Commentary: A holistic university education must be community-oriented

Commentary: A holistic university education must be community-oriented

Singapore universities have done well in rankings but they need to instill civic consciousness in students in providing a well-rounded educational experience, says one NTU observer.

NTU graduates
Nanyang Technological University's class of 2016. (Photo: NTU)

SINGAPORE: Singapore’s universities have long been held up as a key component of the city-state’s success story.

The 2018 iteration of the QS Top Universities Ranking places Nanyang Technological University (NTU) at 11th place and the National University of Singapore (NUS) at 15th. Not bad for a small city-state that has only been in existence for little more than 50 years.

Yet as critiques of university rankings have rightly pointed out, such rankings do not paint a complete picture of higher education, focusing instead on faculty research output. 

At the same time, university graduate starting salary figures are but one marker of the quality of university education.

As those of us who work and teach at universities know, higher education is much more than the rank of a university or how much money our students can earn upon graduation.

In focusing on these quantifiable outcomes, we often negate the fundamental goals of education in any society: Shaping well-rounded students who possess both the hard skills necessary for their employment as well as the soft skills needed for good citizenship.

READ: A commentary on the value of university rankings.

READ: A commentary on the impact of chasing after university rankings.

READ:  A commentary on the unhealthy biases arising from graduate employment surveys.


One way of ensuring such as well-rounded education is through a pedagogical tool known as “service learning”.

Indiana University education scholars Robert Bringle and Julie Hatcher (1996) have described service learning as:

A credit-bearing educational experience in which students participate in an organised service activity that meets identified community needs and reflect on the service activity in such a way as to gain further understanding of course content, a broader appreciation of the discipline, and an enhanced sense of civic responsibility.

As a credit-bearing component of a degree course, service learning differs from community service (which is entirely voluntary and non-mandatory) and internships (which is essentially a paid service).

Furthermore, service learning is not a one-way process.

Service learning requires students to reflect on the process and allows them to pick up important skills and knowledge, such as the ability to foster collective action and ground-up initiatives or the ability to engage a broader range of groups and individuals, even as it allows them to contribute to the activities of grassroots organisations.

For the past semester, I have been running a service-learning initiative as part of a core course under NTU’s Public Policy and Global Affairs Programme. As part of this initiative, students participate in a 6-week attachment at a grassroots organisation.

At the end of the attachment, students are asked to write a reflection essay based on their experience. Aside from the essay, students’ performance are also assessed through the collection of feedback from external organisations and partners where the students have been attached.

e-scooter at ntu
A man riding an e-scooter at NTU. (Photo: Olivia Siong) 

By incorporating community service into core curriculum, service learning allows for a more holistic educational experience, where learning takes place both within and outside the classroom. 

This is especially important for public policy students, since it is meaningless to talk about policies without understanding how these policies impact citizens at the individual and community levels.

Certainly, the soft skills picked up by students will benefit their future employers immensely. Their experience in engaging a broad range of citizens and facilitating ground-up initiatives will be especially relevant in business areas that require them to steer stakeholder relations or drive project management. 


Aside from ensuring a more holistic educational experience, service learning also grants universities the opportunity to engage their local communities. 

By requiring students to be engaged in community service activities as part of their educational experience, universities can foster long-term relationships between their students and their immediate neighbourhoods and communities.

More than simply educational institutions or spaces for learning, universities are spatially located within neighbourhoods. Service learning can contribute to NTU’s ongoing efforts to engage its Jurong and Pioneer neighbourhoods as well as the upcoming Jurong Innovation District.

It should, however, be noted that community engagement is not entirely new to NTU. Indeed, the university has established a Local Community Engagement Office for this very purpose.

The Office has since facilitated various activities and events for residents of the neighbouring Jurong area.

driverless vehicle NTU
A driverless vehicle being tested by NTU in December 2016. (Photo: TODAY/Koh Mui Fong)

For academics, service learning presents an opportunity to align one’s teaching and research activities to community service. 

Given that much of our research funding derives from public monies, academics should also be obliged to ensure that their teaching and research activities provide direct positive impact to local communities and their residents. 


Singapore’s education system has traditionally prided itself as a means of skills development and social mobility. 

By ensuring equal access to education and imbuing students with relevant skills, the education system has been a crucial component of Singapore’s economic and social development. Service learning can contribute to both of these aspects of Singapore’s education system.

Apart from allowing students to pick up useful job skills such as project management and stakeholder engagement, it also fosters a deeper sense of civic consciousness that is strongly tied to community service. 

Such skills cannot be learnt through traditional pedagogical tools but requires students to “learn in action” by engaging with local communities.

In the words of the education philosopher John Dewey: “There is no such thing as educational value in the abstract”. A well-rounded education should require students to understand the lives and conditions of their fellow citizens, not in the abstract, but in community. Service learning provides good opportunities for such engaged learning.

Woo Jun Jie is an assistant professor in the Public Policy and Global Affairs Programme of Nanyang Technological University. He is also the recipient of NTU’s inaugural Community Research Fellowship.

Source: CNA/sl