The future of university education: What it takes to be educated

Updated: Saturday March 22, 2014 MYT 7:54:53 AM

The future of university education

What it takes to be educated

THE inaugural Conference on South-East Asia held in conjunction with the official launch of the Jeffrey Cheah Institute on South-East Asia (JCI) by the Deputy Prime Minister on March 18 had as its theme: Overcoming the Middle Income Trap and Keeping Balance Amid Global Turbulence.

I presented a paper on “Human Capital Needs for the 21st Century: The Role of Higher Education.”

The president of Harvard University talks of knowledge being the most important currency of the 21st century. Indeed, I believe knowledge, innovation and creativity which together reliably drives increases in productivity holds the key to releasing nations from the middle-income trap.

Higher education

It is well acknowledged the delivery of quality education is the principal “take-away” on higher education. As I see it, it is quality education that enables youth to develop (i) the ability to think clearly and critically; (ii) the ability to communicate; (iii) a strong set of ethical principles; (iv) a commitment to fulfill civic responsibilities; (v) adapt and respond to a globalised society; (vi) a breadth of interests to better cope with life; and (vii) dependable instincts to prepare for a life-long career.


Along the way, the evolution of education confronts a number of tensions (pulling in different and often, opposite directions) reflecting:

1. Requirements vs flexibility

2. Research vs teaching as a priority

3. Concentration (specialisation) vs “too” concentrated (i.e. less discipline-based and more focused on applications and professions)

4. Sciences vs humanities and social sciences (also, the shift in content)

> Sciences: the transforming force

> Humanities: the conserving element and instrument for moral uplift

> How best to humanise the sciences?

5. Connecting theory with practice

6. Cannot divide student lives into what they study vs what they do; students want to be treated as a whole

> Class curriculum vs extra-curricular athletic and public spirited outside activities where they learn to take initiative, teamwork, display discipline and exercise leadership – these can’t be classroom taught

> Mentored in non-academic skills to tackle cases in business and economics, or compose music and write poetry – they build character and instill confidence

7. National vs international experience

This simply means: fundamental curriculum and pedagogy reforms.

End product

The outcome, in practice, requires the end product (graduates) to at least have the ability to compose a literate and persuasive essay; sufficient insight to interpret a famous humanistic text; a capacity to link history to the present; the know-how to understand foundation science and scientific methods to unravel the mysteries of science and technology as they affect the real world; and enough quantitative reasoning ability to sharpen analysis of everyday problems.

As I see it, tomorrow’s world will not accept graduates “not knowing the difference between a gene and a chromosome or, not familiar with select classics or Nobel Prize-winning works in literature.” So, the first challenge has to deal ultimately with building self-confidence: the lack of which figures prominently in local graduates’ poor performance at job interviews; indeed, to be able to go beyond the ability to simply read and write.

This must involve a capability to speak decent English and to articulate cogently, to persuade others, and to be able to reason on moral and ethical issues. They are also expected to know how to collaborate with others on divisive issues, and to engage each other in a civil manner. The task ahead is daunting. We need to start now.

Second, students need to rigorously consider the level of mastery we ask of them and how flexibly we should allow them to acquire it, given the complexity of the world they have to deal with. Take science for example. Traditionally, non-scientists of my generation could manage to understand enough about cutting-edge science 50 years ago, which is not remotely possible today, certainly about tomorrow’s world. Yet, given the dynamics that science holds for progress in various domains, science and scientific thinking are fast coming to dominate an ever-widening range of human activity.

Looked at differently, decisions on how to manage economic policy, or how to respond to a public health crisis, or how to handle a national disaster (e.g. recent MAS “missing” plane), or market a new drug, or even to evaluate the national bid to host the next Olympics – all once based on hunch and art, are today made in increasingly rigorous and more analytical ways.

The challenge here is that it is no longer adequate for students to have just some “exposure” to science and its methods. They will need reasonable working knowledge of, and some dexterity with, its means of measurement, analysis and calibration. Science and technology are here to stay. Students have to be equipped to engage them.

Third, yet another challenge concerns the future of society in the face of the tremendous prospects for change arising from the impact of science and technology. In a world where the database will know every phone number that I have ever dialled; in a world where researchers have co-operated in a multinational project to successfully sequence and map the human genome and in understanding the impact of this work; and in a world where cloning is changing what it means to be human, we are going to need increasingly people who understand that science is just too important to be left to scientists.

The challenge here is to address the need to educate students who can think through the social problems and political challenges posed by science, with not just a reasonably good scientific and technical understanding, but also a grounding in the deepest human values.

Education in the sciences, adapting our modes of research to an era of life science, thinking about the interactions between science and society vis-à-vis the future of mankind, if we are to meet the challenge, that is one of the ideas our universities have to appropriately order. There are more. This offers just a taste of what’s involved.

To adequately prepare students, I cite Harvard’s new curriculum (reviewed and since reformed over a period of 10 years) which has been designed to meet four goals that link-up to life after graduation: (i) prepare for civic engagement; (ii) understand the traditions of art, ideas and values; (iii) respond to deep change; and (iv) appreciate ethical dimensions.

So, today, Harvard graduates have to complete courses in (a) aesthetic and interpretive understanding; (b) culture and belief; (c) empirical and mathematical reasoning; (d) ethical reasoning; (e) science of the living system; (f) science of the physical universe; (g) societies of the world; and (h) United States in the world.

What then, are we to do?

The World Bank’s recent 2013 Report was rather critical of Malaysia’s education system – putting on paper what most of us already know. Four major conclusions: (i) Malaysia performs very well with respect to access to education. (ii) However, the quality of education has not kept pace. Among East Asian countries that participated in the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), Malaysian students only outperform their Indonesian peers, and lag even lower-income countries (including by a wide margin, Vietnam). (iii) Performance also appears to be declining. Although the latest Pisa scores showed improvement in Math, most other recent indicators point in the opposite direction.

Evidence also suggests that English proficiency has deteriorated over time. (iv) The key constraints to improving the quality of basic education thus relate not to the quantity of inputs but institutions: (a) highly restricted levels of autonomy, (b) low parental involvement and therefore, accountability; and (c) shortcomings in teacher recruitment and performance management.

Teacher numbers are ample, but there are significant concerns about teacher quality. Malaysia’s education system is among the most centralised in the world.

The report concluded: “There is an urgent need to transform Malaysia’s education system so that it produces the quality graduates required by a high-income economy.” For years, the Government has been in denial. Now, we know for sure.

Five questions

As I look forward, five key questions continue to bug me, and they should bug universities enough to come up with the answers:

1. Who are our students? Whom should we educate? Need for life-long learning and executive education, and technology’s ability to extend access beyond the classroom to the world: how should universities respond?

2. How can we best teach them? given advances in technology and cognitive psychology, and growing interconnection among disciplines (requiring a more university-wide, inter-disciplinary approach to learning).

3. How can we effectively reach a more global interconnected world? Bowing to the inevitable, stand-alone instruction online start-ups, through Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have gone ahead, e.g. Harvard-MIT’s EdX now reaches millions world-wide free of charge. Harvard’s own HarvardX and AlumniX also put its best forward and have proved to be popular.

4. How to infuse science usefully into everyday life, so that scientific advances do not overwhelm us?

5. How to humanise science. The role of humanities on key questions of value, of meaning of life, and of ethics assumes critical importance.

Former banker, Tan Sri Lin See-Yan is a Harvard educated economist and a British chartered scientist who speaks, writes and consults on economic and financial issues. Feedback is most welcome; email:


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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