Building a resilient university

Detailed risk management, long-term planning, financial soundness and environmental sustainability – these are some of the key strategies to build resilience in universities, according to NUS President Professor Tan Eng Chye.

These measures are all the more vital as universities face the fierce challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic, added Prof Tan, who was speaking on 26 Nov at a forum featuring higher education leaders from Asia.

“For an institution, there are strategic risks and there are operational risks. A pandemic like COVID-19 actually (presents) both of them,” he said. Fortunately, after the SARS outbreak in 2003, NUS put in place steps to mitigate such risks – steps which have come in handy during the current crisis.

Prof Tan was speaking at this year’s Presidents Forum organised by the Asian Universities Alliance (AUA), a grouping of 15 top regional universities.

Attendees included Dr Nilar Aung from the University of Yangon; Dr Agustin Kusumayati from Universitas Indonesia; Professor Chandrika Wijeyaratne from the University of Colombo; Professor Subhasis Chaudhuri from the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay; Professor Sawako Shirahase from The University of Tokyo; and Mr Shigeo Katsu, President of Nazarbayev University which hosted the event with AUA.

Together, they shared insights on the theme “Knowledge is Power: The Resilience of Asian Universities in a VUCA World”. VUCA is a term used in strategic planning that stands for “Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous“.

This VUCA world, Prof Tan said, requires universities to engage in “futures thinking” – reflecting on the major changes that will occur in the coming decades, and preparing for these macro trends.

“The future is going to be even more uncertain, less predictable, and many more of the unknown unknowns are going to be thrown out,” said Prof Tan.

“I think universities should avoid thinking too much in silos. We should actually think, perhaps, of what others are not thinking. Scenario planning and futures thinking can help universities be more prepared for unexpected incidences, and lay the proper groundwork for us.”

Financial and environmental sustainability are also key to higher education, highlighted Prof Tan.

NUS’ enrolment will be declining from this year onwards, owing to the country’s low birth rate. As a lower student intake will affect revenue, it is important to keep a keen eye on costs.

Prof Tan shared that digitisation is one way for universities to trim and optimise their expenses.

“When I became President in 2018, one of the things that I put in place was to try to digitise a lot of the administrative processes. And before I digitise them, I do a lot of business process re-engineering, because you don’t want to digitise a very clumsy system.”

NUS also treats environmental sustainability seriously.

“We have a programme to lower the ambient temperature around NUS by 4 degrees,” shared Prof Tan. “One easy way is to plant more trees. I committed to planting 8,000 trees every year, so over the next 10 years I’ll be planting 80,000 trees.”

Heat spots are identified at the university, and trees are planted there to absorb heat and lower the ambient temperature by 2 degrees.

To make up the other 2 degrees of the overall 4-degree temperature reduction target, NUS is looking at the paint on the surface of buildings. Certain paints lower the absorption of the ultraviolet that heats up buildings, thus reducing the need for air conditioning.

Prof Tan also shared on the ways that NUS is preparing students for the future workforce. Because problems are complex and require holistic solutions, the University is driving inter-disciplinary learning. And because a four-year university education is no longer sufficient to prepare graduates for a working life that could last five decades, NUS is also focusing on lifelong learning.

“In the past, it was a career for life. Now, we are talking about a lifetime of careers. People are talking about the half-life of knowledge, and competencies are getting shorter and shorter, especially in the technical fields,” said Prof Tan.

“So we have to better prepare our students. They have to be imbued with a mindset that (embraces) learning for 40 to 50 years.”