Strong interest in interdisciplinary learning with high acceptance rates

In today’s volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world, staying stagnant is never an option. Now, more than ever, universities have to prepare students to thrive in a fast-changing and unpredictable post-COVID reality through an interdisciplinary education.

Just ask the incoming batch of freshmen, who have given a thumbs-up to the University’s recent interdisciplinary initiatives – specifically, the setting up of the College of Humanities and Sciences (CHS), and the new Common Curriculum for the Faculty of Engineering and the School of Design and Environment.

During the admissions exercise this year, 71 per cent of those who had applied to these programmes as the first choice accepted the offer. Among the incoming batch of freshmen, over 4,000 will be exposed to an interdisciplinary education. By August 2022, NUS hopes to push this number to more than 6,000.

“We are quite heartened that the applicants have responded very well,” said NUS President Professor Tan Eng Chye, as he spoke on the new changes in NUS’ curriculum. “They are receptive to the flexibility that they will have. No more are you confined to one discipline.”

Prof Tan noted that the world faces many wicked problems that cannot be solved with only one discipline.

He cited COVID-19 as a wicked problem, requiring more than just medical sciences to solve. “Even with the right medical knowledge, many countries had difficulties handling COVID-19 and its spread,” he noted.

The pandemic, in fact, prompted NUS to ramp up efforts in remodelling its educational philosophy and pedagogies to prepare its graduates for this dynamic reality.

At the centre of these reforms is the push for lifelong learning, as well as the shift towards interdisciplinary education to ensure students are adaptable and future-ready.

A lifetime of learning

While universities used to prepare their graduates for a single job, this approach is fast becoming obsolete. Today, graduates will change jobs at least 10 times over the course of their lifetime.

In line with this trend, NUS has been future-proofing its education to prepare students for lifelong learning.

“A student’s enrolment is valid for 20 years from the point they enter the university,” Prof Tan explained. “We want to remove the conception that university is only for four years. You can always come back to (NUS) to learn new skills and knowledge.”

For instance, the NUS Lifelong Learners (L3) programme upskills alumni through a wide array of skill-based, industry-relevant courses, carefully tailored to focus on emerging skills identified under SkillsFuture such as data analytics or digital literacy.

The process of returning to NUS for further studies is also made seamless. If a student does not complete a second major or degree in their initial four years, they are welcome to return to the university to read the necessary remaining modules even after graduation.

Towards interdisciplinary learning

Recognising the benefits of interdisciplinary learning, NUS is rolling this out to more students.

This started with the launch of CHS, which brings together the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and the Faculty of Science.

In the upcoming semester, CHS will admit 2,200 students and they will take a new Common Curriculum within their first three semesters – consisting of integrated modules with a problem-based pedagogy.

Similarly, a Common Curriculum has been introduced for the Faculty of Engineering and the School of Design and Environment to encourage knowledge transfer between the two complementary disciplines.

For instance, NUS’ very own net-zero energy building at SDE4 is a product of melding both architecture and engineering – the first of its kind in Singapore.

“The building’s beautiful architectural design alone doesn’t contribute to it being net-zero energy. What you have is a lot of deep engineering work embedded into it. It shows that architects have to work very closely with engineers in order to achieve this,” explained Prof Tan.

With interdisciplinary learning, the proportion of Unrestricted Elective modules a student can take has also been increased to up to 30 per cent, encouraging students to have two or more specialisations.

In the four faculties that now have an interdisciplinary common curriculum, this works out to more than 700 possible double major pairings, 1,700 major-minor pairings, and 100,000 major with double minor combinations.

Expanding choices for students

Ultimately, these educational innovations create greater flexibility for students to curate their own curriculum.

They will no longer have to make an immediate commitment to a single discipline. Instead, they are given time to decide on their academic calling through the common curriculum.

These efforts are central to NUS’ flagship role as a creator, integrator and propagator of knowledge.

Looking ahead, the structural barriers between faculties will further dissolve, allowing students to build even broader connections between disciplines.

“Right now, we have 70 majors and 80 minors, but we may actually have more as we go along. We start with a minor. If there’s enough interest, we push it to a second or full major. The possibilities are endless especially as we move online,” said Prof Tan.