I just returned from a study trip to the US, as a member of the Committee on University Education Pathways Beyond 2015. It was a fruitful trip and we came away understanding more about the applied, practice-oriented universities in US.
Drexel University, in particular, was interesting for its well-established cooperative programme, which enables students to balance classroom theory with practical, hands-on experience. The university is highly organised for this purpose, and provides very good support to its students. What also impressed me is that they continually take in feedback from both employers and students, which goes back into the curriculum, thus creating a virtuous loop for continued improvement.
Graduate outcomes are very good and according to the university, more than a third of its graduates land jobs with their co-op employers even while studying.
Work-study programmes provide a strong combination of academic and practice-focused education. However, it is not easy to pull this off well on a mass scale. It requires a strong collaboration among, and commitment from, the university, industry (and government), the individual and the university funding agency. It also requires a mindset change in students, their parents, faculty and recognition of its value by employers and industry.
We also saw in the institutions we visited that emphasising industry orientation should not be at the expense of achieving a holistic curriculum – there should be critical thinking, inquiry, and broadening with elements of liberal arts and social sciences taught to all students. These should not be taught as silos or just individual subjects, but integrated into the curriculum throughout the years of study. In addition, bringing students of different discipline background together in projects help them to see a problem from more than one perspective. Students would continue looking at real-world issues, and with a broader viewpoint, even as they focus on their discipline of study.
Diversity in our higher education system may also be developed by getting more private sector participation in higher education. This sector can be more responsive to changing needs and demand, and also offer programmes in disciplines or niche areas that the public universities may not.
On-line mode of provision is also getting popular, even in traditional universities, and more importantly, seen as a means of improving student learning. We’ll need to watch this development and keep abreast of changes to benefit our students.
In our conversations with education thought leaders in the US, they highlighted that it is difficult to ensure academic quality, and the rapid expansion of profit-driven institutions has produced poor outcomes for students, who are saddled with loan debts and poor employment prospects. The US experience reminds us that private institutions can attain the best in quality and even surpass that in state-funded ones, but any move with regard to providing support to those taking the private school route must be done with sufficient thought and directed at the right private institutions.
Earlier this year, we visited Hong Kong, which has a vibrant diversified higher education system, with a strong dependence on the private sector to provide what the public sector does not fulfil. Recently, there was a more orderly approach to improving quality in the private institutions, with an official academic accreditation system that even foreign universities can subscribe to so as to qualify their students for state financial assistance.
A rigorous accreditation system is onerous and demanding on these institutions, but if taken up on a voluntary basis, it can lead to more transparency and will raise standards. This is good for the public.
Professor Cheong Hee Kiat, President, UniSIM
Member of the Committee on University Education Pathways Beyond 2015
(The Committee on University Education Pathways Beyond 2015 (CUEP) is looking at how the higher education sector can better provide opportunities for Singaporeans to obtain a university education)