Singapore's institutions are moving away from a cookie cutter approach to offer diverse choices - "a full range of square pegs, round pegs, and new and fantastical shapes" - to meet the rising and varied aspirations of Singaporeans, said Acting Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung yesterday.
But even as the education landscape expands and evolves, it must take into account the profound economic and social changes taking place in Singapore and around the world, said Mr Ong, who is in charge of higher education and skills, in his first public speech outlining the Government's policy considerations on the subject.
Speaking at the opening of the OECD-Singapore Conference on Higher Education Futures at the Resorts World in Sentosa, he said that "education systems exist and have meaning only in context" and these very contexts are evolving, with significant implications on higher education.
A company, for example, can be successful only if it is innovative and makes its products special to customers. The traditional lines between products and services are also getting blurred.
"Today, one can offer a taxi service without owning any vehicles, offer hotel services without owning any rooms or buildings. And soon we may have a big successful university that has no classrooms," he said.
Societies, too, are changing and technology is creating new opportunities. "Advances in technology have the potential to replace or transform jobs that not just involve manual work, but also cognitive and increasingly complex intellectual tasks," Mr Ong said.
"To prepare people well for this reality, education institutions must be well plugged into the needs of industries and the real and unpredictable world."
In the past, Singapore's higher education institutions were focused on serving the country's interests.
But to young people, education is often about choices - "where and how to channel their energies and passions", said Mr Ong.
"Every Singaporean counts, and he or she can count only if the system allows maximum play of what he or she is best at doing," he said.
Mr Ong said that while the Government expands the university sector to allow up to 40 per cent of every age cohort to attend university full time by 2020, it will not do so by adding "more of the same" but in the form of new programmes and new institutions.
"Diversity will not merely be in terms of course choices, but will be multi-dimensional," said Mr Ong.
SkillsFuture, launched last year to provide Singaporeans with opportunities to develop to their fullest potential throughout life, is a key part of this change.
Tertiary institutions must respond to allow individuals to "intersperse" study and work throughout their lives and not confine learning to the classrooms. Much of the learning will be done online and at the workplace.
The definition of merit and success must be broadened, said Mr Ong.
But what is beyond the Govern-ment's control is how society regards and recognises skilled workers and craftsmen.
"This will have to be part of our continuing evolution as a society," he said.
The two-day conference is attended by 500 leaders and experts in academia and public policy to discuss trends and challenges in higher education.
Mr Ong is one of two Acting Ministers for Education.
Mr Ng Chee Meng is Acting Education Minister (Schools).