THESE are exciting times to be a tertiary student. With the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) opening this April and the nascent liberal arts collaboration between Yale University and the National University of Singapore (NUS) bearing fruit, there is a plethora of domestic options for any student making critical decisions about his or her future.
Yet many promising young talents continue to flock overseas. Upward social mobility is partly culpable, with the children of baby boomers finding their parents increasingly willing to shell out for what is seen as an investment in the future. But this alone cannot explain the trend.
The key issue here is a gulf in quality, or more precisely, the perception of one, between local varsities and options overseas. The Public Service Commission (PSC) and various statutory boards continue to fund scholarships for students to study overseas at Oxbridge or the exalted Ivy League universities. In 2011, five of 72 PSC scholarship students stayed in Singapore. If the elite public service institutions continue to favour these institutions, can we expect Singaporeans to assume otherwise?
Local varsities have made significant gains in university league tables, with NUS ranked 28th and Nanyang Technological University (NTU) 59th in the latest QS World University Rankings. Despite this, decades-old perceptions are hard to break.
Most young Singaporeans are happy with local institutions. But many continue to pine for studies abroad. There is the stereotype that the academic culture overseas is one of 'personal discovery' as opposed to study and rote. Others want to escape sheltered Singapore and years of parental supervision. The long histories and traditions of many foreign universities are a draw. Studying overseas can also satiate wanderlust.
But a foreign education is not without its detractors. Going overseas can weaken social bonds and future networks here. Since 2009, SingTel and Keppel Corp have offered only local scholarships believing that this prepares future employees better for a career in a Singapore- based company. Studying medicine locally, for instance, will ensure familiarity with the tropical diseases and problems that plague Singaporeans, who will form the bulk of their future patients. Singapore's universities also boast top-tier departments and experts in various subjects such as South-east Asian studies.
Local varsities offer ample opportunities for independent living and cultural exchange for students via student exchange programmes and internships to places from Silicon Valley to Bangalore.
With more foreign students and lecturers, Singapore lecture halls and classrooms are fast becoming melting pots offering an eclectic mix of cultures and traditions. Local universities have poured millions into scholarships and programmes to lure the brightest students.
But Singapore's universities are pitted against the world's best, and monetary or home advantages alone will not tilt the equation in their favour. More can be done. With the introduction of Yale-NUS, the other universities should incorporate aspects of liberal arts education into their curricula. These include schooling students in a greater breadth of subjects before specialising, and placing a greater emphasis on independent thought and critical thinking. NTU's new University Scholars Programme does just that. But NTU's USP along with similar offerings from NUS and the Singapore Management University (SMU) are highly exclusive programmes. The forward-thinking approach pioneered by such programmes should be available to all students.
NUS' University Town and the proposed four-year residential programme at Yale-NUS are also steps in the right direction. Bringing the traditional collegiate experience to our own backyards will appeal to those who desire independent living on campus.
Princeton University's motto of being 'in the nation's service and in the service of all nations' correctly identifies the way forward. Reducing the home-student bias in undergraduate admissions will assure applicants that their potential classmates are the best in the world, and not just in Singapore. Classrooms must represent the world, not merely a specific demographic. This may be a challenge since our universities are publicly funded and taxpayers rightly demand that Singaporeans be given priority.
The best students often place an emphasis on exclusivity and branding. If a university is blithely ordinary or common, they might think twice about attending. The NUS Faculty of Law's recent more inclusive admissions process must be carried out judiciously without sacrificing academic merit, if it is not to compromise the institution. There is a delicate balance between diversity and exclusivity that our universities should do well not to upset.
Singapore's market is too small to support a few excellent universities, and it might be desirable to channel resources to a single institution that can compete for the best faculty and students.
As a society, Singapore must support our universities. A visit to Cambridge, Massachusetts or Ann Arbor, Michigan offers a glimpse of how the town or city functions around its university. Structures and systems must be in place to allow for hobbies outside the classroom, be it attending a Broadway play or a National Gallery visit. The vibrancy of society at large must attract and cater to those with diverse aspirations and interests.
Studying locally must not be seen as uncool, especially when students compare themselves with their counterparts abroad. Our local graduates need to be prized for their talent around the world, and their degrees recognised in countries as diverse as China and Russia.
University education is a massive undertaking. Every student has his or her own interpretation of the perfect college experience, be it Columbia's big city hustle and bustle or Oxford's riverside calm. Local varsities will need to offer comparable complete packages or even surpass those offered by the very best.
These are exciting times indeed.