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I was in Singapore recently and had the opportunity to meet with the higher education policy team at the Ministry of Education. The group is interested in learning about global trends and taking the best ideas from everywhere. This is quite a contrast to the United States, where many feel that there is little to learn from the experience of others. Singapore, like many countries, is currently obsessed with “workforce development” as a key function of its postsecondary system. At the same time, its government built a magnificent new campus for the Yale-National University of Singapore liberal arts college—an effort to bring American-style liberal arts education to Singapore, and to further internationalize the student population.

There is almost too much discussion on workforce preparation at the moment. Certainly universities have to be aware of the employment market and what the country needs, but, increasingly, people think that education is for instrumental and vocational needs, and it has been harder and harder to get people to think about education in the broader sense of the term.

There is a need to "think old thoughts" as much as new ideas are sought, as the economy experiences fundamental changes in multiple ways. Such "old thoughts" include perceiving education as a means of broadening the mind, and instilling a flexibility of thinking for an unpredictable labor market.

Education is education, and skills will come along with it, or are supplementary to it. The labor market changes so rapidly; thus people have to be trained for broader thinking in order to be adaptable.

Continuing education programs, such as short-term courses or boot camps, can bridge the gap for those looking to acquire industry-relevant skills, such as programming. In this way, universities will continue to have a role to play and do not risk becoming obsolete. When planning for how to meet the economy's demands for skills in specific industries, what must be avoided would be a situation where universities become "vocationalized".

While the ambitious SkillsFuture push in Singapore includes a focus on equipping workers with the right skills for jobs, it also contains a philosophical dimension of getting Singaporeans to think of learning as a personal endeavor.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has very strong programs in the social sciences despite being a distinguished technological institution. For example, linguist and political philosopher Noam Chomsky, considered one of America's leading activist intellectuals, has been with MIT for almost a half-century. They understand that a well-rounded technology person would also be well-versed in the humanities and social sciences. Such acceptance of a broad- based approach demonstrates a recognition of the need for critical thinking and communication skills, and a broad understanding of how societies have changed over time.



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