Is Singapore the world’s education laboratory?

How an ageing population and slow growth is driving dramatic education reform in Singapore – with fascinating results.  
Governments in many countries are talking about reforming their education systems to better equip graduates seeking work and to provide business with the skilled labour force for which it cries out.

Whether in Australia or Britain, India or Indonesia there are earnest declarations about the pressing need to ensure education systems serve social and economic imperatives more effectively.

In most cases the rhetoric is not matched with consequential reform action.

Singapore is a fascinating exception. It has launched a dramatic drive to reshape its post-secondary education system.

The reform push is not a passing thing: Singapore is taking these bold policy steps because it is being squeezed by demographic decline and sustained weak economic growth.

A ‘super aged’ society

The demographic challenge is severe. Singapore is very rapidly becoming a ‘super aged’ society. Other countries are grappling with the problem of an ageing society, but the change in Singapore is coming about very much faster than elsewhere. And strong public opposition to large scale immigration means that simply importing more foreign workers is not an electorally tolerable option.

These demographic pressures have been brought sharply into focus by the country’s uncharacteristic encounter with prolonged sluggish economic performance. Last year GDP growth was at its lowest and the unemployment rate was at its highest since the global financial crisis.

This amalgam of pressures, supplemented by the universal concerns about technological disruption and anti-globalization, has yielded remarkable governmental focus and resolve.

An ambitious national plan

In March, a top-level task force – the Committee on the Future Economy – delivered a comprehensive set of strategies, including education policy, to reposition the economy. It is an extraordinarily ambitious exercise in national planning.

Exceptionally high investment in support of elite universities has been a distinctive feature of Singapore’s education strategy for many years but what is striking about this reform is its emphasis on applied education and skills training.

A new super entity – SkillsFuture Singapore – has been created to guides people at all stages of their career with targeted education and skills programs, and to work closely with industry bodies to ensure alignment.

Applied universities and polytechnics have been given a major boost. There is a shift in emphasis from exhorting people to pursue academic distinction, to encouraging work-relevant learning and the need for continual reskilling.

And all Singaporeans over 25 have been given a S$500 credit to support pursuit of (approved) programs.

A window on the future?

Many academic institutions around the world resist the idea that the core role of a university is to prepare students for employment. But in Singapore, this idea is being given a sharper edge.

I take a keen interest in this, because my university has a very long-standing commitment to Singapore. But anyone interested in future trends in higher education should pay attention, because Singapore provides a window on the future.

Simply put, Singapore is now at the forefront of education policy innovation. Arguably, it has become the world’s leading ‘laboratory’ for bold education policy experiments.

Will this push work? Certainly Singapore has the political capability and budgetary resources to launch a systematic campaign of this sort. But after listening to a visiting senior Singapore official outline the changes this week, I found myself mulling on several questions.

Will, for example, the parents of school leavers look past traditional considerations of academic prestige?

How will students off all ages and stages respond to these sweeping plans and inducements?

And how will universities and other education providers, along with employers themselves behave?

Stay tuned. And watch the policy experiment play out.

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