Transforming higher education

Prof Tan spoke about how NUS has evolved over the years and his plans for the University

NUS President Professor Tan Eng Chye shared his insights on the University’s journey to becoming a top university in Asia with 28 university leaders from the Philippines on 3 July. The leaders were attendees of the “Transforming Higher Education Leaders through Effective Policy Reforms” executive programme held at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKY School) at NUS from 2 to 6 July.

Prof Tan’s presentation, titled “Becoming a Top University in Asia: Lessons from NUS”, covered key institutional shifts; critical success factors; highlights of NUS’ education framework, research strategies as well as innovation and enterprise network; and issues which the University faces.

He shared how the University evolved from providing early and deep specialisation to offering breadth and flexibility and has now progressed to lifelong learning. In fact, NUS is the “first university to provide a 20-year engagement for all our students”, he said. At the same time, NUS has transformed from being a teaching university to a research-intensive and entrepreneurial university today.

Prof Tan pointed to increased autonomy — which provided NUS with the freedom to decide on such matters as faculty members’ salaries and promotions — as one of the critical factors for the University’s success. “And the whole idea, why the government did that, was really to give us a lot of space to compete,” he explained. Strong government support and the University’s focus on talents and excellence were other factors which Prof Tan highlighted.

Global orientation is very important because it exposes students. It allows them to see and calibrate themselves vis-à-vis other students.

Touching on the University’s focus on innovating education for a globalised world, Prof Tan said, “Global orientation is very important because it exposes students. It allows them to see and calibrate themselves vis-à-vis other students.” NUS welcomes more than 2,000 inbound exchange students a year while about 60 per cent of NUS undergraduates go overseas. Prof Tan said that as the issue of integration within the University is important, NUS adopts a very calibrated approach to ensure that there is a good spread of nationalities. “The exchange students also help to add diversity,” he added.

Prof Tan said that the University is keen to push experiential learning, saying, “We feel that learning has to be more dynamic and you learn best when you actually dirty your hands.” He shared that career advisory is an important focus as well, and that the University is leveraging artificial intelligence to identify gaps between the students’ knowledge and skills required by the workforce. Prof Tan spoke of NUS’ General Education curriculum, which consists of several core modules, including “Asking Questions”, “Quantitative Reasoning” and “Thinking and Expression”. He shared his plans to enhance it with modules covering computational thinking, artificial intelligence and design thinking.

NUS has an innovation and enterprise network consisting of 10 NUS Overseas Colleges (NOCs) and one in Singapore, Prof Tan told the participants, adding that the University sends some 300 students to the NOCs annually.


The participants were university leaders from the Philippines attending a five-day programme at the LKY School

Turning to research, Prof Tan said that NUS hopes to strengthen its leadership in eight multidisciplinary clusters including health innovation, integrative sustainability solutions, materials science and smart nation.

Prof Tan ended the presentation with a discussion on some of the issues which the University faces — maintaining and growing a world-class leadership team; recruiting, developing and retaining sufficient top talent; and creating distinctive value and high impact in strategic areas for the country.

The presentation was followed by a lively question-and-answer session during which the participants sought Prof Tan’s views on topics such as training on artificial intelligence for teachers; NUS’ sources of funding; and how leadership skills can be gauged.