For many, university holds fond memories of youthful spontaneity and late-night cramming at the library. It’s also a place that prepares students for the fights to come. This is a tall order for universities – these fights are becoming increasingly foreign as the world gets more uncertain and driven by technology.

To Professor Subra Suresh, President of Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University (NTU), a well-rounded education and real-life experiences will be crucial in shaping students for the future. The young university had its origins in science and engineering, but is now expanding to include humanities and social sciences.

This is crucial as new technologies emerge, since success does not solely depend on how good the technology is, but also on how well it’s handled, he explains. Suresh shares how the university is pushing the envelope in tech research, and how it’s training future-ready students.

The latest frontiers in cyber and tech research

One of Suresh’s earliest moves as NTU’s President was to set up an AI research institute with Chinese tech giant Alibaba. A recent project involved building an algorithm that predicts e-commerce sellers’ behaviour and prevents fraudulent transactions.

Alibaba has also partnered with NTU and the Economic Development Board to create a number of PhD fellowships in the university, which will nurture local talents and give them hands-on experience in developing tech, he adds.

AI aside, cybersecurity will be the “biggest and continuing challenge for the world”, Suresh believes. NTU’s Cyber Security Centre researches cutting-edge developments in the field, and partners organisations like INTERPOL and Israel Aerospace Industries.

NTU has also partnered government agencies and the private sector to groom graduates, he says. Singapore is “very small and well-coordinated among government agencies”, which makes this easy, he adds.

The university’s researchers are working with Swedish carmaker Volvo, the Land Transport Authority of Singapore, and SMRT, one of Singapore’s major public transport operators, to develop and trial autonomous buses within the campus.

Singapore pushed out a trial earlier this year allowing citizens to take driverless buses in two areas of the island. Data from this trial will guide the commercial roll out of these buses, The Straits Times reported.

Educating future-ready graduates

Covid-19 has proved digital learning skeptics wrong, Suresh believes. There is an in-between for digital and physical learning – but universities still need to determine what the optimal level is. This delicate balance will be a challenge for every organisation, he says.

“For a 21st century citizen, digital technologies are going to be not a luxury, but a necessity,” Suresh says. The university hopes to groom graduates that use technology wisely and responsibly.

It launched a digital literacy requirement for all undergraduates from this year. Students will take core courses in ethics, making sense of big data, and more.

Suresh acknowledges that no institution can teach students everything in four years, especially when things change so quickly. NTU instead focuses on imparting “basic ingredients” that make successful graduates, he explains.

One of these ingredients is a well-rounded education. Starting from this August, NTU will roll out an interdisciplinary common core curriculum for students from different majors, Suresh says. This will range from ethics to communication, and give students the opportunity to collaborate across multiple disciplines.

Another ingredient will be adaptability and resilience. “Some of these skills were taught deliberately, some out of necessity,” he says.

For example, the university had to vacate 17,000 students out of campus and move more than 600 courses online in less than one week. Fortunately, NTU had migrated its coursework onto the cloud about four months before the pandemic hit. That enabled it to pivot relatively quickly, he adds.

“What history has shown … when people go through this kind of a life experience … the generation shows a level of resilience others don’t have,” Suresh says.

The world is changing rapidly, and universities are tasked with a tall order to prepare students for the future. Suresh believes that a well-rounded curriculum and real-world experiences will be key.

Feature image by Lionel FellayCC BY-NC-ND 2.0