Higher education in the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Prof Tan (centre) at the President’s Roundtable held at NUS

A record number of delegates —2,200 from 58 countries — gathered at the Marina Bay Sands Expo and Convention Centre from 25 to 28 March for the Asia-Pacific Association for International Education (APAIE) 2018 Conference & Exhibition. Led by NUS, and co-hosted with three other Singapore universities, the four-day conference brought together professionals in higher education from around the world to discuss and share ideas on the theme “The Impact of the Fourth Industrial Revolution on Higher Education in the Asia Pacific”.

“Industries are creating new job titles all the time, and new ways of organising work. And it would be foolish to think that the old way of planning education will continue to be effective. We must now foster human ingenuity and resilience so that our children will grow up and thrive in an environment we cannot yet fully fathom or discern,” said Guest-of-Honour Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung in his welcome address.

Setting the tone for the conference, Mr Ong gave the audience a quick overview of the various education reforms that Singapore’s Ministry of Education has embarked on, including reducing excessive focus on academic results, launching a systemic education and guidance programme, as well as promoting lifelong learning. On the latter point, he highlighted the new NUS Lifelong Learners initiative as a trailblazing example.


Mr Ong gave an overview of the reform that Singapore’s Ministry of Education has made to address the new industrial revolution

A key feature of the conference was the Provost Plenary where the provosts of the four co-hosting universities discussed how the Fourth Industrial Revolution would affect Singapore’s higher education landscape and the initiatives that could help students meet the challenges ahead.

NUS Senior Deputy President and Provost Professor Ho Teck Hua envisioned a “dramatic change” in the education landscape. “…you might be sitting next to someone who is 10 years older than you, and the professor has to teach a group of people who are highly heterogeneous, instead of homogenous,” Prof Ho said.

To fully grasp the possibilities of this industrial revolution, Prof Ho believes that a platform that allows “positive synergy between sectors” should be developed. He described an area where people from a range of industries and specialisations could work together to seek solutions to the challenges that may occur.


Prof Ho (far right) speaking at the Provost Plenary with moderator Prof Tan Chin Tiong, Singapore Management University Senior Advisor to President, looking on

A Global Dialogue featuring a panel of international experts marked the end of the conference. Representing Singapore, NUS President Professor Tan Eng Chye shared that looking at the twin missions of a university — knowledge creation and talent production — preparing graduates for the future is critical. He emphasised that addressing the challenges of the Fourth Industrial Revolution needs to be a conversation across society at large and not just focused on universities, and highlighted the necessity of changing mindsets in society and the way universities are run.

“Universities are structured in a way, I would say, as a consequence of the previous industrial revolutions. In order for us to respond to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, some structures will have to go. So universities will have to be prepared to dismantle our current structures in order to make way for initiatives that can promote future preparedness,” he explained.

Along with the other panellists — Professor Sarah Todd, President of APAIE; Mr Markus Laitinen, President of the European Association for International Education; Mr Leolyn Jackson, President of the International Education Association of South Africa; Dr Esther Brimmer, Executive Director and CEO of NAFSA: Association of International Educators; and Dr José Celso Freire Junior, President of the Association of Brazilian Higher Education Institutions Officers for International Relations — Prof Tan then fielded questions on a range of topics posed by members of the audience, including the possibility of data leakages, as well as whether a rise in nationalism and populism could have an impact.

Addressing a question on the relevance of brick and mortar campuses in the light of increasing content available online, Prof Tan shared that he believed a complete education cannot be achieved using just online content.

“If you look at learning itself, there is the content aspect of it and there’s also critical thinking; the thinking part of it. We universities will continue to exist because we are better at teaching the thinking part of it. The content part you can use Google, you can look up many sources, but it’s the thinking part that can be reinforced through human-to-human interaction and that’s where I think the universities play a very important role,” he said.

Universities are structured in a way, I would say, as a consequence of the previous industrial revolutions. In order for us to respond to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, some structures will have to go. So universities will have to be prepared to dismantle our current structures in order to make way for initiatives that can promote future preparedness.

The presidents, vice-chancellors and rectors of the various higher education institutes had the opportunity to meet at a special roundtable themed “Future-ready graduates: Three big ideas for nurturing students at your university”, held at NUS on 27 March. Chaired by Prof Tan, the roundtable discussion was a lively one where each representative shared experiences from their individual institutions.  Some common themes were work-study integration, encouraging entrepreneurship, increasing employability, as well as collaborative learning.

Smaller sessions during the conference centring on topics such as “Empowering Future-Ready Graduates” and “Technological Advances Impacting Internationalisation in Higher Education”, also gave participants an opportunity to network and take part in more in-depth discussions.

More than 270 booths by 360 organisations and higher education institutes from countries including Thailand, South Korea, Russia and Poland, were set up over the four-day event.


Prof Tan (2nd from right) in conversation with Vice-President of APAIE NUS University & Global Relations Assoc Prof Anne Pakir (far right), Prof Todd (3rd from right) and fellow Global Dialogue panellists