The internationalisation of higher education has been widely found to have brought about tremendous benefits at the national, institutional and individual levels. It has become central in international declarations, regional initiatives, national policies and institutional strategic plans. Evidence of these can be seen in the increased national-international interactions through higher numbers of study abroad programmes, recruitment of international staff and students, international benchmarking and collaboration in the development and delivery of curriculum, as well as international accreditation through joint degree programmes.
Even though teacher education is a subsidiary of higher education, scholars remain uncertain if its internationalisation could or should develop in the same way. This is because historically and contemporarily, teacher education trains teachers for them to prepare the students for national labour, social and political participation. As such, teacher education policies remain largely nationally rather than internationally oriented.
However, teacher education, which was once of concern mostly to the nation state, is now also receiving international attention. This has been largely attributed to the growing interest in international assessments. Results of these assessments seem to indicate how “successful” some national systems of education are in the current knowledge-based environment, as compared to others. With this, comes the interest to distinguish what characterises high-performing education systems and intensifies the need to learn from these systems. Of these, the quality of teachers and its related teacher preparation have repeatedly been proven to be central to the quality of pupils’ learning.
Singapore receives a fair share of this international attention and much of it has been attributed to the quality of its teacher preparation policies and programmes. While the internationalisation of teacher education may be new to some countries, Singapore has benefited tremendously from it. During the colonial period, its preparation of teachers was as underdeveloped and uncoordinated as the rest of its education system. The school system was mostly vernacular or heritage-based (i.e. Chinese, Malay and Tamil schools, as well as religious schools such as church-funded schools and Islamic madrasahs) with educational ideals, curriculum, textbooks and even teachers being imported. Even the small number of English teachers were trained using a borrowed pattern from Britain.
Since then, deliberate moves have been made particularly in education as a core sector recognised for its critical role in enhancing human capital. Amongst these, the preparation of teachers was prioritised both in terms of quality and quantity. The status of the teaching profession was elevated and made appealing with attractive remuneration and benefits, so much so that Singapore has now become one of the few countries in the world with an excess of trained teachers.
Many of these moves are intelligent strategies adapted from best international practices or based on the guidance of foreign consultants. However, a key difference between these strategies and straightforward educational borrowing is the policy makers’ consciousness of the nation state’s unique local needs. This was especially necessary as education was and still is an important tool that gels Singapore’s multi-ethnic population. The nation state’s bilingual policy is a concrete example of this international to national adaptation.
Today, Singapore is widely acknowledged for having one of the best performing school systems in the world. Its “sustained attention to human development” has even earned the nation state the top spot in The World Bank’s latest Human Capital Index. Singapore continues to produce the world’s best performers in education, with students repeatedly performing very well in international assessments, not only in academic performance but also in soft skills such as collaborative problem solving.
Strategic international benchmarking and adaptation of international practices are key strategies that have propelled educational development in Singapore. Singapore rode on the waves of internationalisation — from its post-colonial past through industrialisation and into globalisation, done judiciously such that national interest remains at the forefront and well-protected.
Today, with the resurgence of protectionism and unilateralism amidst globalisation, governmental and institutional policy makers are looking for solutions to consolidate both the desire to internationalise and the need to protect national interests. Singapore presents itself as an interesting case where the national and international are not in a zero-sum game.
Dr Rita Z. Nazeer-Ikeda is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Center for the Study of International Cooperation in Education, Waseda University. She focuses on human development work and has done so through consulting, education and research in Bhutan, Indonesia, Japan and Singapore.
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