Singapore Institute of Technology Bill

The following is my speech delivered in parliament on 17 Feb 2014:

Mr Deputy Speaker, I rise in support of this Bill.

The Prime Minister has announced last year the creation of two new local universities, the Singapore Institute of Technology (or SIT) and the Singapore Institute of Management University (or UniSIM). They will be Singapore’s 5th and 6th universities, certainly a big change from when I was a student and there was only the National University of Singapore (or NUS). Last year, then-Senior Minister of State for Education, Lawrence Wong had said Singapore’s economy has room for more graduates.

Indeed the desire of our local population for higher studies has long been there. In 2011, in response to my parliamentary question, MOE revealed that there were about 41,000 Singaporean Citizens and Permanent Residents who were pursuing undergraduate degrees at the private universities and Private Education Institutions. For every local studying in a publicly funded local autonomous university, there was another local studying in a private university here. The number of locals pursuing private undergraduate studies is even larger when we consider those studying overseas, as MOE did not track this number.

These recent moves will see more locals being supported in this aspiration with more government-funded university places for them.

Last month, I had a chat with a young banker named Lawrence. Lawrence told me that he was playful when young and just managed to make it into the polytechnic. It was at some point during his polytechnic studies that he decided he needed to work harder. He graduated from the polytechnic but was unable to secure a place at NUS or at the Nanyang Technological University (or NTU). He said he was fortunate that the Singapore Management University (or SMU) allowed him to take the SAT examinations. He qualified through SAT, worked even harder and graduated with 2nd upper honours. He has now worked at two international banks and is a proud father of two. He was grateful for that break to do his studies in a local university as the cost for private university would have been very high. SMU was then the new third university offering more chances at university education to people like Lawrence.

SIT was established in 2009 primarily to allow polytechnic graduates to top-up their diplomas to an external university degree in a field related to their polytechnic studies in targeted growth fields. With this Bill, SIT will now be a university able to offer undergraduate and postgraduate programmes of its own.

What is the ‘Institute of Technology’ brand? People would associate a learning institution with such a name with industrial, engineering, sciences and technology capabilities. I did a google search on the term ‘Institute of Technology’. It threw up a long list of universities and polytechnics from all over the world. These range from lesser known educational institutions to those with long and rich histories and which are highly ranked in the world. The Swiss have long established themselves as a centre of technological and scientific excellence. Their two federal universities that are classified as Institutes of Technology are highly ranked globally. They have produced many Nobel laureates, including Albert Einstein. Germany too has a strong engineering and technology history. They also have highly sought after Institutes of Technology. The nine largest and most renowned technical universities in Germany have formed the TU9 German Institutes of Technology. There is also a family of Institutes of Technology in India whose alumnus run Fortune 500 companies. Their graduates are highly sought after by top technology firms around the world. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is widely recognised as one of the best universities in the world. It began humbly in 1861 with three principles: (1) the educational value of useful knowledge, (2) the necessity of “learning by doing,” and (3) integrating a professional and liberal arts education at the undergraduate level. I like its strong emphasis on the practical aspects of learning.

What will SIT, a newcomer in the business of university education evolve into? How will the brand of ‘Institute of Technology’ in Singapore be defined?

I wish to share some practical concerns for SIT going forward.

First is the lack of a single campus, unlike the other universities. A physical campus is important to generate a sense of identity and belonging amongst the students. SIT facilities are decentralised across the different polytechnics, dispersed throughout Singapore. Students will be at the polytechnic where their programmes are being offered. They feel a greater sense of identity with the polytechnic rather than with SIT. SIT also does not have hostel living which NUS and NTU have, which can provide important experiences for university students in their total development.

While I understand the history of SIT and why it was decentralised at its formation, it may be useful to consider a central campus in the future when it becomes feasible. Meanwhile, SIT may have to work harder at building its identity amongst students through programmes that may cut across physical facilities.

Second, SIT will face intense challenge for students from the more established local comprehensive research-based universities in the form of NUS and NTU, niche universities like SMU, SUTD and Yale-NUS College and from UniSIM, a teaching university with a longer history through its Open University background and its association with SIM. This is especially so when SIT opens its programmes to A level school-leavers.

This is the challenge for the SIT pioneers; its management, faculty staff and students to rise up to in order to establish the branding and recognition for SIT.

Starting afresh will allow SIT to explore its own niches.

As an applied and practice-oriented university, the role of the industry will be important to SIT. I believe strong links with the industry will be necessary, such as attachment programmes and experiential learning. SIT’s current batch of students are likely to be more matured in age than NUS, NTU and SMU and many may have work experiences.

SIT can continue to play a useful role for working people wanting to acquire a degree. To cater to such students, SIT can explore mode of operations that fit such students better. This can include shorter quarterly academic terms of 3 months. Where practical, it can also explore the sandwich degree arrangement where students will need to undertake a placement year or longer internship in the industry, typically in the 2nd or 3rd year of studies.

SIT could play a role in strengthening Singapore’s technical capabilities.  I have previously shared in this House of my concerns of our SMEs not able to grow under the shadows of MNCs and GLCs. This may also be an opportunity to help grow our medium enterprises in key industries we wish to develop. SIT could be required to focus on working with emerging medium enterprises so that the undergraduates, in their most explorative and creative years, could help inject fresh ideas and innovation into the medium enterprises.

Switzerland and Germany have strong vocational and technical education. Their technical universities have strong history of linkages with the industries, allowing the country to build up their industrial abilities such that their SMEs can build quality products desired worldwide. To make their degree more relevant to the targeted industries and the graduates more marketable, SIT could explore external validation where possible by industry associations. In Germany, vocational graduates are highly respected because the graduates often enter into guild-like professional associations that continue to guide post-graduation career development and also collective bargaining. While this is beyond the scope of SIT, the government could think of setting up the infrastructure to promote and support these developments. Support can include providing training, assistance and even grants to help medium sized companies dedicate resources for collaboration with technical universities and to spur these companies to develop rigorous internship and apprenticeship programmes.

Next, some of our local universities may have larger than average proportions of international students such as Yale-NUS College. In an answer to my parliamentary question last year, MOE said that higher proportions of international students are required for specialty colleges to provide diversity for the type of courses that they run. SIT can focus on locals and to gear them for the skilled jobs needed to help build stronger local industries. Also, in the globalized and higher competitive job and economic environment of the 21st century, it will be important to impart the mindset for creativity and innovation to the SIT graduates.

Finally, I will end with the continuation of the story of Lawrence, the banker whom I spoke about earlier. He did not have good academic results earlier in life and just barely made it through to the then-new 3rd university, SMU through an alternative admission pathway. He shared that he now feels he is as good as the graduates of the other established universities and had been able to prove that in his career. SIT will certainly face a lot of challenge competing with our other local universities in order to establish itself. I look forward to a ‘can-do’ spirit in its pioneers to define the Institute of Technology brand in their own way to make it one that will be as desired as the rest of our universities.

Thank you.


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