This university wants to build skills, not degrees

By Nurfilzah Rohaidi

Professor Tan Thiam Soon, President of the Singapore Institute of Technology, wants to future-proof the next generation.

“Increasingly, the future is not going to be defined by a paper qualification. It's going to be defined by real skillsets,” says Professor Tan Thiam Soon, President of the Singapore Institute of Technology.

It is easy to get swept up with all the talk going around about university degrees fast becoming obsolete. But one university in Singapore is taking the lead in ensuring that young people will be equipped with skills that will still be in demand in the decades to come.

Applied learning is one solution to digital disruption, says Tan - blurring the lines between work and study for graduates. He shares how the university maintains close ties with industry to design unique courses, and how international university tie-ups play a key role.

The jobs of the future

There is only one answer to making sure workers can guard themselves against obsolescence - the ability to learn at any age. “No amount of formal education is ever going to be enough. We must begin to create an environment for truly lifelong learning,” the President of the Singapore Institute of Technology notes.

Allied health is one area where Tan sees a need for talent in Singapore. This term covers healthcare professionals beyond doctors, nurses and dentists; it includes dietitians, physiotherapists and psychologists, to name a few.

Healthcare in the country is going through a paradigm shift, moving from hospitals to the community. This means that patients with chronic conditions may be cared for in their own homes or in community hospitals, freeing up hospital beds and resources for other patients. “We are watching that space carefully and evolving the right kind of courses so that we will be the one to help government enact that change,” Tan explains.

Similarly, there could be demand for healthcare staff that can work with and care for the aged. And there are opportunities to train young people to become specialists in rehabilitative care, Tan believes.

Another trend is the melding of healthcare and hospitality, where care is provided with the same level of service and attention as a hotel. “Younger people today get older but are also getting wealthier. They'll begin to think of healthcare as more of hospitality care,” Tan explains.

And as robotics permeates our daily lives, maintenance jobs will be a mainstay. “I don't see the demise of maintenance. Somebody has to go fix the robots,” Tan points out. The university offers courses in the maintenance of railways, aircraft, ships and buildings, for instance, he adds.

Hands on

Book smarts may not necessarily translate into effectiveness on the job, Tan says. “Paper qualifications are the lazy HR way of recruitment,” he remarks. Recruiters use degrees as “a quick proxy to recruit people”, he believes, adding that having a degree does not guarantee that the job seeker actually has the right skills and characteristics to do the job.

Education and hands-on training are of equal importance to the university. Students undergo work attachments that last up to a year and are a leg up from traditional internships. They work on projects that solve business problems in the company or industry they are in, Tan explains. “We follow closely with a student. We make sure that whatever they do complements what they have studied.”

Management and interpersonal skills are just as important to complement the hard skills. “We have a degree with Culinary Institute of America to train the executive chef for the future. It’s not about cooking alone, it's the management of a big kitchen, or learning how to work with people from overseas,” Tan remarks.

Up to 70% of courses in SIT are unique to the university, at least in Singapore, says Tan. “We are the only university offering the whole suite of allied health courses - occupational therapy, physiotherapy, and so on.”

Degree courses at the university run the gamut: from food tech to dietetics and nutrition; intelligent transport systems engineering to aeronautics; hospitality to interior design - even video game development. The university is launching a course in air transport management this year, anticipating the need for manpower in coming years as Terminals 4 and 5 at Changi Airport undergo development. This degree was developed in close partnership with aviation companies and the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore.

International collaborations

To uncover skills gaps, trends and emerging industries, the university maintains close contact with the private sector to design courses and shape curriculums. “We do surveys and ask them what skills they need that other universities cannot supply,” Professor Tan says. Often, students would need to seek overseas education for courses not offered in Singapore, such as in hospitality or food business management.

To offer courses that are firsts in Singapore, the university works with international universities such as the Technical University of Munich, Newcastle University and University of Glasgow. Most of the faculty is made up of overseas hires as well, as local professors and lecturers do not have the relevant teaching background. With such unique courses, it is “not because I don't want local, but we never produced them,” Tan explains.

The university ‘flattens’ its structure to encourage a fresh exchange of ideas between professors of different disciplines. Faculty from different courses are mixed together, instead of divided into departments, to break down siloes. For instance, as the hospitality industry becomes more digital, it would benefit a hotel management professor to learn from an IT professor, Tan says.

As the world evolves and some jobs disappear altogether, new ones are popping up all the time, clamouring for qualified and capable workers. Universities need to shake up established education models so that young people will be able to keep up and thrive.

Professor Tan will be speaking at GovInsider Live on 16 October 2019 at the UN Conference Centre in Bangkok. The full speaker lineup for GovInsider Live includes Ministers, Governors, Mayors, GCIOs and pioneering figures from across the world. Register today by filling out the form below.

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