The publication on NUS’s strategic plan called University
in the 21st Century was launched in late 1996, the result
the study of a task force headed by DVC Hang. I have
identified a few of these strategies for today’s discussion
paraphrase them in the following manner: to encourage or
promote cross-faculty teaching and learning, to develop an
IT plan, to refine self-assessment and accountability and
improve on our management infrastructure. I will touch on
each of these.
Cross-faculty education. Since
we started cross-faculty
teaching a few years ago, we’ve opened up certain modules
—and even designed special modules—for students
other faculties to attend. The direction now is towards a
single modular system. We want a basic system in all faculties
that includes a common currency or what I would call a
modular credit system. Within this system, each faculty will
decide on the number of credits required for graduation, the
number of modules required for a major and the number of
modules a student can take from other faculties.
Currently, many faculties draw up their timetables for
tutorials a week or two after classes have started. When
students enrol for a course, they have to worry about timetable
clashes in examinations and tutorials. Under the single
modular system, we are pushing for the publication of a
timetable upfront which includes lectures, tutorials and
examinations. If we can achieve this, it will be much easier
for students to take courses at other faculties.
What else are we doing to instil in students the idea of
critical thinking, of creative and lifelong learning? This
indeed, at the end of the day, the desired outcome of a university
education. Let me cite an example that came to my
notice recently. The Electrical Engineering Department is
developing a number of 1000-level
modules which are entirely project
based. Instead of exams, continuous
assessment and quizzes,
students will do projects, be it
preparing laboratory reports in a
non-trivial fashion or designing
robots for competition. In other
words, projects that challenge
students’ creativity, set them
thinking and help them relate ideas
learned from standard courses.
This is a great way to encourage
critical thinking and creative
Is there really a need for all of this? Just to give you
idea of where our students are, let’s look at the results
recent surveys of our senior students in 1997. The results
indicate that most students do not read books or newspaper
articles related to their course of study, and more than half
have never attended a talk or forum, concert or recital.
While many of the students surveyed have graduated, we
can do something about the students to come. As you’ve
read in the newspapers, DPM Tony Tan announced the
review of the university admissions system. And within the
university, we are also revamping our educational system.
We are pushing towards broadening the curriculum and
requiring every student—except perhaps Medical, Dental
and Law students who require separate treatment—to spend
at least 20% of their curriculum outside their faculties.
for example, we want Science and Engineering students to
study the humanities and Arts students to know something
about science and technology.
We want close interaction between students from various
faculties. We want to cut down on service courses where a
faculty, Engineering for example, introduces a course in
sociology by inviting someone from Sociology to conduct
the course as a guest lecturer. Instead, we want Engineering
students to go to the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences
and take sociology courses with other students from Science,
Arts, Law and Business Administration. Our students
must know what their friends at the other faculties do. They
must be able to interact because this is what real life is
about. When our graduates go out to society and work, they
don’t just deal exclusively with engineers or scientists.
They deal with people from all walks of life.
Information technology. On
the IT side, we are introducing
a secure plug and play scheme where we will install
8,000 network outlets across campus, in canteens, reading
areas, libraries, etc. This will make computer access easier
and will cut down on the use of space, which is a premium
at NUS. It will also facilitate greater use of IT in teaching
and learning. We want students to be able to plug their
notebooks into a network outlet in the canteen, communicate
with their lecturers, work on assignments and participate
in a video conference. With the infrastructure in place,
the next step is content and here of course we need staff
participation and involvement.
Self-assessment. Education is
very closely linked to other
issues like quality assurance, self-assessment and accountability.
Since 1994, various departments have set up what we
call international advisory panels or international review
committees. Computer Science set up a panel in 1994, the
Engineering Faculty set one up in 1995 and now we are
requiring this of all faculties. The idea is to get outside
experts to visit us and look at the quality of our research
teaching programmes, staff and assessment procedures, and
to get their recommendations for improvements.
Regarding staff assessment, we are moving away from
the emphasis on the number of publications because, with
research in particular, quality is invariably more important
than quantity. So, for example, when a person is recommended
for promotion to associate professorship or professorship,
we want to know about the staff member’s best
five or ten publications.
We are moving away from a one-person review to what I
call committee or many-person review. Traditionally, the
head and the dean had exclusive say—whether that’s
bad depends of course on the quality of the head and the
dean. Now, we are requiring every faculty to have a peer
review committee consisting of senior people in a faculty
look at promotion cases. The Engineering Faculty instituted
this a year or two ago and it has been working quite well.
number of other departments have been doing this (e.g.,
Mathematics for many years, Computer Science since 1993)
and we want to make it happen across the board.
We are also moving towards international peer review
rather than only internal peer review; we want both. When
comes to tenure and promotion at US universities, the comments
of external peer reviewers are extremely important.
Starting from this academic year, the Faculty of Science
instituted a policy requiring comments from external reviewers
on tenure cases.
Is life getting tougher? In a sense, yes, you can say that
is getting tougher. On the other hand, maybe you can also
say that life is getting fairer. But if we’re serious
becoming a world-class university, we have to take some
Management infrastructure. We are
taking steps to make
changes but the changes mean extra work for departments
and faculties. That’s why reviewing our support system
management infrastructure is absolutely necessarily. We are
running pilot projects on work flow systems. And within the
next few months, many application forms (e.g., leave application
forms and annual assessment forms) will be done on
the internet to save paper and make work faster and easier.
Some processes will be decentralised. For example, conference
applications and conference money have been decentralised
and Prof Hang is looking into decentralising research
student scholarship decisions.
In order to do this, we have to provide additional staff
support to faculties and departments. We are looking into
the issue of departmental or faculty managers. These would
be senior AOs—people with experience who will help run
a department so the head and the dean, for example, can
concentrate on more important issues. Some departments do
a lot of chores that are not making good use of their resources.
Academic staff should spend most of their time on
teaching and research. If they do administration, it should
be something that demands more of their expertise than
signing cheques and locking up rooms. We are going to do
a pilot project with the Faculty of Engineering and one or
two other faculties to iron out these issues.
Successful strategies. To succeed,
we must go beyond
generalities and mission statements. We need good strategies
but we also need specifics. When we have something specific,
we have to be realistic. Can what we want be implemented?
There are several approaches to this issue. We can
look at the problem and say, obviously it cannot be done,
that’s it. Or we can say, this is our strategy, this
is our objective,
at the moment it cannot be done but can we adapt,
change, so that eventually we get what we want to achieve?
A key to successful strategies is to have courage because
change comes with pain. Every time we want to change
things for the better—we hope—there is a cost.
We hope the
majority of the people will benefit but not everybody will,
change always comes with pain. And it takes courage to
introduce changes that are not popular in the beginning.
The final factor of course is involvement. Involvement is
the most important factor to the success of any strategy.
People whose lives will be affected must be involved and
feel that they own part of the strategy. They must identify
with the goals and objectives of what the university wants
do. If we are not able to get the participation, identification,
sympathy or enthusiasm of our colleagues, then what we set
out to do will take a long time, or will be very difficult