Reshaping ideas and practices in Asia’s next normal

Universities need to adopt resilient and versatile learning systems, while maintaining high-quality standards of education – that was the consensus of speakers at the recent Temasek Foundation-NUS Programme for Leadership in University Management (TF-NUS PLUM) Southeast Asia Leaders’ Summit.

Organised by the NUS Global Relations Office (GRO), the summit was themed “University Leadership in Asia’s Next Normal” and aimed to reshape ideas and practices in higher education, in light of the disruption created by the pandemic.

Over the virtual conference on 26 and 27 April, university leaders discussed the way forward for ASEAN higher education institutions, and agreed that embracing digitalisation with remote learning, as well as community safety and inclusivity, were top priorities.

“Universities have to adjust teaching and learning, student engagement and research, to adapt to the new COVID-19 world. We have to stay ahead of the fast-changing environment, so that we can prepare our students to be flexible and agile for new and exciting opportunities,” said NUS President Professor Tan Eng Chye in his opening address.

At NUS Engineering Dean Professor Aaron Thean’s session titled “Leadership in Asia’s Next Normal”, he shared that the age of accelerated technological convergence is driving transformation forward.

“We need to make sure that our pre-employment training for graduates is relevant to the job market. There must also be continuing education to adapt and refine the training, in order to support their careers,” said Prof Thean, who was joined by NUS Engineering alumnus and CEO of the Sustainable Living Lab, Mr Veerappan Swaminathan.

“There may be multiple possible scenarios in the future, but a winning strategy is to develop an approach that can survive multiple possible scenarios,” said Mr Swaminathan. He shared that his consultancy could maintain its performance during the pandemic because it diversified into different areas that were complementary.

During the “Presidents’ Roundtable”, Prof Tan affirmed some of the top priorities for NUS during the pandemic, which includes ensuring the community’s safety through vigilant measures; and supporting the graduating cohort through the NUS Resilience and Growth Initiative that provides employment through placements, apprenticeships and direct hiring.

Prof Tan noted that being prepared for a post-COVID world has required major transformations to the University’s learning models. In particular, lifelong learning is becoming the modus operandi. “Students and alumni will need to constantly upskill and reskill, to remain relevant,” he said.

In Prof Tan’s dialogue on ““Imagining the University Post COVID-19”, he highlighted that accelerated innovation and entrepreneurship is a way to mitigate the disruption, displacement and uncertainty of the future.

“Universities must prepare students for a more uncertain world through innovative learning approaches and experiences,” he said, adding that experiential and problem-based learning will enable students to pursue more versatile pathways in the future.

He also affirmed that an interdisciplinary education can equip students with the ability to cross-learn and connect the dots, for deeper and more impactful learning through life.

The insightful summit featured a panel discussion on “Southeast Asia in the Next Normal” among the university leaders, moderated by GRO Associate Vice President Associate Professor Reuben Wong. Speakers acknowledged that while the various countries have their individual approaches to education, the pandemic calls for greater regional collaboration. There was an overall consensus that universities should continue to foster close partnerships and support one another.

The importance of collaboration was also emphasised in the panel discussion featuring several industry leaders - Dr Sonny Vu, CEO at 3-D printing company Arevo; Mr Lim Yew Heng, Group Managing Director of Regional Public Affairs at Grab; Ms May Yap, Chief Information Officer and Senior Vice President at Jabil; and Mr Raimund Klein, Executive Vice President and Head of Digital Industries for ASEAN at Siemens.

The panel, “Future-proofing Industry 4.0”, was moderated by Associate Professor Goh Puay Guan from NUS Business School, who is also Academic Director of the MSc Industry 4.0 graduate degree programme. The panelists discussed how their companies have adapted to technological disruption and the impact of COVID-19, and how universities can partner with industry.

"Education has to cater for different levels of the workforce in the company’s transformation, including senior executives, managers, and shop floor workers," said Mr Klein, while Ms Yap stressed that the future workforce needs to be "holistic in bringing together technology, business processes, and cross functional perspectives” to enable digital transformation.

Dr Vu highlighted the importance of the "entrepreneurial mindset" as a key driving factor for personal success, and encouraged aspiring young graduates to work in a startup environment to learn life skills. Mr Lim emphasized the need for the "hunger to succeed", and also his optimism that Southeast Asia will be a region of “continued growth, innovation and opportunity”.

TF-NUS PLUM serves as a platform for university leaders to discuss issues, share experiences, and advance ideas on the governance and management of Asian universities. Since 2012, over 250 university leaders from ASEAN, China and India have attended this programme.