Across the Board: The University in a post-COVID-19 world

To better prepare our students to fulfil their aspirations and to solve society’s future problems, we need to incorporate inter-disciplinarity explicitly across all levels

The 115th year of NUS’s founding is commemorated on 3 July 2020. NUS115 celebrates the University’s transformative impact over the past 115 years and its continual efforts in shaping the future for a better world. Across the Board, a new content series to mark this momentous occasion, will feature interviews with and editorials by distinguished members of the NUS Board of Trustees on relevant and pressing issues.

| By Professor Tan Eng Chye |

I was speaking with a colleague recently, and he remarked that the COVID-19 pandemic is an extinction-level event, and those of us who fail to adapt will simply cease to be.

COVID-19 has turned the world upside down. At the global level, economies have shut down, supply chains broken, and all forms of travel have come to a virtual halt. In our everyday lives, the pandemic has profoundly affected our relationships, our daily movements, our work, and our leisure.

For universities, polytechnics, schools and other institutes of learning, we have had to radically change how we teach and learn, how we conduct assessments and examinations, and how we conduct research. Indeed, one upside of COVID-19 is that it forced through many changes that we wanted to implement, but did not, because of complacency and even resistance.

If COVID-19 truly is an existential crisis, then it should make us reflect on existential questions. For example, before the pandemic hit us, universities tended to see their biggest challenge mainly in economic terms: how to prepare our graduates for a world disrupted by Industry 4.0, of getting them ready for a world of artificial intelligence, robots, and ever-quicker rates of job obsolescence. 

With COVID-19, all these challenges not only remain but are heightened. These challenges now have to be tackled in a world where all of our assumptions are called into question: What will our students desire in this changed world, beyond a job and an income? What does happiness mean in this new world? What do we define as success?

As President of the National University of Singapore, my job isn’t simply to help my graduates find jobs in this “new normal”, but also to educate them so that they can make sense of all these confusing changes and to shape the “new normal”. That is the education aspect. Equally important, universities must also rethink how we do research, and what is it that we research.

COVID-19 is essentially a complex problem. It goes beyond healthcare, with broader impacts on society, politics, the economy, and the environment. It cuts across disciplinary boundaries, requires integrating knowledge, skills and insights from different domains, and defies established templates. It is also a precursor of the types of problems we will be facing with increasing frequency.

We therefore need to broaden the intellectual foundations of our students, because they are the problem-solvers of the future. Disciplinary mastery is still necessary, but will not be sufficient. We need to cultivate in our students the ability to synthesise knowledge from across different fields. The key to this is to broaden the curriculum and increase inter-disciplinarity in our curricula, regardless of the discipline or specialisation chosen.

We have had inter-disciplinary courses in our curricula for a while, but mostly at the more advanced levels. Typically, two or three professors teach such a course, but instead of focusing on the cross-disciplinary thinking skills and generating synergies between their respective disciplines, they emphasise their own subjects and expect students to make the connections themselves.

We need to go beyond this. To better prepare our students to fulfil their aspirations and to solve society’s future problems, we need to incorporate inter-disciplinarity explicitly across all levels, and especially teach these skills of synthesis at the foundational level.

As a lifelong academic and educator, I acknowledge that this is difficult to accomplish. But I strongly believe that this is how university education needs to transform. There will no doubt be resistance. In Singapore and many other places, we tend to privilege the specialist over the generalist. Our kiasu-ism also means we often “over-teach”.

Given the limitations of time, in introducing inter-disciplinary elements into our curricula, we will have to reduce what is deemed core. This could be perceived as compromising on rigour. Furthermore, the students themselves – and their parents and guardians too – may be uncomfortable with these changes. Many of them know from an early age what they already want to study – in some cases, they decide by eliminating what they don’t want to study – and may not see the point of studying things outside their majors.

These are legitimate concerns, and we will have to think carefully and debate how we manage the depth and breadth of our curricula. But the world is becoming a place where we have to be get comfortable with perpetual discomfort. Therefore, the university should also be a place where we expose our students to a mild discomfort that is stimulating and inspiring. As educators, our job is to stretch minds into areas that are non-adjacent to what they are primarily interested in.

More than ever, universities must take seriously their civic duty to educate not only a nation’s youths, but all who come through its gates, no matter how old. For too long, there has been an overly-drawn dichotomy between teaching and research. Worse, some believe that teaching is subordinated to research. That point of view is misguided, and does a great disservice to society, especially when it involves a publicly-funded university. The famous physicist and Nobel laureate Richard Feynman believed that if scientists or teachers are unable to explain complex concepts or ideas in clear and simple terms, then they haven’t grasped it themselves. Being a good teacher can make one a better researcher. In fact, in this disrupted world, our professors might also learn a thing or two from our students. Hence, we need to tighten the loop between teaching and research. 

We therefore also need to consider what the faculty of the future must look like. What holds true for students must also hold true for professors. Our researchers must also embrace inter-disciplinarity. This is possibly an even bigger challenge compared to changes on the education front. Universities are organised along disciplinary lines; we are the ultimate siloed organisation, with all the departmental and funding “turf wars” that come with it. And the academic enterprise is one that has traditionally rewarded depth and specialisation, perhaps even disciplinary purity. This way of organising the university is no longer adequate for a world whose problems do not respect such disciplinary boundaries.

Many a university leader has tried and failed to shift the research enterprise towards greater inter-disciplinarity. However, COVID-19 and the other grand challenges rushing towards us defy rigid and narrow thinking. To solve these complex problems for society and to improve the world requires a conversation among scientists and artists, historians and computer scientists, writers of code and writers of poetry, and pulling together the different talents we have in our midst.

As the consequences of COVID-19 unfold over the coming months and years, many universities will fall by the wayside, because of funding cuts and falling enrolment. The bigger question is whether the idea of the university itself is still fit for purpose for this fast-changing world. This global pandemic is a chance to reimagine the university, and in doing so, catalyse a better world.


About the author


Professor Tan Eng Chye is President of the National University of Singapore. A passionate academic and educator, Prof Tan is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global University Leaders’ Forum, as well as Singapore’s Future Economy Council, which is tasked with driving the growth and transformation of the country’s future economy.



Across the Board is a series of interviews and editorials featuring distinguished members of the NUS Board of Trustees, sharing their unique perspectives on relevant and pressing issues of the future with the NUS community. This is the first installment of the series.