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Broad-based learning ‘more relevant now’ (The Straits Times)

Education should help broaden the mind and encourage flexible thinking for unpredictable labour market: Expert

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Applied learning may be the latest education buzzword, but one higher education expert believes that “old school” ideas like going to university to broaden the mind and learn to think better are more relevant than ever.

Much of the current discussion on how disruptive trends in the global economy could affect higher education revolves around how universities should better prepare their students for the changing workforce, with some advocating the deepening of technical skills.

But Professor Philip Altbach, founding director of the Centre for International Higher Education at Boston College in the United States, feels that the emphasis on skills-based education has been “overblown”.

 “There is almost too much discussion on workforce preparation at the moment. Certainly universities have to be aware of the employment market and what the country needs, but, increasingly, people think that education is for instrumental and vocational needs, and it has been harder and harder to get people to think about education in the broader sense of the term,” said the 75-year-old, who was in Singapore earlier this month for a public lecture organised by Singapore- based think-tank The Head Foundation and Singapore Management University.

Prof Altbach, who has conducted extensive research on international higher education and written or edited more than 50 books, said that there is a need to “think old thoughts” as much as new ideas are sought, as the economy experiences fundamental changes in multiple ways.

Such “old thoughts” include perceiving education as a means of broadening the mind, and instilling a flexibility of thinking for an unpredictable labour market.

PHILIP ALTBACH ON INTEGRATION OF INTERNATIONAL STUDENTS

In the United States, we are beginning to think about how to integrate international students in the social life of local universities. I think that is highly important for so many reasons, both to make your own population more understanding of international issues, and for Singapore’s long-term soft power.

ON INTERNATIONAL RANKINGS AND DEVELOPING SINGAPORE’S BRAND IN HIGHER EDUCATION

Singapore is an immensely brand-name-conscious society in every way, including higher education… That has led to an over-emphasis on rankings. Just because highly-ranked universities in other countries do things in a particular way, does not mean that Singapore should do it in the exact same way. There might not be a need to chase partnerships.

There’s also a need for more independent thinking here. Singapore has a lot of experience, and has built a number of distinguished universities on its own. Singapore needs to be more confident… and not look for external validation all the time. That seems to be a habit here.

“I think education is education, and that skills will come along with it, or are supplementary to it. The labour market changes so rapidly; thus people have to be trained for broader thinking,” said Prof Altbach.

Continuing education programmes, such as short-term courses or boot camps, can bridge the gap for those looking to acquire industry-relevant skills, such as programming.

In this way, universities, including the ones in Singapore, will continue to have a role to play and do not risk becoming obsolete, he added. When planning for how to meet the economy’s demands for skills in specific industries, what must be avoided would be a situation where universities become “vocationalised”.

While the ambitious SkillsFuture push here includes a focus on equipping workers with the right skills for jobs , it also contains a philosophical dimension of getting Singaporeans to think of learning as a personal endeavour – which is something that Prof Altbach espouses.

He highlighted how there has been a growth of interest in the liberal arts in Asia, and that such an education model is something that could be especially relevant to Singapore in an age of uncertainty.

Yale-NUS College, Singapore’s first liberal arts college, welcomed its first intake in 2013. But another new university, the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), also adopts a broad-based curriculum despite its focus on technology, with students required to take courses in areas such as the humanities and social sciences.

He said that one of SUTD’s partners, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US, also has very strong programmes in the social sciences despite being a distinguished technological institution. For example, linguist and political philosopher Noam Chomsky, considered one of America’s leading activist intellectuals, has been with MIT for over a decade.

“They understand that a well-rounded technology person would also be well-versed in the humanities and social sciences,” said Prof Altbach.

Such acceptance of a broad- based approach demonstrates a recognition “of the need for critical thinking and communication skills, and a broad understanding of how societies have changed over time”.