if Singapore needs more research universities or if a 'teaching university' would serve the needs of the students and employers better.

He said the Finnish system also offered a 'reality check' to the committee. He noted that Finland, with its 16 research universities and 25 applied sciences universities, offered places to 65 per cent of a Primary 1 cohort. But in the end, one in four failed to graduate with a degree.

As university education is free here, the remaining students took, on average, seven years to complete the five-year bachelor's and master's degree track.

This was a problem even in its leading university, the University of Helsinki, which is consistently ranked among the world's top 100 universities. It takes in 4,000 students a year but only 2,600 graduate annually.

Mr Wong noted: 'So participation rate is one thing, but the actual attainment rate is lower. The Finns have made it a generous, flexible system with no dead ends, but it has created problems of its own.'

He also said that if Singapore wanted to set up new universities to offer more places, then it must ensure that they were sustainable and of high quality.

Mr Wong, who is accompanied by the committee members and Ministry of Education officials, is also visiting French universities, including the Paris Sorbonne University and Sciences Po. The committee will submit its report by the end of next year.

1,000 more places for Singaporeans at SUTD, SIT next year
By Elgin Toh, The Straits Times, 19 Oct 2011

There will be 1,000 more university places for Singaporeans next year.

The extra places will be at two institutions: the new Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), which is due to take in its first students in April, and the Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT), which will tie up with overseas universities to produce new programmes.

In announcing the increase on Tuesday, Minister of State for Education Lawrence Wong said it was a step towards meeting 'the rising aspirations of young Singaporeans, especially polytechnic upgraders seeking a degree'.

It also fulfils part of the 2,000 additional university places Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had said would be created for Singaporeans by 2015.

Mr Lee made the pledge in his National Day Rally speech this year, saying it will allow 30 per cent of Singaporeans from each cohort to attend university, up from the current 25 per cent.

Mr Wong also promised to invest more in polytechnics and new Institute of Technical Education (ITE) colleges.

He noted the success of these institutions in producing entrepreneurs.

Said Mr Wong: 'There are many good students who prefer a hands-on, practice-based environment. These students recognise that a degree is not the only route to achieving one's dreams.'

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