This will see universities, polytechnics and the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) ramp up CET modules for working adults in the form of short courses in eight key emerging areas such as data analytics and digital media.
Additionally, Mr Ong announced that as the government invests more in industry-relevant training for adult workers, it will review the funding arrangement of Master’s programmes by coursework at the autonomous universities.
What are the implications of these announcements for students, working adults and universities?
The push to get IHLs to do more in CET is a logical one.
Firstly, it fits in with the current educational philosophy of providing Singaporeans diverse pathways to success, a philosophy that has taken root in primary and secondary schools over the past two decades. It was only a matter of time before IHLs were incorporated.
Secondly, the spectre of technological disruption has loomed large in Singapore, with the prospect of white-collar work being affected as well. The pace of economic and technological changes has intensified around the world, and simply keeping apace of these changes has proved a daunting task for all educational institutions.
The Ministry of Manpower has launched the CET Masterplan and SkillsFuture initiatives in a bid to ensure that current and future workers at all levels of the labour force can keep abreast of change and make the necessary transitions to different jobs.
Thirdly, in the past few years the government has reiterated the need to move away from academic credentialism as a primary means of job entry and progression towards a greater emphasis instead on skills and mastery. In this regard, the polytechnics and ITE were the subject of a recent report (Applied Study in Polytechnics and ITE Review).
The report’s key recommendations included the development of multiple pathways for individuals to progress based on their skills, the developing of skills frameworks and the offering of more modular CET opportunities.
Another recommendation was for the polytechnics and ITE to work more closely with industry to develop applied programmes.
A RETHINK OF THE PURPOSE OF EDUCATION?
What are the implications of this announcement for local autonomous universities offering Master’s programmes? In a sense, it was only a matter of time before local universities would come under scrutiny in a bid to ensure alignment with the larger policy landscape. In addition, the Minister’s call for a review of funding and delivery arrangements is no surprise either.
Given the longstanding policy of heavy state subsidies for higher education in Singapore, the state has a significant influence in determining the main direction for autonomous universities.
With an ambitious target of 40 per cent of each age cohort to be enrolled in undergraduate programmes, and increasing enrolments in Master’s programmes, the financial investment by the state is by no means small.
Next, the call for universities to remain relevant to needs is not new. Numerous Master’s programmes have been established in response to emerging fields, such as data analytics. What is new is the call for a relook at the balance between courses that are more academic in nature and those that are more vocationally-oriented.
Another new policy thrust is the advocating of changes in the delivery mode in favour of more bite-sized courses that are shorter in duration, a move that would tie in with the wider SkillsFuture idea of allowing individuals to upgrade their skills quickly, and of emphasising skills and mastery over academic qualifications.
Making these changes will not be easy. Universities around the world have long prided themselves on the provision of high-quality aster’s programmes to help individuals. acquire new practical skills to move up the job ladder or enter new fields, and also sharpen their critical thinking and analytical abilities as well.
The Minister’s announcement will force a long and hard look at the intrinsic and extrinsic benefits provided by Master’s programmes.
In the scramble to ensure workplace relevance, what is the place for programmes, say, in Chinese literature or philosophy, as opposed to those in advanced manufacturing? This is an age-old debate that will likely be revived.
Another question that arises is that of personal motivation. There are individuals who enrol in Master’s programmes largely in order to gain more knowledge or to further a personal passion for a particular field of interest, without any intention to use the subsequent academic qualifications in a vocationally-oriented manner.
They may also be thought of as individuals who are seriously committed to lifelong learning. Should such individuals have to fork out a larger percentage of the course fees if state subsidies for such programmes are reduced?
Besides universities and the state pondering over these questions, members of the public will have to make serious and well-informed choices about whether to enrol in Master’s programmes, and in the event that they select a non-vocationally oriented programme, whether they are willing to pay higher fees in order to pursue their passion for learning.
Yet another prime consideration surrounds the adequacy of these proposed bite-sized courses in terms of job preparation. One big plus point of such courses is their ability to provide students a quick preview of various fields of study in order better to determine their aptitude or interest, without having to commit themselves to a more prolonged and expensive Master’s degree.
They might then be free to enrol later in a more sustained and substantial engagement with the content matter within the confines of a degree programme. However, some might question whether these short courses can in fact adequately equip students for the very real demands in the workplace.
Such concerns take on an added significance in the case of those professions, such as medicine and law, that have prided themselves on the existence of professional bodies with stringent accreditation requirements for individuals to be admitted to their ranks.
In summary, the policy announcement is not unexpected and makes sense in terms of ensuring that the autonomous universities play a more significant role in supporting policy initiatives such as the CET Masterplan and SkillsFuture.
Its major value may lie not only in its direct implications for funding and delivery arrangements for Master’s programmes, and for individuals’ efforts at lifelong learning and job mobility.
Instead, it has the potential to force a considered rethinking of the very purpose of education, the balance between individual choice and the state’s economic imperatives, and the connection between academic qualifications and access to various jobs and professions.
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