Higher education as a field of academic research became more developed and important in Singapore in the 1980s, when the city-state began placing more emphasis on reforming and restructuring its higher education sector to achieve the status as “Asia’s global education hub”. The past few decades have witnessed a significant growth of research and literature on higher education in Singapore, which have covered several trends of development and major issues arising from changes facing the higher education system in Singapore.
It is common for scholars to highlight the close relationship between higher education and the state, which used to rely on a strongly interventionist policy and implementation strategy to ensure that the higher education system served the national and economic interests of the young nation. In this sense, the universities were not independent from the state system, but had to work with the government in order to achieve goals of national development.
Consequently, research on higher education in Singapore is related to both national policy issues and international trends. In reviewing the major themes of higher education studies in Singapore, the focus should be placed on the relationship between higher education and Singapore’s developmental state, which has consistently played a significant role in boosting economic growth, facilitating export-led industrialisation, regulating market competition, propelling social progress, and strengthening racial harmony since Singapore’s independence in 1965. From the Singapore government’s perspective, major investment in the higher education system is deemed necessary, for it has contributed well to economic growth. The higher education system has a definite role to play in achieving national development priorities such that it has to be placed under direct policy guidance of the government, rather than for academics to be given a free hand in governing the higher education institutions themselves.
Meanwhile, the prominent role of the state in higher education is not only confined to scrutinising institutional performance – it is the most important financier for the higher education system. The Singapore government still large heavy financial subsidies to higher education institutions. University governance has been characterised by the term “centralised decentralisation”, which demonstrates the combination of centralisation and decentralistion strategies for reforming and restructuring higher education. The devolution of mainly financial and human resource control is matched by the centralisation of policy and decision-making power and strategic command in top management of higher education institutions with the state authority steering the sector from a distance.
Apart from addressing the prominent role of the state, most researchers note the impact of massification on Singapore’s higher education system. The policy of higher education expansion, which came after the first economic recession in Singapore in the mid-1980s, was considered a viable means of upgrading the skills of the workforce to facilitate economic restructuring. This massification of higher education was marked not only by a significant rise in student population, but also by a steady growth of higher education institutions (including both universities and polytechnics), and funding for research and development (R&D).
Most studies in higher education research revolve around striking a right balance between expansion and excellence amid the process of massification. While Singapore has witnessed a significant expansion of higher education, the quality of higher education is maintained through strict admission criteria, together with a highly competitive system for the selection of students. Even though the higher education system has been expanded, the government’s elitist belief largely remains unchanged, for universities are seen to be reserved for quality students without compromising admission standards and quality of students. This not only concerns the quality of students – a stringent recruitment policy is adopted to ensure that local and international academics with high professional and standards are engaged, in order to strengthen the academic leadership and scholarship in Singapore’s higher education institutions.
Another major theme which has been widely covered and delved into by researchers, especially from the mid-1990s onwards, is concerned with how globalisation would affect the development of higher education in the city-state. Whether or not Singapore will be able to preserve its competitive and comparative advantages in the global market, its universities definitely have a clear role to play – not only in producing highly skilled labour, but also, more importantly, new knowledge and ideas for the future of Singapore’s economy to be built on the Silicon Valley experience. This would provide the critical mass of advanced knowledge sources, including universities, advanced public and corporate research laboratories, venture capital, entrepreneurial talents, knowledge workers, specialised professional services, and sophisticated end users. In this context of globalisation, market forces and competition are the major elements to be considered in planning for the future development of higher education. The concept of “marketisation” aptly illustrates the situation facing most higher education institutions. More emphasis is placed on the importance of market relevance when higher education institutions have to develop their curriculum and pedagogy. Widespread attention is given to the employability of graduates and how much they earn, for they have become important performance indicators for higher education institutions, and whether they are responsive to market needs. Meanwhile, the Singapore government harnesses market forces to stimulate competition between local and foreign universities – not to cure the financial stringency problem, which does not exist in Singapore, but improve managerial efficiency and cost-effectiveness in higher education institutions.
Closely related to the trend of marketisation is how Singapore’s higher education has also been profoundly affected by internationalisation. The Global Schoolhouse project, which is not only an education policy but also a population and immigration policy of drawing foreign talents and students, has implications for transforming higher education. It sets education out as an export service industry to boost the reputation of Singapore as a global education hub in Asia, and to generate national income for the city-state. Through various forms of linkages and partnerships formed between local publicly-funded bedrock universities and branding world class universities from overseas, it was expected Singapore could be developed as a “global knowledge hub” dedicated to new knowledge production and innovation, R&D activities, and also university-industry linkages.
More recently, higher education research has focused more on the entrepreneurialisation, which has been interpreted as the way for higher education institutions to add a more entrepreneurial aspect to their research and educational activities. This includes the commercialisation of knowledge and research and the cultivation of entrepreneurial spirit among graduates, for instance. The development of a “entrepreneurial university model” is aimed to make higher education institutions to shoulder more responsibilities and make more contributions to the local economy with the government’s proactive role in providing infrastructure and financial resources as well as forging strategic cooperation and alliances between local higher education institutions and multinational corporations.
Higher education is well-resourced for it is substantially financed by the state and public money. For Singapore, the strong state’s commitment and its significant financial input are indispensable to a relatively rapid growth and development of higher education.
Nonetheless, it should also be noted that, besides substantial financial input, which is considered an investment rather an expense, it is necessary to have clear policy goals as well as swift and effective policy implementation strategy to enable such a rapid growth and improvement of higher education as what is shown in the case of Singapore during the time when many higher education institutions around the world have suffered from financial stringency.
In spite of these achievements, it is important to note some unresolved issues to be tackled in Singapore’s higher education system. There is always a question whether the state’s highly interventionist approach to govern higher education institutions would be able to deliver a genuinely entrepreneurial and innovative environment for academics, researchers and students to be cultivated with the entrepreneurial and innovative spirit. Given the state’s interventionist approach in higher education governance, it should not be surprising to foresee questions and debates on such matters as academic freedom and institutional autonomy, both of which are more likely to be considered by top universities overseas in determining if Singapore will be a suitable point for them to expand their presence in Asia.
There are also some unresolved issues facing Singapore’s higher education system in the coming years: How can innovation and entrepreneurial spirit be promoted in higher education institutions, which are still bounded by the heavy presence of the state? How can the dilemma between strong state intervention in higher education and the core academic values of academic freedom and institutional autonomy be solved? How can the existing ethnic disparities in higher education institutions, in particularly universities, be rectified? These questions can be included in the future research agenda for higher education studies in Singapore.
MICHAEL H. LEE
Michael H. Lee is Lecturer, Department of History, The Chinese University of Hong Kong.