Search for a report, a publication, an expert...
Institut Montaigne features a platform of Expressions dedicated to debate and current affairs. The platform provides a space for decryption and dialogue to encourage discussion and the emergence of new voices.

University Challenged - Lessons to Learn From Singapore

University Challenged - Lessons to Learn From Singapore
 Mariana Losada
Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the National University of Singapore
 Reuben Wong
Associate Vice President at the National University of Singapore

The French higher education and research (HER) system has been facing many challenges for several years: demographic influx, lack of autonomy of institutions, underfunding, lack of attractiveness... The Covid-19 crisis has exacerbated these structural difficulties for French universities, which are under severe strain. But is the French case unique? To explore the question, Institut Montaigne is launching a blogpost series to shed light on the challenges and opportunities faced by other HER systems worldwide. For the first article of our series, we dive into Singapore's HER system and what to learn from it.

Apart from a shared passion for food, France and Singapore do not have much in common. Located at the southern tip of the Malay peninsula, the "Little Red Dot" is an island state of 718.3 square kilometers - the smallest country in Southeast Asia. It is also a young country that only turned 55 last year. Strategically located but with next to no natural resources, Singapore has invested heavily in its human capital, making Singapore's education system one of the most praised in the world. 

Its position connecting the Indian Ocean with the South China Sea allowed the city-state to become one of the busiest ports in the globe and a real hub for Southeast Asia. Spotlessly clean Changi airport, where a flight used to take off or land every 80 seconds in pre-pandemic times, is a source of national pride. With the efficiency that characterizes Singapore, Changi airport connects the island with the entire world, making it one of the top-10 air travel mega hubs in the world. 

Being success-oriented, Singapore's ambition to climb up the ladder is also present in the field of Higher Education and Research (HER). Excellence stands as a priority and during the past twenty years, the city-state has been deploying enormous efforts to make Singapore the "Boston of the East". 

As an education hub, the city-state has always been very open to international collaborations but also very pragmatic in its choices. As a consequence, for many Singaporean institutions, harnessing the complexity of the French system has not always been an easy task compared to other HER systems. 

The report on French Higher Education and Research, released on April 8 by Institut Montaigne, offers an interesting diagnosis of the situation and proposes relevant solutions to overcome some of the most pressing issues in French HER. In light of this report, we hope to provide an overview of the evolution of the Singaporean HER landscape and to address the main challenges that will need to be faced in the post-pandemic world. 

Attracting international talent to the tropics

The "Global Schoolhouse" initiative was launched in August 2003 by George Yeo, Minister for Trade and Industry at the time, to make Singapore a world education center "providing educational programs of all types and at all levels" and with the capacity to attract "an interesting mix of students from all over the world."

To achieve this goal, three main targets were established: to attract leading foreign institutions into Singapore, to develop Singapore's local institutions and enterprises, and to bring a large number of international students to Singapore. 

To that end, the Economic Development Board (EDB) offered substantial economic incentives to bring prestigious higher education institutions to the city-state. Despite a promising start, when institutions such as Chicago's Booth School of Business, NYU Tisch School of the Arts, INSEAD, and Johns Hopkins University set up campuses in Singapore, some of these schools were not able to thrive in the city-state and were obliged to close after a few years. The global financial crash in 2008 and other structural conditions, together with a backlash against immigration, became an obstacle to pursue the future-ready dream. INSEAD, though, has benefited from the vibrancy of the region and decided to maintain its Asia campus in Singapore. ESSEC, another French business school, followed and opened a full-fledged campus around the same area in Ayer Rajah. 

Although with mixed success, the Global Schoolhouse paved the way for the Campus for Research Excellence And Technological Enterprise (CREATE), another initiative launched by the National Research Foundation (NRF) under the Prime's Minister Office, which allowed Singapore to remain attractive for international institutions. 

CREATE targeted top research universities to bring their talent to the island to work on key Singapore-related matters (the environment, energy, human and urban systems) in exchange for abundant resources and a supportive work environment. Nine top institutions are now part of the team: MIT, ETH Zürich, the University of Cambridge, Berkeley, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Technische Universität München, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Illinois University, and the CNRS - the last institution to join and the only one that is not a university. 

From rising stars to world-class: Singapore’s autonomous universities

Singapore is now home to six local autonomous universities and the local higher education landscape has evolved very rapidly in the past forty years.

Meritocracy and the pursuit of excellence have always been crucial for Singapore. The two comprehensive universities, the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU) have become highly reputable institutions ranked highly in the university rankings and attracting a lot of attention to the city-state. 

Meritocracy and the pursuit of excellence have always been crucial for Singapore.

Having only a handful of universities in a small territory, the relationship between the local universities diverges from the friction that prevails among French institutions. It can be described as a pragmatic balance of competition as a driver, to thrive in their respective fields, and collaboration as a strategy, to support Singapore’s interests. 

Similar to what is happening in France now, NUS, the flagship university, resulted from the merger of the University of Singapore and Nanyang University (a private institution teaching in Chinese) in 1980. The objective was to create a stronger entity and to promote English as Singapore’s main language of education. NUS became a not-for-profit company in 2006. A governance model and sustained government support have been crucial to its success.The new status allowed the university the capacity to set up its own strategy and to act quickly, to compete for talent globally, and to adapt to societal challenges to stay relevant. Benefiting from this autonomy to work efficiently, but still receiving over 60% of its funding from the government, the university has to align to the country’s interests, contributing to national research and innovation needs, as well as to remain accountable. 

To ensure that every Singaporean student has an equal opportunity for tertiary education, all Singapore citizens will be automatically awarded a Ministry of Education Tuition Grant without the need for application. Depending on the discipline of study, citizens receive a tuition grant which subsidises between 65-90% of their tuition fees, making tertiary education highly affordable. Singapore Permanent Residents (SPR) and International students (IS) also receive tuition grants, although at lower quantum, are still generous by international standards. A report from 2019 revealed that about S$238 million a year is spent on scholarships and tuition grants for these two groups of students. However, the Ministry has assured that no Singaporean student is ever displaced from an institute of higher learning because of an international student. SPR and IS on tuition grants are contractually obliged to work in a Singapore entity for three years upon graduation, which provides them local employment opportunities. This is a key aspect of education, especially in a globalized and multicultural world. Many eventually make Singapore their home and become part of its valuable global network.

Emerging stronger after Covid-19 

Anticipation is a keyword in Singapore. When the first cases of the novel coronavirus disease appeared in January 2020, the memories of SARS stirred public action and the country was quickly mobilized to face the new challenge.

Following the government guidelines, the local universities responded quickly and established a coordinated and clear plan that allowed them to manage the situation and to keep Covid-19 away from campus. The measures included: repatriating all Singaporean students who were abroad, either as part of an exchange program or as full-time students in foreign universities; implementing a coordinated effort to deliver online courses; setting up a business continuity plan for the staff and requesting all the teaching and research staff to work from home. Besides these measures, the entire university community was obliged to declare their temperature twice a day and movement restrictions across zones within the university were imposed to prevent the spread of the virus. Concerned about how this unprecedented crisis would affect the students' and staff's mental health, the university has also been providing resources to cope with the situation and focus on their wellbeing.

Anticipation is a keyword in Singapore [...] As a future-ready nation, Singapore is preparing for the next chapter. How to stay relevant and be prepared for the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the next unexpected crisis?

While France is currently experiencing the third lockdown, life in Singapore has almost returned to normal. Most students and staff are back on campus, and the country is getting ready to face the post-pandemic world. A new initiative, Emerging Stronger Together, has been launched by the Ministry of Trade and Industry to convert the current challenges into opportunities. 

As a future-ready nation, Singapore is preparing for the next chapter. How to stay relevant and be prepared for the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the next unexpected crisis?

Lifelong learning has been identified as a major issue for the coming decade. For that purpose, NUS launched in 2018 the NUS Lifelong Learners (NUS L³) programme to make student enrolment valid for 20 years from the point of undergraduate admission. NUS L³ provides access to skills-based, industry-relevant courses necessary for upskilling or reskilling so that their alumni remain competitive in the job market and contribute to the needs of the future economy.

Another more recent innovative initiative has been the creation of the NUS College of Humanities and Sciences with the aim to provide interdisciplinary and broad-based education to all undergraduate students. Students are encouraged to stimulate their creativity and design their own pathways, exploring different disciplines. They will also need to follow a 13-module core curriculum including subjects such as Artificial Intelligence, digital and data literacy, writing, design thinking, and communities and engagement. 

With a tropical climate and no seasons, time flies in Singapore, and life never stops. Still a young country, it continues to grow, learn and unlearn to adapt to new challenges.




Receive Institut Montaigne’s monthly newsletter in English