University leaders gather at NUS for inaugural forum on issues facing Southeast Asia’s higher education

Nearly 300 leaders, academics, administrators and decision makers in higher education, along with industry professionals, gathered to discuss pressing issues facing universities in Southeast Asia and beyond at the first-ever Times Higher Education (THE) Campus Live SE Asia conference hosted by NUS from 7 to 8 December 2022.

Delegates from countries across the region – joined by those from China, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, the UK and the US among others – converged at NUS University Town and University Hall during the two-day forum to gain insights from more than 30 speakers on the theme of “Innovation, inclusion, growth: The role of universities in a 21st century Asia".

The talks, panel discussions and breakout sessions were organised around the conference's four agenda tracks – leadership and strategy, teaching and learning, innovation and enterprise, and stakeholder relations. Discussions touched on topics such as the innovation and transformation of universities in a post-pandemic world, preparing graduates for the future of work amid increasing digitalisation as well as developing entrepreneurial talent.

In his opening remarks, NUS President Professor Tan Eng Chye painted a picture of the global post-COVID landscape for higher education, which has forced institutions to fundamentally re-consider the frameworks under which they operate. “We are confronted by a host of stark challenges, with arguably the most pressing of these preparing our students to thrive in a world characterised by ever-faster cycles of disruption and technology-driven change and where constant self-renewal is expected, and where collaboration and imagination in problem-solving is just as important as knowledge and skills,” said Prof Tan. “These new skills and mindsets will become even more critical as nascent domains, such as the green and digital economies, take off,” he added.

Giving his remarks at the start of the conference, Mr Phil Baty, THE’s Chief Knowledge Officer, spoke of the international higher education community’s spirit of openness, collaboration and resilience in the face of the pandemic. He shared how the THE Campus Live forum, and its global iterations, evolved from the online content-sharing platform, THE Campus, that was set up for university educators to exchange advice and resources amid global campus shutdowns in 2020.

Responding to digitalisation

Delivering the keynote address, Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies Heng Swee Keat highlighted the promising potential of Southeast Asia, a market with the third largest population behind China and India. Education, he said, will be critical in harnessing this potential and the region’s education systems will thus need to further evolve to better prepare its people for a fast-changing future.

One way would be for institutions to collectively respond to developing trends in education, such as digitalisation and continuing education. “As the digital wave continues to grow, education institutions in our region can ride on this wave to experiment with different models of online teaching and blended learning. This will create new ways of learning, across different settings, including the workplace,” he stated.

Adapting learning and exams

The forum opened with the first panel session featuring three university leaders – Prof Tan, Prof Mohd Hamdi Abd Shukor, the Vice Chancellor of Malaysia’s University of Malaya and Prof Banchong Mahaisavariya, the President of Thailand’s Mahidol University.

Moderated by Mr Baty, the panellists addressed how universities can realise the full potential of the advances made in innovation during the pandemic. Prof Tan stressed that the usual way universities deliver content must change to align with how students are now learning. To this end, NUS will convert large classes of at least 100 students to a blended format which incorporates virtual learning through short video snippets interspersed with online assessments. The move will involve about 800 courses, with the University aiming to achieve this over the next three years. This will be complemented by a physical component whereby students work in small groups with a maximum of 25 people to take on challenging problems and discussions that reinforce what they learned. 

Given the shift to blended learning, the way exams are conducted would also have to change, said Prof Mohd Hamdi. But that urgency to revise the exam format to one requiring students to go beyond simply regurgitating knowledge also applies in physical settings. “It's a policy of the university now to move and shift into as much as possible open-book (assessments),” so that students are analysing and synthesising what they learned, he said.

Learning how to learn

The sentiment of cultivating agile, adaptable learners, particularly in an age in which the future of work has been complicated by globalisation, digitalisation and the COVID-19 pandemic, was echoed at another panel, titled “The future of work in Southeast Asia: How universities can prepare students for an uncertain future”.

In the lively discussion that followed, employers shared the key traits they look out for in their hiring practices, as well as how students can make themselves invaluable in the workplace in a world where labour is being transformed by machine learning and digital platforms.

Sharing that students in Singapore who have at least one digital skill on their LinkedIn profile are 1.6 times more likely to be employed within a year of graduating, Ms Aarti Thapar, senior director of customer success (APAC) at LinkedIn, stressed the importance of being future-focused in skill development. “The emerging skills for students are skills like customer experience, customer satisfaction, inventory management, Canva (and) Microsoft Power BI,” she added. 

The pertinence of lifelong education, a key area of investment for universities like NUS, was another theme raised during the session. “(The frequent disruptions to the workforce) are an impetus for the University to rethink its curriculum, to think of key reforms that we have to put in place so that we can help our students stay relevant in the future,” Prof Susanna Leong, Vice-Provost (Master’s Programmes and Lifelong Education) and Dean of the NUS School of Continuing and Lifelong Education (SCALE), said.

Fostering innovation, sustainability and entrepreneurship 

At a session on how universities can build a culture of innovation, panellists discussed how decision makers can incentivise discovery and reward the time and knowledge spent on generating innovative ideas, practices and research. Key themes were the importance of leveraging the pool of talent in universities and empowering them to translate blue-sky academic research and inventions into commercialised entrepreneurial projects.

Prof Mohd Hamdi said: “We need to create the policies to support (innovation) and assist in terms of services like generating incubator spaces for innovations that can see the light of commercialisation, (as well as) funding.”

The forum also saw leaders exchanging views at a Presidents’ roundtable moderated by the ASEAN University Network’s Executive Director Choltis Dhirathiti on how universities can be a frontier for the global pursuit of climate action.

Prof Ova Emilia, Rector of Indonesia’s Gadjah Mada University, said universities could use their wealth of knowledge and research to identify solutions to key issues facing humanity, such as providing equal access to healthcare, education and food security. Citing the issue of waste management as an example, she said universities can identify the best model for managing waste and educate the young generation on efficient waste management. In turn, students who go on to do fieldwork in their communities can transfer that knowledge at the local level. “Here in Southeast Asia, we can work together to manage this problem together and this can become a focus for us. I do believe that with the collegial communication platform that we already have it can be realised and this can be helpful for the region.”

Associate Professor Thi Phuong Lan Ngo, President of the University of Social Sciences and Humanities at Vietnam National University, made the point that universities also play a key role as an intermediary in coming up with a climate action plan that benefits society. “We need to build an effective network at different levels, in the domestic field and also in the international sphere…As presidents, we can connect and collaborate with each other so we can have an action plan,” she said.

Another session saw Emeritus Professor Wong Poh Kam from NUS Business School and a former director of the NUS Entrepreneurship Centre at NUS Enterprise sitting down with Marcus Tan, the President and Co-founder of Carousell to discuss the role of universities in nurturing start-ups. Marcus, an NUS alumnus who founded the mobile-first marketplace that achieved 'unicorn' status last year with two other alumni, shared how their stint with NUS Overseas Colleges (NOC) sparked their entrepreneurial spirit and how the University assisted them in their start-up journey through incubation support and later an ideation grant from NUS Enterprise.

Marcus recalled how he became inspired by the fearless entrepreneurial mindset of Silicon Valley, where failures were celebrated, and spoke of how universities can play a role in fostering a culture of learning from setbacks by amplifying stories where the road to success was not necessarily a straightforward journey. “I think it’s important to amplify (success) stories, but sometimes it's good to also amplify things that may not necessarily be successful,” he said.

The forum concluded with delegates joining campus tours to four locations. At the College of Alice and Peter Tan, participants were given a glimpse of life at the residential college, its facilities and activities, and the unique living and learning experience offered to residents. They also visited the Innovation 4.0 building which hosts the NUS Smart Nation Research Cluster, the NUS Agritech Centre, an innovative sandpit for researchers, entrepreneurs and visionaries run by NUS Enterprise, as well as NUS College.