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Tertiary and University Education in Singapore: A 40-Year Perspective. Professor Leo Tan Director National Institute of Education. The Historical Context. Only three noteworthy developments in tertiary education during the 150-odd years of colonial rule:

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Tertiary and University Education in Singapore:

A 40-Year Perspective

Professor Leo Tan


National Institute of Education

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The Historical Context

  • Only three noteworthy developments in tertiary

    education during the 150-odd years of colonial rule:

  • Establishment of Raffles College of Arts and Sciences, to mark Singapore’s centenary in 1919.

  • The progress made by the King Edward College of Medicine.

  • In 1949, the union of King Edward College of Medicine and Raffles College led to the founding of the University of Malaya

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The Historical Context

  • Besides the setting up of the Singapore Polytechnic and the Nanyang University in 1954 and 1955 respectively, there was hardly any significant development in tertiary education until the late 1970s

  • Nanyang University or Nantah, the first Chinese-language university in Southeast Asia, was set up with donations from people of all walks of life, from Singapore and the region.

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The Historical Context

  • Attention was centered on the role of the Nanyang University during the turbulent decades of 1950s and 1960s. The Nanyang University became a hotbed of trouble for communist student activity.

  • In 1962, the University of Singapore was established.

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The Historical Context

  • On 8 August 1980 the National University of Singapore (or NUS) was formed through a merger between the University of Singapore and Nanyang University (NU)

  • NU made way for the establishment of Nanyang Technological Institute in 1981 and its curriculum was geared towards producing practice-oriented engineers for the burgeoning Singapore economy.

  • The engineering curriculum at NUS, on the other hand, was more theoretical and research-based.

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The Historical Context

  • The decision to close down NU and set up of Nanyang Technological Institute was clearly a political one, although there were arguments based on more efficient resource allocation as well.

  • Finally, in 1991, the Nanyang Technological Institute, together with the National Institute of Education, became the Nanyang Technological University (or NTU).

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Statistic of Enrolment in Higher Education

  • In terms of enrolments in higher education


  • 1965, 3% and 2% of the relevant age cohort gained admission to local universities and polytechnics respectively.

  • 1989, 14% of the Primary 1 cohort was enrolled in local universities while 17% received polytechnic education.

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Statistic of Enrolment in Higher Education

  • 1990s - university enrolment rate grew at a relatively stable pace and rose to 21% in 1999.

  • About 60% of secondary school graduates enrolled in both the university and polytechnic sectors – comparable to participation rates of 40-60% in developed countries.

  • Recurrent expenditure on universities increased threefold from S$310 million to S$1,125 million between 1987 and 2001. As for polytechnics, it was a six-fold increase, from S$99 million to S$594 million during the same period.

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Key Issues for Sub-Saharan Countries

  • Sub-Saharan African countries, have made considerable progress in tertiary education. However, several key issues remain prominent:

  • Growth has been at the expense of more insightful planning and coordination that could have prevented duplication of functions among similar training institutions funded by different sponsors and the deterioration of teaching and research quality in university education.

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Key Issues for Sub-Saharan Countries

  • Tension between universities as traditional institutions for the advancement of knowledge and “truth” and as modern institutions to meet political demands of the state and develop solutions to domestic problems.

  • Prospect of intellectual extinction and no longer able to operate as “centres of excellence” or “think-tanks” for their own nations due to precarious financial situations.

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Singapore’s Experience

  • Singapore’s case illustrates the paramount role of the state at all levels of society.

  • The Singapore Government has skillfully used a state control model in regulating education changes to match manpower planning and make education a valued social institution:

  • The establishment of tertiary institutions is carefully planned.

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Singapore’s Experience

  • Direct appointment of vice-chancellors to the universities and forbidding the formation of trade union of academics.

  • Intervened in admission policies into the universities and polytechnics. Streaming into faculties and courses is practiced so as to have the right numbers by types of graduates.

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Singapore’s Experience

  • Since the late 1980s, the Singapore Government has started a process of decentralization and carried out reviews of its higher education system and reform strategies to strengthen and make higher education competitive:

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Singapore’s Experience

  • Curriculum is reviewed and emphasis is now placed on a broad-based cross-disciplinary university education.

  • More innovative pedagogy and assessment, with a focus on creative and critical thinking.

  • Advancement of knowledge has been strengthened through postgraduate and research education.

  • Quality assurance and management system put in place to enhance the institution as a centre for quality education.

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Singapore’s Experience

  • While the government had basically monopolized higher education provision since tertiary institutions were primarily state funded, it was always prepared to change – the role of the private sector was given a boost with the establishment of the Singapore Management University (SMU) in 2000.

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Singapore’s Experience

  • In order to encourage competition, avoid wasteful duplication and enjoy greater autonomy, the three universities – NUS, NTU and SMU – were urged to develop their own unique characteristics and niches.

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Singapore’s Experience

  • Corporatisation of NUS and NTU in 2006. This is a distinctive milestone in Singapore’s history of tertiary education.

  • Universities were encouraged to depend less on the state sector for financial resources and adopt the user-pays principle.

  • Own endowment fund programmes and actively seeking partnership with alumni, industry and local community as alternative sources of funding.

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  • “Education is a vital factor in determining a country’s wealth”.

  • Singapore’s education transformation, at schools and tertiary level, has shown that for the island republic to enjoy the fruits of the new knowledge-based economy, it must continue to:

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  • make heavy investment in education, from pre-school to tertiary education, as this is the key to sustainable development and,

  • have the State – led by capable and far-sighted individuals – performing a supervisory role in setting out general guidelines and regulatory frameworks governing education policies and developments.