It gives me great pleasure to pen the introduction to the inaugural impact report for NUS. As with all reports, the bulk of what you will read here is retrospective, and necessarily so. Nevertheless, it would be highly remiss of me to only focus on our achievements or even the works currently in progress without talking about our plans for the future. The impacts we intend but have yet to make.
In 2020, NUS celebrated its 115th anniversary. By some reckoning, it is an old institution. By others, it is young. There is a famous quote by the Roman philosopher and playwright Seneca the Younger that goes, “As is a tale, so too life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters.”
I believe this report will show that, whether seen as young or old, on many fronts NUS has been very good indeed. But we will not rest on our laurels. As the Zen master Suzuki Roshi puts it, “Everything is perfect… and there is plenty of room for improvement!” I am as excited to share with you some of the big plans I have for NUS as I am proud of our accomplishments. In a place as dynamic and forward-looking as Singapore, NUS too does not stand still. We do not simply reproduce society, but seek to transform it. We also do not just curate knowledge, but create it afresh. And if there is any disruption happening, we’ll be the ones doing it.
COVID-19 has shown how quickly normalcy can unravel. It took only weeks of the pandemic for our operating assumptions to fail. Very quickly, we were forced to de- and re-construct our mental models of how society and the world work and by extension, how NUS ought to respond. Categories created based on these assumptions, and definitions of what belongs where, can as easily be challenged. This goes for categories within the University: for the disciplines that are significant enough, we name them and carve out spaces for them. We should not be overly attached to our disciplines and the boundaries we have etched between them, for they can hinder adaptability.
As the world becomes more complex, a virulent disease will not be the last of our “wicked problems”, problems that can mutate and make a mockery of our disciplinary boundaries. Our students, problem-solvers of the future, must be able to operate unconstrained by knowledge categories, to integrate knowledge and skills across disciplines. And the University, for its research, innovations, and enterprises, will only benefit from exploring untapped margins between disciplines.
To remain at the forefront of education, we must dare to reimagine the silos we have grown used to. Such is what we hope to do, starting first with our new College of Humanities and Sciences, and a Common Curriculum for both the Faculty of Engineering and the School of Design and Environment. But even as the arbitrary walls between faculties are torn down, students and faculty members must continue to look beyond the new colleges in their learning and problem-solving.
Change is accelerating and could make our graduates obsolete, a spiel you may be sick of hearing. But it bears reiterating that the “iron rice bowl” guaranteeing livelihoods is fading into a mythical artifact. No longer is it enough for students to specialise in a discipline that is tailor-made for specialised work, where they can stay until the end of their working lives.
Breadth must be on par with depth. When too deep down a disciplinary silo, it becomes harder for one to imagine perspectives beyond all one knows. Breadth and academic rigour may be thought to be at opposing ends, where the exploration of one sacrifices the other. But that is too contrived a trade-off. We should not mistake breadth for the mere acquisition of superficial knowledge across disciplines. What we intend with our education reforms is to enable students to integrate elements from different fields and synthesise unique perspectives and solutions.
At the same time, knowledge is not static, although it gave the illusion of being so for the longest time. It grows, evolves, decays, and self-corrects. It is edited and expanded as societies learn, now at accelerating speeds. Insist on old ways and the graduates we produce could face irrelevance in the workplace as the world outpaces the knowledge they leave the University with. To prime our graduates for their working lives, we must teach them to find meaning in learning, to learn beyond textbooks. Learning can be structured and unstructured; from knowledge shared in classrooms and laboratories, over lunch discussions, or experientially. It continues beyond formal schooling years and into work and retirement, thus our shift towards Continued Education and Training.
Much of learning is exploration, which now takes place in a world where we cannot even enumerate the different possibilities, much less assign probabilities to them. While frustrating, such explorations can at times lead to serendipitous insights. As a learning institution, while we teach the syllabus and ensure certain learning outcomes, we must reserve space for our students to do just that. A university is more than a precursor to the workplace. It is the sweet spot between adolescence and adulthood where individuals are free to explore, fail, and realise themselves, without the repercussions of real life.
Instead of cogs in a machine, we want our graduates to be critical thinkers and flexible learners, ready to learn and unlearn as the world unearths new information and introduces new disruptors.
Professor Tan Eng Chye