SkillsFuture in Singapore

Last week on IEN, Helen Janc Malone, Santiago Rincón-Gallardo and Kristen Kew previewed their newly published book, Future Directions of Educational Change. This week, Pak Tee Ng provides highlights from his chapter in the book, focusing on the development of lifelong learning efforts in Singapore.  Pak Tee Ng is Associate Dean, Leadership Learning at the National Institute of Education (NIE), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. Pak Tee’s latest work on the Singaporean education system and his latest book Learning from Singapore: The Power of Paradoxes is also summarized in his recent IEN post for the Leading Futures series, The Education Paradoxes of Singapore.

Introduction

I believe many people have studied or are studying the Singapore education system. But the spotlight tends to shine on the country’s primary and secondary education sector, given its stellar performance in international comparative tests.  The efforts aimed at promoting lifelong learning beyond the schooling years are often overlooked. However, if one examines the reforms in the education system carefully, one will discern that Singapore has been implementing a suite of strategies with aims much broader and future-oriented than merely having a good schooling system. When I published my book “Learning from Singapore: The Power of Paradoxes” in 2017, I explained this point and further explained that the standing in international comparative tests was not Singapore’s report card. Education for the young, continued learning for adults, and the good of the nation are the real objectives.

Therefore, when Helen Malone, Santiago Rincón-Gallardo and Kristin Kew invited me to contribute a chapter to their latest book “Future Directions of Educational Change”, I was delighted to do so and to present a more detailed account of the lifelong learning efforts in Singapore, a national imperative for the foreseeable future.

Lifelong Learning and SkillsFuture

Lifelong learning in Singapore has always been critical to the country’s development since its independence in 1965. The articulation of that became very clear in 1979 with the institution of the Skills Development Endowment Fund to encourage workers to upgrade their skills.  Government initiatives such as the Lifelong Learning Endowment Fund (LLF) in 2001 and the establishment of the Singapore Workforce Development Agency (WDA) in 2003 further showed the government’s commitment to promote learning beyond schooling. In 2015, all these strategies were brought into an umbrella initiative called SkillsFuture, with a high-powered SkillsFuture Council set up to champion lifelong learning and adopt a multi-sectoral approach to advance the movement. As part of this movement, a SkillsFuture Credit of S$500, that will be topped up at regular intervals, was given to all Singaporeans aged 25 and above.  This amounted to a budget of more than S$1 billion from 2017 to 2020.  Citizens can use this credit to subsidize their continuing education through a range of government-supported courses.

Latest Development in SkillsFuture

The latest developments in SkillsFuture show us how Singapore addresses the effect of disruptive technologies on the workforce. For example, all Singaporean workers can gain the foundational knowledge and skills to cope with the impact of emerging technologies through SkillsFuture. At a more advance level, the SkillsFuture for Digital Workplace Programme was launched in October 2017, with topics covering data interpretation and cybersecurity, to benefit a hundred thousand Singaporeans over the next three years. Results for SkillsFuture overall have been quite encouraging.  380 thousand Singaporeans benefitted from SkillsFuture programmes in 2016, 30 thousand more than 2015.

Support for those still in school is tremendous as well. Budget for post-secondary institutions (PSEIs) bursaries increased in 2017 from S$100 million to S$150 million. Adjustments were made to eligibility criteria so that more students would be eligible to apply for support to participate in SkillsFuture programmes. The number of students who will benefit from the bursary in deepening their skills is projected to increase from 12,000 to 71,000 students. In line with SkillsFuture, there is a shift in the philosophy of higher education to embrace ‘learning by doing’. The universities have begun creating and delivering ‘learning by doing’ programmes, in partnership with various industry stakeholders.

Mindset challenges

The toughest challenge yet for SkillsFuture is in changing people’s mindset regarding the relative value of skills versus qualifications, as Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung articulated:

First, all of us – parents, students, educators – we will need to move our focus away from a relentless pursuit of academic grades, to the larger view of human development… Second, employers must likewise do the same. Hire based on interest, skills, and cultural fit, and not just based on grades and qualifications… Third, society needs to recognise and celebrate a wide range of successes – not just managers and leaders, but also entrepreneurs, craftsmen, technicians, sportsmen, artists.

The provisions of SkillsFuture are generous and continuously calibrated. The challenge to SkillsFuture, however, is a cultural and systemic one.

Conclusion

Against a backdrop of increased global competition and disruptive innovations, Singapore is not leaving it to chance that a new learning ecosystem will emerge, one that favors lifelong learning and timely acquisition of deep skills over a chase for paper qualifications. In discussing the direction of educational change around the world, it is noteworthy that SkillsFuture champions a new normal of skills over grades in Singapore, one that will prove critical to the nation’s continued prosperity.

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