Lawrence Wong returning to Education Ministry where he made his mark years back

SINGAPORE – It will be a homecoming of sorts for Education Minister-designate Lawrence Wong.

Early in his public life, he had served in the Education Ministry for 18 months – from May 2011 till November 2012.

But the work he did, first as Minister of State for Education, and then as Senior Minister of State, was significant and led to the expanded and more diverse university landscape that Singaporeans enjoy now.

He led the Committee on University Education Pathways Beyond 2015 panel, which convened in September 2011 to study and recommend ways to expand the university sector, in order to provide more opportunities for Singaporeans.

In its final report, the 15-member review panel recommended creating many more undergraduate places. At that time, the cohort participation rate was 27 per cent. It is on track to hit 40 per cent this year.

It also envisioned a much more diverse university sector including top-notch research and teaching-oriented universities, as well as a good mix of full-time, part-time and work-study degree programmes, to meet the wide spectrum of Singaporean needs and preferences.

Any new institutions set up should have a more applied, practice-oriented focus and produce a different type of graduate. At the same time, the report stressed that Singapore must maintain the quality and affordability of university education, and ensure good employment outcomes.

In August 2012, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong acknowledged the rising aspirations of Singaporeans for a university degree and announced raising the cohort participation rate from 27 per cent then to 40 per cent by 2020.

Mr Lee agreed with the committee that it is important to produce graduates with skills which are useful and in demand, and warned against churning out graduates regardless of quality or employment opportunities.

Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS) president Cheong Hee Kiat, who served on the committee, called it a “milestone study” for higher education.

“It gave many more Singaporean post-secondary school and polytechnic leavers a stab at getting a degree. Significantly, it led to the provision of applied degree programmes rather than the traditional more academic ones offered in the four autonomous universities existing at that time,” he said referring to the study “planting the seed” for the two applied universities in Singapore today, SUSS and the Singapore Institute of Technology.

SIM University, a private university, was re-structured to become SUSS.

Professor Cheong added: “Minister Wong supported government funding for some of these new applied university places at the then SIM University (UniSIM), at that time the one and only private Singapore university. It was an unprecedented, bold act to entrust a private university with state-funded programmes.”

He said he looks forward Mr Wong’s re-connection with SUSS and continuation of the work he started on higher education.

Associate Professor Jason Tan of the National Institute of Education referred to Mr Lee’s remarks on Mr Wong building on the good work of previous education ministers.

He said: “Over the last few years, big changes have been made in education and these will have to be put in place in the coming years. There is the new PSLE scoring system and the digital literacy programme next year. Further on, the move to full subject-based banding. There are many other moving pieces – in higher education, and at the other end of the spectrum, in early childhood education and development, which is key to enabling social mobility.

“As co-chair of the Covid-19 task force, Mr Wong has impressed Singaporeans with his concrete, clear thinking and good communication skills. Those skills will be much needed when putting these major education pieces in place.

“It’s not just about implementing the policies, it’s about changing the mindsets of parents, students, educators, even employers. And this is where the attention to detail and good communication skills will count.”

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