Speech by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at Yale-NUS College groundbreaking ceremony

6 July 2012

“A New Model of Education,
A New Pathway for Excellence”

Mr Wong Ngit Liong
Chairman of the NUS Board of Trustees

Mdm Kay Kuok
Chair of the Yale-NUS Governing Board

Professor Richard C. Levin
President of Yale University

Professor Tan Chorh Chuan
President of NUS

Professor Pericles Lewis
President of Yale-NUS College

Distinguished guests

Ladies and gentlemen

1.     I am very happy to be back here to witness the groundbreaking for the Yale-NUS College complex. The last time I was here was for the groundbreaking of the University Town. There was nothing except some grass and a machine to drill a hole in the ground. Today I am back and that hole has blossomed into many structures. And I hope what we start today will blossom into something equally beautiful and equally significant.

2.     For us in Singapore, education is one of our biggest priorities. You know the mantra: We are a small country with no natural resources. We succeed only by maximising our human potential. And good education is essential for that and for assuring ourselves of good jobs. But more than that, education is an important pillar of our social mobility and a means for our people to achieve their aspirations.

3.     We are doing our utmost to provide every Singaporean a good education. We have built a corps of dedicated, capable, and well-trained teachers, principals, lecturers, vice chancellors, presidents. We have provided them the facilities, the resources and the authority to do their job. We have tried to recognise the different talents and interests of our students, and have created a progressive and pragmatic education system, one which fosters wider values of lifelong education and self-improvement.

4.     Generally, I think the education system has done well. Certainly, by international comparisons, we do well in the rankings – on PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) which is done by OECD; on TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study). And if you look at the top universities in the world, Singaporeans are significantly over-represented, even though these universities have national quotas for admission. And often, you see as many Singaporeans there as you will from countries 30, 40, 50 times our size. The WEF Global Competitiveness report ranks our higher education system as second in the world. But it is not just the universities; our polytechnics and ITEs (Institute of Technical Education) too are highly regarded. Last year, polytechnic and ITE students won five Gold Medals at the WorldSkills Competition in London. And this year, I see we are hosting the WorldSkills Competition here. The graduates – whether ITE, polytechnic or university graduates – are highly-sought after, and they get good jobs and good jobs soon, which is quite a contrast to many other countries where graduates can be produced abundantly but jobs sadly somewhat less so, leading to high youth unemployment and quite high graduate unemployment. Our system is not perfect – parents and students are still stressed about tests and key examinations; tuition has become a minor national obsession – but despite that, overall I would say we are not doing too badly.

5.     But the demands on our education system are changing. It is a more complex and fast-moving world. In America, according to one estimate, two-thirds of students go on to do work that has not yet been invented (when they entered school), this according to a New York Times article last year . Certainly, they will work for companies which nobody has dreamt up and which have not started up yet. Technology is also revolutionising the methods of instruction. If you go online, you get coursera.org, you get khanacademy.org, and MIT and Harvard are launching edX. Material is available; the means to convey it, impart it, assess it and prove that you actually learnt something. And you can refresh the information at your leisure, and almost for free. That’s going to change the world. So students have to not just only absorb knowledge, but they have to learn to proactively seek, synthesise and make sense of the information and decide what information they need to look for in order to put the picture together.

6.     Therefore, we have to continue to improve our education system, dramatically, continually, every year. We want to make every school a good school, especially the schools in our heartlands, so that every kid, whatever his background, whatever his parents’ education, whichever school he goes to, can have his potential identified, built up and transformed. We will strengthen our ITEs and polytechnics, so that students there also get a rigorous and well-rounded education, one that develops their interest and prepares them well for their careers and their future upgrading. And we will create multiple pathways of success, not only in academics but also excellence in many other fields – arts, sports, dance, music and so on. And we need most of all to nurture the students’ character and values, not just exam results.

7.     One important segment of this system is our universities. Every family in Singapore wants their child to get a degree. And if you look at the enrolment in our universities in the last generation, it has gone up five, six times. In 1980, only 5% of students went to publicly-funded university; today 27% do. And soon, it will be 30% going to the publicly-funded universities, and that is just NUS, NTU, SMU, or SIM. And it doesn’t even count those who pursue their degrees overseas or in the private education sector. If you add those in, about half our people in their 20s have university degrees of one kind or another. But for as many as those who make it to university, still more aspire to such a university education.

8.     Therefore, we have expanded and diversified our university sector. We started with NUS, then NTU. Then we built SMU – the management university. Then we looked for a fourth university and we are building SUTD (Singapore University of Technology and Design). We encouraged international partnerships in niche areas, like the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music here at NUS with the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University; we have the Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School that is between NUS and Duke University in North Carolina; we have the Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine coming, between NTU and Imperial College in London.

9.     But we will continue to enlarge our tertiary sector not by doing more of the same, but by further diversifying the tertiary landscape to meet our students’ wider interests and our society’s changing and diversifying needs. NUS, NTU and SMU each is different, ditto SUTD, ditto SIT – not quite a university yet, but headed in that direction. We have Minister of State Lawrence Wong studying a further new pathway to applied degrees, and we hope he will come to some conclusion pretty soon.

10.     Yale-NUS presents a new offering in this Singapore higher education landscape. It offers broad-based, multidisciplinary undergraduate curriculum, one which we hope will develop critical thinking, appreciation for complexity, communications and leadership skills; one which will have an immersive residential college system, following the traditions of Yale – just several hundred years old, Oxford – which is very, very old, and Cambridge – which is only a little bit younger, 800 years and counting, to promote personal and intellectual growth. And a system which we hope will combine the best of East and West, that takes the best of US liberal arts education from Yale, New Haven, adds NUS’ distinctive Asian and global strengths, adapts this mix to our different social and cultural contexts, and creates an experience which is more relevant to students from Singapore and Asia, or most of whom will be from Singapore and Asia. This Yale-NUS College will give high-calibre students from Singapore another option to pursue degree at home, instead of going overseas. We hope it will also attract top students from the region and some of these, after graduation, we hope will have had fond memories and seen good opportunities and will strike roots in Singapore. Some may not, but even if they go home or go somewhere else, they will form a valuable network of friends of Singapore in their home countries and around the world. The rest of our university system will also benefit from Yale-NUS, because there will be innovative pedagogies, there will be learning approaches which will spread and many more students will benefit. And even if other parts of the system are slow to pick up, students will pass the word, there will be competitive pressure and Facebook will do its magic. That is the way things change in the world nowadays. We have seen this with the Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School who has only got a few students but its novel teaching methods have catalysed changes in the other schools – in the medical school in NUS and more broadly.

11.     This Yale-NUS College is a major venture for both sides. For Yale, it’s the first new college to bear its name in 300 years. For Singapore, it’s a new model of university education. Indeed for Singaporeans too, it’s a new kind of education exposure at university. Furthermore, it’s one-of-its-kind in the world. It is not a replica of Yale, but a bold effort to create something new and different. Therefore it’s not without risk, but we believe this is the right way forward and Singapore Government is fully committed to the College’s success. I am glad that Yale, especially under its President Prof Levin, has also given and is continuing to give strong backing to the project.

12.     I am happy that Yale-NUS College has made such progress in the short time since the launch a little over a year ago. It has a strong leadership team under Prof Pericles Lewis. And already, the College has recruited over 30 faculty from around the world and many high-quality applicants (to study at the College), including several Singaporeans who are turning down overseas places in order to study in Singapore. The College has attracted strong community support from companies offering internships, from foundations offering scholarships or sponsoring academic chairs, and from donors who are giving generously.

13.     I am confident that we can continue to build on this strong start and create a new model of academic excellence which will add to the credit and pride of both Yale and NUS.

14.     So I wish the College every success. Go forth and achieve great things.

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