An edited version of this commentary was first published in NVPC’s SALT, “University Shouldn’t Be A Candlelight Affair“.
The Singapore Management University’s (SMU) plan to establish a school of humanities, a short-stay residential college in the city, as well as a possible degree in the liberal arts is fascinating, and should create an incentive for its national contemporaries to up the ante. The purported “SMU difference” reported in The Straits Times (Jan. 13) – that SMU students “have gained among employers for being more polished, outspoken and articulate than their peers from other local institutions” – should not go unchallenged. Nevertheless, such expansion and competition bodes well for the higher education landscape in Singapore.
With more choices on offer, this diversity is also great news for aspiring undergraduates.
In the previous year, the liberal arts college Yale-NUS admitted its first batch of students, and earlier this year the National University of Singapore (NUS) announced that it would expand residential college-living across its campus. Following refurbishments, there will be multi-disciplinary courses, a variety of prominent guest speakers, and engaging co-curricular activities in these colleges. At the same time different schools such as SIM University and the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) are experimenting with new selection processes, to render their courses more inclusive and rigorous. Many of these courses are increasingly specialised, to cater to diverse talents and interests.
Yet what is the next step up, one might ask?
While schools have been designed to keep the economic machinery going (and it has, to a large extent, been effective in the past few decades), there is no guarantee for continued success. Many ideas have been mooted: flipped classrooms, less focus on antiquated modes of assessment, more emphasis on digital literacy, coding, and online courses, encouraging individuals to go on gap semesters, getting more to try their hand at enterprise and entrepreneurship… In fact, it might be a good thing if more Singaporeans believe that the university is not the only pathway to success. Schools can be pressured to become more attractive and relevant, and these decisions highlight the tremendous diversity in the country.
As a friend remarked, Singapore does not want to be a nation of candle-makers before the invention of the light-bulb. Universities rest on their laurels at their own peril.