The University of the Future: Boston and Singapore

The University of the Future: Boston and Singapore

Should all universities be research universities? How has globalization reshaped the way universities perceive themselves? What can Boston and Singapore learn from each other’s higher education landscapes?

These were the three, thoughtful questions proposed by Professor Philip Altbach, Research Professor and Founding Director of Boston College’s Center for International Higher Education (CIHE), during a joint public lecture by The HEAD Foundation (THF) and the Singapore Management University (SMU) held on 3 Aug 2016. The public lecture, held at SMU, was organized in conjunction with the launch of THF’s inaugural Higher Education in Southeast Asia (HESB) newsletter, which was produced in collaboration with CIHE.

In the first part of the lecture, Professor Altbach highlighted the trend of “massification”, a recent phenomenon where there are a greater number of higher education institutions (HEIs) and students. He argued that while most HEIs aim to be research universities, which helps in their aspirations to ascend university ranking tables, there must also be diversity in HEIs.

Further, as more educated individuals demand access to the university, there is a need to maintain standards. Massification introduces the challenge of quality control when the surge in student admissions could possibly overstretch university resources. Also, while research universities may be the preserve of the elite, and are seen as a necessity for both academic and economic growth, massification challenges the traditional notion of how we view the identity and functions of the university.

Massification is, as Professor Altbach puts it, the academic revolution in the higher education world. Coupled with globalization, it creates a pool of global knowledge workers who are able to cross national boundaries. This revolution, therefore, requires nations to think about universities in the contemporary sense and support HEIs to produce graduates who can partake in the global knowledge economy substantially. Research and rankings are thus less of an importance as the focus should be placed on equipping students with employability skills where they are crucially needed.

Professor Altbach recognizes Boston and Singapore as special places for higher education as they are surprisingly comparable in terms of their population, economies and higher education institutions. Both cities have important lessons to learn from each other.

On one hand, Prof Altbach argues that the universities in Boston are highly successful because they operate as part of an ecosystem and not as single entities, like those found in Singapore. Though the public universities in Boston have a minute role in the research sector, private universities, such as Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have a strong research presence, which complements the gap. Moreover, both public and private HEIs share each other’s facilities and resources, creating an environment that is competitive, yet highly collaborative. It is a synergy within a system of universities, and this is what Singapore should learn from Boston.

Singapore’s lesson for Boston is the city-state’s HEI strategy of careful planning and relevant investments. Boston’s successes is in part due to the strong backing from the entire American economy and its strong ties with Europe. Singapore, although only supported by a developing regional market which is not as coordinated, features a number of world-renowned universities – indicative of a strong state intervention.

During the discussion segment, of the event, a participant asked whether private branch universities could rise to world class levels. Professor Altbach opined that branch universities, like James Cook University, being for-profit institutions, can rise to prominence and be isomorphic with global research universities only through heavy investment by their respective benefactors. However, considering that diversification is just as necessary for this global age, different universities have their own set of functions to fulfil.

Professor James Tang, Dean of the School of Social Sciences at SMU and Special Advisor to the President on Greater China, also delivered the opening address of the event, in which he highlighted the budding relationship between THF and SMU and the potential of the strengthening of these ties with a number of initiatives in the pipeline for further collaboration between both organizations. This was echoed by the THF’s Academic Director,

Professor S. Gopinathan, who pointed out that the President of SMU, Professor Arnoud De Meyer, had also contributed to the HESB – the first of its kind publication on higher education in Southeast Asia. Explaining the rationale for the HESB, Professor Gopinathan said that it provided a platform for voices from the region on issues in higher education and to create such an ecosystem, which was prominently missing.

Mr. Lim Yu-Book, Managing Director of THF, then launched the inaugural issue of the HESB and presented copies to Professor Tang and Professor Altbach.
Excerpts of Prof Altbach’s lecture can be viewed here.

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