Five ingredients behind the success of Singapore’s universities

From top left, clockwise: Prof Feng, Prof Tan, and Prof Chan

Singapore’s universities can thank five key ingredients for their success, said NUS President Professor Tan Eng Chye at a webinar.

These are: the primacy of education; growing investment in research; an open policy for talent; global connectedness; and institutional autonomy.

“These are the five factors that are important for the success of Singaporean universities. Some factors are already present in many of the Asian universities. With these factors, plus others, I think the rise of Asian universities will continue,” said Prof Tan, speaking at the event which was titled “Between East and West: Models of Asian Upstart Universities”.

“Some of the reasons are quite characteristic across many universities. So the importance of education is definitely one. But of course, in terms of intensity, how much and how far governments are willing to support universities – that actually does make a difference. And there are, of course, differences across countries.”

Many countries have a national research strategy – key for them to move from manufacturing-based economies to knowledge-based ones.

“Research and innovation, especially through research institutes and higher education institutes, are critical,” said Prof Tan. He cited the examples of Thailand and Malaysia which have well-defined targets on areas like research spending, and the number of researchers in the country.

The third key factor, openness to talent, is a strength for Singapore.

“Singapore is a very small country, we are limited in terms of our talent,” Prof Tan noted. “So in order to be competitive, we have had to adopt a very open policy to talent… This open policy for talent has helped Singapore tremendously.”

That ties in neatly with the next important factor, global connectedness.

“Singapore is very well-connected, and so are the major cities in many countries, be it China, (South) Korea, Japan, Vietnam and Thailand,” said Prof Tan. “While globalisation may now be hindered because of tensions, we feel that the connectedness will still thrive in different ways and in different forms.”

He added, “In Singapore, connectedness is very critical and that has helped us. It gels very well with the open policy that we have for talent.”

The fifth factor is the autonomy given to Singapore universities which ceased being government statutory boards in 2006. They were corporatised to run as private, not-for-profit companies.

The government funds about 70 per cent of the universities’ budgets, and has specific indicators for universities to meet. It also decides the tuition fees and sets a range for the intake numbers.

Other than these, universities are given autonomy to decide how they want to operate, and how they want to spend their budget.

“This is another differentiator that Singapore has,” said Prof Tan, noting that universities in Japan and South Korea have also been given autonomy. “That flexibility frees up the universities so that we can compete globally. That positions universities well.”

These are the five factors that are important for the success of Singaporean universities. Some factors are already present in many of the Asian universities. With these factors, plus others, I think the rise of Asian universities will continue.

About 700 participants from universities across the world attended the event on 15 Oct which also featured Professor Tony Chan, President of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia and former President of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. The moderator was Professor Feng Da Hsuan, Chairman of the International Advisory Board at Hainan University and Former Vice President of Research at the University of Texas at Dallas.

Boosted by growing economies

Prof Chan shared that the rapidly-growing economies in the region were also boosting Asian universities.

“Rising economies create need as well as provide the necessary resources to fund quality higher education. Besides funding, there is also a corresponding rise in expectations from both society and government. Governments expect universities to be the engine for economic growth in moving from a low-cost manufacturing economy, to a knowledge-based one,” said Prof Chan.

“A new type of workforce is needed, equipped with new skillsets, an innovative and entrepreneurial mindset, and a global outlook. A rising middle class expects better jobs with better pay and working conditions. Therefore a university education has become necessary to secure a good job. Citizens can afford, and are willing to pay for it.”

His views were echoed by Prof Feng, who summed up the value of universities in societies across the world. “Higher education plays not just an intellectual role, but (it plays a key role) in how the society is being shaped and how the society moves into the future. You are producing the people that will be running, governing or working in society.”

View recording of the webinar.


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