Look beyond the glitz for S'pore varsities' success

Look beyond the glitz for S'pore varsities' success
COLLABORATIVE LEARNING: NTU students and staff in a "smart classroom" with cluster seating, interactive screens and wireless Internet access.
PHOTO: Nanyang Technological University

It used to be that Asians would point to some Western country, usually the United States or Britain, as the model to emulate. In the last decade or so, it has been Singapore.

Sure, Singapore is advanced, but it is really a tiny city-state, with a land area only slightly larger than Metro Manila and half the population. So, really, Singapore's more of a model for our cities to try out.

But the pressure remains, especially for academicians, because Singapore's universities have consistently been ranked among the top 10 in various ratings, with the National University of Singapore (NUS) in first place, beating many venerable centuries-old British and American universities. To say the least, then, Singapore can be intimidating for administrators.

Last May, I joined administrators from six other Philippine universities - all government-run except for two - for a brief study-visit in Singapore that took us to NUS, Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and the Singapore Management University (SMU). The visit was part of a year-long project organised by the University of the Philippines and NUS to get administrators to think of what we could learn from Singapore.

I finished the trip with many ideas and, overall, I have to say I was impressed. There were the usual feelings of awe during the visit. But, with time, I have allowed the impressions to settle in and to think more about the basics, about why Singapore got to where it is. And my conclusion is that the basics are doable.

There is a tendency to equate Singapore's achievements with its high-rise buildings and high-tech equipment, but what I saw there are available in the Philippines as well, with private schools easily matching what I saw. Yes, our government schools will have to bite the bullet and invest a bit more for those technologies, but we are talking about a whole ethos around education that needs to be promoted. That ethos is my focus for this piece.


First, while Singapore is a leader in the development of new information technologies, its education system goes back to the basics of group learning, folded into the technologies.

NTU, for example, has reconfigured all its classrooms, moving away from the rows of seats where students listen to teachers lecturing, to each classroom having hexagonal tables, each with its own computer screen so that students can work together and present the results of their group work.

NUS and Duke University in the US have set up a medical school which uses this group-work approach: students read up on materials uploaded on the Internet before meeting in classrooms to discuss their lessons, with faculty members present to clarify difficult points.

Perhaps most emblematic of this approach to education are the "huddle rooms", small places where students can study in groups. The tendency for visitors is to see the technology and miss out on the user-friendliness of the rooms. Students are allowed to bring food and beverages, and even blankets.

The huddle rooms are high-tech but based on the much older principles of collective and collaborative work, encouraging students to learn together, speak up and challenge each other, even as they come to a consensus. It is a blend of independent thinking, articulation and consensus that I would like to see in our schools.

In many ways, it goes back to older East Asian methods of teaching and learning, emphasising group work and hard work. This is in contrast to Western styles emphasising individuals competing with each other. This group approach is crucial for success in science and technology.

I fear that in the Philippines - and the University of the Philippines, in particular - we are encouraging individual achievements and even combative styles of academic performance (just look at how faculty members attack each other and students, rather than address basic issues).

All this creates a meanness of spirit that erodes the academic environment. I fear especially for our students, who will go out into the world thinking mean-spirited aggressiveness will get them ahead.


A second area for reflection is the way Singapore has been open to the outside world, pushed in part by its limited land and human resources. It has hired many non-Singaporean professors, including Filipinos, something which we will not be doing on a large scale because we have our own human resources.

But more important than bringing in foreign faculty members, Singapore - despite being top-ranked globally - continues to be willing to learn from others, especially concerning teaching styles. It has moved away from East Asian schools' memory-and-rote didactics to more participatory and creative styles that are seen in and outside classrooms.

For example, NUS has built several "colleges" in the English tradition. These are dorms where students live and, more importantly, interact with resident faculty members, visiting lecturers who will do a "tea session", for example. The whole point is to keep students interacting with schoolmates, faculty and the outside world.


Finally, a point about financial investments. The danger, I feel, is for Filipinos to think that Singaporean universities achieved what they did simply because they became rich and, therefore, have money to pour into education.

We forget that Singapore became rich because, even when it was poor - it was, in fact, even poorer than the Philippines - it saw the value of putting money into education.

In the Western European tradition, education in Singapore was almost totally handled by its government, but with heavy participation from philanthropists. They, like Singapore, did not get rich overnight. Many of the earlier philanthropists did not benefit from a university education and had to work hard, struggling and saving.

In SMU, there is a marker for $550 million from a benefactor, Lee Kong Chian, with a quotation in Chinese that translates: "What you get from society must go back to society."

The "need" to give becomes stronger with alumni who did benefit from the universities. We need to remind the private sector that it cannot just keep complaining about the decline in our educational system, and will have to give back to universities for what we did (educating them) and for what we are doing (educating their children and grandchildren).

Now, to figure out where Filipinos might have failed, and what they have done right, even as they try to take lessons from Singapore.

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