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On 21 February, CDTL organised a seminar entitled “NUS Strategic Plans: Where are we and where do we go from here?” led by Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Chong Chi Tat. Associate Professor Tong Chee Kiong, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, and Professor Andrew Nee, dean of the Faculty of Engineering, served as discussants. In this first issue of CDTLBrief, we are pleased to bring you the following summary of the seminar presentations and discussion.
April 1998, Vol. 1 No. 1 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Session 1
Prof Chong Chi Tat
Deputy Vice-Chancellor

The publication on NUS’s strategic plan called University in the 21st Century was launched in late 1996, the result of the study of a task force headed by DVC Hang. I have identified a few of these strategies for today’s discussion and 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 to 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 from 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 is 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 learning.

Is there really a need for all of this? Just to give you an idea of where our students are, let’s look at the results from 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. [Results shown.]

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. So 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 and 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 good or 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 to look at promotion cases. The Engineering Faculty instituted this a year or two ago and it has been working quite well. A 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 it 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 life is getting tougher. On the other hand, maybe you can also say that life is getting fairer. But if we’re serious about becoming a world-class university, we have to take some serious steps.

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 and 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, and 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, so 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 to 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 to achieve.

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