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Pace of acquiring skills and knowledge must intensify, continual learning will help people remain relevant: Chan Chun Sing

Pace of acquiring skills and knowledge must intensify, continual learning will help people remain relevant: Chan Chun Sing

File photo of a man entering the National University of Singapore University Town. (Photo: Calvin Oh)

SINGAPORE: The pace of acquiring skills and knowledge must intensify, with individuals changing jobs every four to five years, said Minister for Education Chan Chun Sing on Thursday (Feb 10). 

Stressing the importance of continual learning, Mr Chan said: "If the half-life of skills and knowledge has shrunk, then it must follow that the pace of acquiring skills and new knowledge must intensify.

“It used to be said that we may use almost 20 years to prepare for our first job and maybe the only job for life. That’s our parents’ generation. But what if we need to do 10 different jobs for life, changing every five years on average? That’s our generation.” 

If Singapore needs to “top up” the knowledge and skills of individuals as they take on new jobs every four to five years, this means half a million adult workers need to go through upgrading every year, he added.

Speaking at The Straits Times Education Forum on Thursday, Mr Chan said that the definition of success for Singapore’s education system cannot be defined by just how well it produces a cohort of 30,000 to 40,000 students each year for the job market, said Mr Chan. 

“It should be how well we do that plus retraining and upgrading about half a million adult learners each year,” he added.

Instead of focusing on the challenges of falling cohort sizes, Singapore should “actively seize the opportunity” arising from an increasing number of workers who need retraining and upskilling. 

Preparing a course, training the faculty and seeing the students graduate typically takes a few years, said Mr Chan. This could also mean that the material may be obsolete by the time students graduate from the course. 

“We need to jettison the concept that we can ever be done with learning,” said the Education Minister. 

“No amount of education frontloading can prepare us for life. Only continual learning can help us remain current and relevant for the rest of our lives.” 

There is also no pre-defined pathway to success, he said. 

It matters less how many students go to universities, polytechnics or Institutes of Technical Education (ITEs), and matters more how many students can get the appropriate degrees, diplomas and modules or micro-credentials throughout their lives, said Mr Chan. 

The skills to “learn, learn fast, unlearn and relearn” are now more important than getting a particular grade at a particular point in life, he added. 

“To this end, flexible modules across multi-disciplines that allow our students to pivot and flex across the evolving sectors have become even more important.” 

ADULT LEARNERS AND CONTINUING EDUCATION

Responding to a question about how the higher education landscape will change over the next few years, Mr Chan said during a question and answer session that universities should instead see themselves as institutes of continuous learning. 

“At the individual level, the most straightforward change that we have to bear in mind is this - we are not going to be able to learn everything and then transit to what we call working life,” said Mr Chan. 

“There is no end, and there should not be a clear sharp division between the learning phase of our life and the working phase of life.” 

Adding that this is a “significant mindset change”, the Education Minister noted this means that people must take responsibility for growing their own skills and expanding their knowledge, even if their employees do not actively pursue training for them. 

“This is especially important in a gig economy where many individuals are taking responsibility for their own employment terms. And this is a mindset shift that we must have ... especially in the gig economy but also for conventional traditional employees in the industry.” 

Instead of “going back to school”, the school should have micro modules available for individuals to learn and to keep themselves updated, he added. 

At the institution level, the way universities, polytechnics and ITE is structured must also change, said Mr Chan. 

“We are not just talking about preparing the 18 to 22-year-olds who will come to class religiously, sit down, listen to us. We are talking about working with adult learners that have varying time schedules, different commitments, different responsibilities,” he added. 

“How do we have a blended learning model whereby we can push our knowledge model to them in a just in time fashion?” 

Class time can then be spent collaborating and creating solutions to solve new challenges for the industry, said the Education Minister. 

Mr Chan also encouraged companies across industries to work with the institutes to help prepare students, instead of “waiting for the students to come”. 

“They ... get the ideas from the young people, and this co-creation process shortens the industry and academia cycle,” he said, adding that this will define Singapore’s competitive advantage. 

CONNECTION BETWEEN ACADEMIA, INDUSTRY

The connection between academia and industry also needs to be tightened, and this applies to both students and faculty, said Mr Chan in his speech.

As students go through universities, polytechnics and ITEs, they must have access to “quality internships”, he added. 

For example, at the National University of Singapore (NUS), a recent initiative allows students to intern with the industry without being constrained by time and subject of study. 

“Students in future should even be able to complete such programmes at their own time, if they have the desire and opportunity to intersperse their internship and studies,” said Mr Chan. 

The Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) has also pioneered the applied learning model, he added. This “brings the university into the workplace” and allows students to learn by working with real-life tools to solve real-life industry problems. 

“Faculty is critical for this relationship between industry and universities. Universities must create more opportunities for faculty to keep pace with the latest industry innovations, and create free-flowing exchanges of ideas and personnel between industry and universities,” said the Education Minister. 

Singapore’s autonomous universities already have a range of educators and researchers, from full-time faculty to those involved in the industry and academia, to adjunct lecturers, said Mr Chan. 

“We must step up efforts to grow this diversity, including tapping more industry experts to serve as adjuncts and practice-track faculty,” he added. 

As the universities “rebalance” their pre-employment training (PET) and focus on continuing education and training (CET), they will review their staffing composition accordingly, said Mr Chan. 

“This is necessary to better cater to the more diverse learner profiles and needs, including tailoring pedagogy and especially andragogy, for our adult learners each year.

“PET methods cannot be applied to CET learners without appreciating the different opportunities and challenges of adult learners,” he added. 

INTERNSHIPS

Universities are “strongly” encouraged to "connect and reconnect" with the world through exchange and internship programmes, even amid the COVID-19 pandemic, said Mr Chan. 

“Send our students abroad to learn. Welcome foreign students to add diversity to our campuses and help our students enhance their understanding of the world,” he said. 

“Build a uniquely Singapore brand of being a trusted and principled partner that others can rely on and want to work with.” 

Singapore can distinguish itself as a platform for people to connect, collaborate and create, as the world “threatens to fragment along geopolitical, ideological, cultural and technological lines”, he added. 

“This is why we need to renew our push to have our young people grow up understanding and interacting with the world,” said the Education Minister. 

“Therefore, I strongly encourage our universities to connect and reconnect with the world through their exchange and internship programmes, even as COVID-19 wears on.”

Mr Chan also stressed the importance of confidence, adding that it is as important as literacy and numeracy in foundational years. 

On the international stage, Singaporeans are often admired for our values and competencies, he added. 

“However, many have also commented that we can better help our students express themselves so that their talents are better appreciated, and help our students to better understand and appreciate the diversity of the world,” he said. 

“We will continue to increase opportunities for our people to be exposed to such skills and perspectives, beyond formal education or the university system.” 

In a world of contesting ideas and values, Singapore must have the confidence to “chart our own destiny” based on a “pragmatic and disciplined search” for what works best for the people in context, said Mr Chan. 

“While we learn from the world, we must never relegate ourselves to just copying other people’s ideas without context. We learn from others’ successes. We also learn from others’ failures,” he added. 

“But ultimately, we must have the confidence to develop our own solutions to our own unique challenges - be it in the economic or social spheres. On the other hand, we must remain humble and recognise that we cannot stop learning and improving, as individuals and as a country.”

Source: CNA/hw(mi)
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