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NUS President on building talent and skills for the future

13 September 2019 | General News
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Prof Tan (2nd from left) sharing his insights during the “Meeting of the Alliances

This year, the theme of the Times Higher Education World Academic Summit, held from 9 to 12 September at ETH Zurich, was “how talent thrives”. In keeping with this topic, NUS President Professor Tan Eng Chye shared his insights during the “Meeting of the Alliances”, a special roundtable debate, featuring the leaders of the world’s top research-intensive universities and their representative bodies.

The aim of the meeting was to discuss how to create conditions for researchers to realise their full potential and make the next big breakthrough. In his capacity as a member of the Asian Universities Alliance, Prof Tan stressed the importance of multidisciplinary learning for both graduate and undergraduate students to allow talent to prosper in this way.

Prof Tan also offered the thought that higher education institutions have a responsibility to keep students interested in science and technology as they get older. “I think we could be better at teaching the excitement of science at the high school and university level,” he said. Stressing the significance of students gaining an informed perception of science, he continued, “In this age of social media, it’s now incredibly important to enable our students to differentiate between truths and fakes.”

In addition to emphasising science and technology, Prof Tan also highlighted the key role in society that humanities and social sciences play. To illustrate this, he drew attention to the success of the Social Science Research Council in Singapore, and the way it attracts and incentivises social sciences and humanities students to improve public policy.

The line between work and education is increasingly being blurred. To facilitate this lifelong learning, universities cannot be standalone institutions. Rather, we need to be plugged into the entire ecosystem of society.

Prof Tan also chaired a later discussion at the Summit entitled “Adapting the Skills of the Future”, in which the possible implications of a future economy based on remote work, automation and artificial intelligence were deliberated. The panel consisted of Professor Anant Agarwal, Chief Executive Officer of edX; Professor Alessio Figalli, Full Professor and Chair in Mathematics at ETH Zurich; Ms Gordana Landen, Chief HR Officer of Addeco Group; and Mr Jack Lu, President of HR Management for Huawei.

On the topic of upskilling for the future, the panel agreed that universities should be locations for lifelong learning. “The line between work and education is increasingly being blurred. To facilitate this lifelong learning, universities cannot be standalone institutions. Rather, we need to be plugged into the entire ecosystem of society,” Prof Tan explained.

A key theme that emerged was the importance of allowing students the time and opportunity to fail and also to learn from those failures and develop a critical-thinking mind set. To illustrate how this allows talent and innovation to flourish, Prof Tan evoked the tale of a reporter who asked Thomas Edison about his 1,000 failed attempts to invent the lightbulb. “Edison replied that he did not fail 1,000 times, the lightbulb is merely a 1,000 step invention,” Prof Tan stated.

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Prof Tan (far right) chairing the “Adapting the Skills of the Future” discussion

The Summit successfully brought together pre-eminent global thought leaders across higher education, research, industry and government to share their thoughts and best practices in the development of world-class universities and research. Held at NUS in 2018, this year’s summit hosted approximately 400 delegates from over 50 countries.



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