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Internationalisation in Two Singapore Universities: Mirroring the Growth and Needs of a Nation

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The Singapore Ministry of Education (MOE) has played a central role in nurturing and producing human capital required for the Singapore economy. In documents or websites published by the Singapore government on its economic or education policies, it has been noted that there has not been a standalone internationalisation policy in education because the notion of internationalisation is embedded in the country’s outlook and strategic economic direction.


Internationalisation in higher education has often been a direct outcome of economic recommendations. In 2016, for instance, the Committee on the Future Economy (CFE) was convened to review Singapore’s economic strategies as a response to global shifts and trends. In particular, the committee recommended to deepen and diversify Singapore’s international connections and to set up a “Global Innovation Alliance”. This called for Institutes of Higher Learning (IHLs) to “link up with overseas partners in major innovation hubs and in key demand markets.”


Here, we examine case studies of internationalisation from two of Singapore’s largest public universities: the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU).



At NUS and NTU, and similar to the experiences at the national level, internationalisation does not flow from a specific policy, but embedded in most, if not all, aspects of the university.


NUS’s educational philosophy, among other things, is to help students become “global citizens, who are sensitive to diverse cultural settings, aware of the potential they offer, and capable of operating in them, while conscious of the particularity, value, and limits of their own perspectives” as well as “bearers of a resourceful and enterprising spirit, in public and private life.”


NTU’s undergraduate curriculum places a strong emphasis on global education, and identifies global programmes as essential towards the development of key graduate competences such as global citizenship and cross-cultural skills.

Both NTU and NUS also encourage international engagements at the institutional-level through their respective participation in global university networks and alliances. For example, NTU, in 2009, led the formation of the Global Alliance of Technological Universities (GlobalTech) and the Asian Science and Technology Pioneering Institutes of Research and Education (ASPIRE) League alliances, which brought together leading science and technology universities to address global societal and sustainability issues. Similarly, NUS was founding member of many of the university alliances in which it actively participates — for example, the International Alliance of Research Universities (IARU), a consortium of 11 top research universities around the world.



The student exchange programme (SEP) in NUS was pioneered in 1994 and has grown in scale and quality over the years. In academic year 2016/2017 alone, there were 2,109 outbound students and 2,087 inbound students. Students were able to choose to study abroad from over 300 partner universities in over 40 countries.


Study Trips for Engagement and Enrichment (STEER) at NUS is a short-term programme of two to three weeks, where students of group sizes between 20 to 40 are exposed to the diverse socio-culturaleconomic environments of new and fast-evolving regions through a mix of classroom-based learning and experiential site visits. STEER taps on a funding scheme provided Enterprise Singapore’s (a Singapore government agency) Young Talent Programme Market Immersion fund. Enterprise Singapore’s mandate is to promote international trade and to partner Singapore companies in going global.


The NUS Overseas College (NOC) programme is a signature global entrepreneurship programme that has recently been identified by the Singapore government to form part of the Global Innovation Alliance, as alluded to in CFE’s report above. This programme is a full-time internship at a start-up in one of 11 dynamic entrepreneurial hubs around the world. Students undergo internships in startup companies so that they get to interact with the founders and get involved in roles crucial to the operations of the company.


In NTU, the GEM Discoverer Language Immersion programmes provide opportunities for NTU students to hone and develop their foreign language skills through the experience of living in the host country and interacting in their native language, while also reading formal language courses at a partner institution.


The GEM Discoverer Work & Study programmes combine short study courses at reputable partner universities and internships with corporate partners. While the study courses will allow students to develop an in-depth appreciation of the host country, the internships provide opportunities for students to explore their career interests in their relevant fields of study, define their social skills and communication competencies, acquire new technical skills as well as develop independence. The programme is currently offered in China and Vietnam.


NTU’s Overseas Entrepreneurship Programme offers entrepreneurially inclined NTU students the opportunity to undertake overseas internships of six months to a year at technology-based start-ups or accelerators located at seven global start-up “hot spots”, namely, New York, Silicon Valley, Beijing, Shanghai, London, Haifa, and Berlin.



NUS and NTU takes the stance that best academic and research staff are recruited regardless of nationality, and that collaboration should take place between the best and complementary minds wherever they may be located in the world.


Another factor motivating its global orientation is the fact that most research in both NUS and NTU are externally funded. Some major public funding sources, like the National Research Foundation (NRF), promote collaborations between Singapore higher education institutions, such as NTU and NUS, with international research partners.



While NUS has two dedicated office looking at internationalisation, almost all offices have sections dealing with international matters. The two offices set up to look specifically at internationalisation are: Office of the Vice President (University and Global Relations), or OVPUGR, and the Global Relations Office. Both offices look at university wide international strategies, engagements and activities. Each faculty, too, has an external or international relations team, often led by a Vice Dean. On the research front, the Office of the Deputy President (Research and Technology) looks after university-wide or high-profile international
research collaborations and also assists faculties in seeking external research grants.


NTU has two distinct offices overseeing and coordinating its internationalisation efforts and activities. NTU’s Office of International Affairs, which reports directly to the Vice-President for International Affairs, manages and coordinates university-level internationalisation strategies and partnerships. In addition to bilateral partnerships, the Office of International Affairs also oversees NTU’s participation in international partnerships and alliances. NTU’s Office of Global Education and Mobility, which also reports to the Vice-President for International Affairs, manages and develops NTU’s student mobility programmes with international partner institutions. International research engagements at NTU are coordinated at the university-level by the President’s Office, via a dedicated research office helmed by NTU’s Vice-President for Research.



Both universities are active in the ASEAN University Network (AUN), taking the lead in initiatives cutting across multiple functions of the university, to help build regional capacity. Some examples include NUS’s active involvement in the AUN-Quality Assurance initiative, which assesses programmes or institutions in ASEAN to meet the AUN-QA framework criteria, and the AUN Health Promotion Network where universities work together to create healthier and more health conscious campuses in the region, to name a few.


Outside the AUN, both universities have also partnered Temasek Foundation International (TFI) to launch the TFI-Leadership Enrichment and Regional Networking (LEaRN) Programme, which provides scholarships for students in selected ASEAN universities to study in Singapore for one semester. This programme effectively plugs into the gap of a lack of exchange programmes with ASEAN universities, through offering ASEAN university students a chance to study in Singapore for a semester, without a reciprocal exchange agreement which may not see positive responses by NUS and NTU students due to differences in language and academic parity.



The use of English as a working language in Singapore, and hence in all aspects of the university, has helped NUS and NTU’s curriculum be placed at the international playing field.


The vision of a university has to be clearly articulated and effectively cascaded to all its segments. The vision statement is translated to each faculty, department and office through an interpretation of the university’s vision for the individual unit. Each faculty member and staff’s annual performance is then assessed based on how their specific work has contributed to achieving the vision of the department/ office and, by extension, the vision of the university.


The gradual establishment of partnerships is also critical to ensuring international programmes and activities are enhanced for students, faculty members and researchers over time. In the specific case of NUS, the university took a gradual approach to build its range of student mobility programmes.


Appropriate funding has to be made available for internationalisation activities, especially those involving student mobility programmes. Many funding sources in our case studies here are external, hence diversifying resources to supplement students’ expenses and providing more funding choices for students who need not compete for the same pot of funding. The accessibility of information for student mobility has been noticed as one of the success factors of international student mobility programmes in NUS and NTU. Most students interviewed said that they were able to easily access information from the university’s emails, engagement activities (such as fairs or roadshows) or from peers.


Ho Yong Min is Senior Manager in the Office of the Vice President (University & Global Relations), National University of Singapore.

JULY 2018 | ISSUE 4

Internationalisation Policies, Initiatives


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Leaders and changemakers of today face unique and complex challenges. The HEAD Foundation Digest features insights and opinions from those in the know addressing a wide range of pertinent issues that factor in a society’s development. 

Informed opinions can inspire healthy discussions and open up our imagination to new possibilities. Interested in contributing? Write to us at info@headfoundation

Stay updated on our latest announcements on events and publications

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