Local universities should not just chase international rankings, because they have a national and social mission that goes beyond academic excellence, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Thursday.
Unlike other elite institutions such as the United States' Harvard or China's Beida which admit a very small percentage of students in those countries, Singapore's universities admit the bulk of its tertiary-bound students, he said.
So, even as they attain ever-higher positions in reputable global rankings, their broader mission must be to develop a student's social conscience and build lasting friendships and camaraderie.
They must also imbue in students Singaporean values and ethos, and "a sense that they have a responsibility to take Singapore forward", said Mr Lee.
He urged each university to learn from best practices and to customise its educational offerings to reach these goals instead of merely copying others. Mr Lee was speaking at the official opening of the National University of Singapore's (NUS) University Town, or UTown, the country's first residential college where students and professors live, eat and learn under the same roof.
The immersive experience is an important development not just for NUS but also for the local tertiary landscape, he said, and fits in the broader context of efforts to improve the sector.
As part of this push, the Government has committed to increasing the number of university places from 27 per cent of each cohort currently to 40 per cent by 2020. But Mr Lee cautioned that expansion must not lead to a stream of degree holders without jobs that fit their training or fulfil their aspirations.
He pointed to countries like South Korea, where unemployment among university graduates is higher than graduates of vocational high schools, even though more than 70 per cent of each cohort attends university.