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Speech By Mr Ong Ye Kung At The SIM University Convocation 2016

Speech By Mr Ong Ye Kung, Acting Minister For Education (Higher Education And Skills) And Senior Minister of State For Defence, At The SIM University Convocation 2016 On 12 October 2016, 9.30am, The Grand Hall of SIM University

Professor Aline Wong, Chancellor, SIM University;
Mr Richard Eu, Chairman, SIM University Board of Trustees;
Professor Cheong Hee Kiat, President, SIM University;
Graduands, Parents;
Ladies and gentlemen.


  1. It is an honour to be here today to celebrate this joyous occasion with you. Since joining the Ministry of Education, I have had the happy task of participating in several graduation ceremonies, and to share in the joy and pride of graduands and their families. 
  1. Every graduation ceremony is unique and special, and today’s holds special significance for me, because this is the first convocation that I am attending since the establishment of the SkillsFuture Singapore Agency, or SSG for short. The SSG officially came into being just two weeks ago on the third of October, after a restructuring of the Workforce Development Agency ( WDA). Its establishment is a culmination of months of planning, and fundamentally, what it means is that it is the coming together of MOE’s tremendous capability in education and training delivery, with the lifelong learning philosophy of WDA. We are putting together delivery capabilities and the philosophy of lifelong learning under one agency. 

  2. There are significant synergies to be reaped between the two, and this is what we will focus our energies on over the next few years. Every MOE institution – ITE, polytechnic, Autonomous University – will leverage its delivery capability to champion the acquisition of knowledge and skills throughout our lifetimes. For many, it will be a significant expansion in mandate and mission, a major re-orientation of priorities, and a break into uncharted waters

  3. But for many years, one institution, although not an AU but a private university, has been at the forefront of this effort, and has shown the way. That institution is SIM University, or UniSIM for short. As the late Mr SR Nathan, our former president, who never had a degree but obtained three honorary PhDs due to his lifetime of work, told me: UniSIM is a University for someone like me. 

A University For Lifelong Learning

  1. That is why the sense of achievement and pride, palpable at every graduation ceremony I have attended, I think is particularly strong here. It is an arduous journey to get to where you are today. Many of you have had to juggle the competing demands of your multiple roles – as students, job-holders, parents, volunteers, and sons or daughters – while learning to pick up your books again years after leaving school. To triumph over these challenges requires a great deal of strength, discipline, and passion for lifelong learning. But this is the hallmark of a UniSIM graduate, and what makes all of you here, rather extraordinary. 
  1. The university that has supported you through this journey is also special and unique. Since its inception, UniSIM has been the university for lifelong learning, with its mission of providing skills and knowledge upgrading pathways for working adults. This is reflected in the university’s education philosophy and operating practices.
  1. UniSIM believes in an inclusive approach in providing maximum opportunities to those who seek to better themselves, and have the ability to cope with the rigour of degree-level studies. As a result, it takes a unique “funnel approach” to admission. Under this approach, academic bars for entry are not set very high. This is in recognition that individuals may acquire the understanding of a discipline through their practice and work experience that is no less than what they might gotten through a formal course of study in the polytechnics or the Junior Colleges. 

  2. UniSIM allows applicants with such experience, but not necessarily very high academic grades, a chance to prove their ability to cope with the rigour of a degree programme by taking relevant foundation modules from the course. Those who do well in these modules may then be admitted and progressed to the corresponding degree programmes. This strikes a good balance between providing broad opportunities, while at the same time maintaining standards and rigour in the course.

  3. Further, as a university dedicated to working professionals, UniSIM’s courses are designed to give the greatest flexibility to its students. Courses are offered and charged on a modular basis, so that students may customise their study load each semester based on your needs. Each course also comprises a blend of online, and face-to-face instruction, so that students do not always have to travel to the UniSIM campus for classes. Course materials are digitised, and videos of lectures are put online so that students can download these and catch up on lessons at their own time. Every class is a healthy mix of young and mature students of various career backgrounds that enriches the education experience.

  4. A working adult that benefited from the UniSIM system is Jon Tan, who pursued a Bachelor of Communication programme with UniSIM. The blended course structure and flexible class schedules enabled him to juggle his work, studies, and parental responsibilities. Studying while working was no easy feat, but it enabled Jon to apply what he learnt in class to his work in crafting marketing plans and campaigns. It also made lessons and concepts come to life. Jon is graduating today as one of the top students in his class, and is already a Sales & Marketing Manager leading a team of close to 20 members. Congratulations, Jon.

A New Pathway 

  1. Today, there are a few typical paths that Singaporeans can take to advance their studies after attending Junior Colleges, or polytechnics. The first is the academic path, through the pursuit of a degree at an Autonomous University such as NUS, NTU, SMU, SUTD, or SIT. We have five of them. This pathway has traditionally been one of the most popular, as university graduates are very employable. But this is the case because we have been careful to expand places in these institutions in tandem with what the economy can absorb. And so today, close to 90 percent or more than 90 percent of the graduands from these AUs can find jobs within six months of graduation.
  1. The second path is an applied one, where the emphasis is on mastery of skills and competencies required for a specific profession or career. The Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) was established as an Autonomous University for this purpose, to offer applied-oriented programmes at the degree-level. To expand the offering of applied degrees, UniSIM was also asked to offer full-time applied-oriented degree programmes, which the Government provided funding for. For example, Early Childhood, Nursing, Physiotherapy and Cybersecurity courses allow students to apply what they learn directly.
  1. A third pathway is that of work. We often forget that we learn a lot through work and actual experience. In fact, work is often what study prepares us to do. Individuals join the workforce, and develop the competencies and skills that they require through learning on the job, and in the workplace. Good companies will put in place strong on-the-job training programmes so that all staff, with or without formal qualifications, have the ability to do their work well and have opportunities to progress in their careers.
  1. A fourth, less conventional pathway, is that taken by many of our UniSIM graduands today. It is a combination of merging all three paths – you enter the workforce and gain experience on the job, then take up opportunities to learn and upgrade yourself further, whether through a full-time or part-time, academic or applied programme. You combine all three pathways into one.
  1. Take Lee Kam Hoong for example. Kam Hoong received a polytechnic diploma back in the 90s, and had worked for some twenty years in the same company, becoming a valued employee of the company. One day, Kam Hoong was asked by his management to translate into Mandarin some existing material for his company. He found he was quite adept at it, and decided that this was what he wanted to pursue. He subsequently enrolled in UniSIM’s Bachelor of Arts (Translation & Interpretation) programme. Kam Hoong shares that he enjoyed the experience of going “back to school”, and feeling young again. Kam Hoong has earned the Gold Award for his graduating cohort today.
  1. We can support more working students, or learning workers, like Kam Hoong. It is a pathway that UniSIM has been supporting, and tens of thousands of students like Jon and Kam Hoong have trodden that trail. In this era of SkillsFuture, it is timely to consider putting in the concrete and making this a permanent and recognised path in our education and skills training landscape.
  1. MOE has therefore proposed to make UniSIM our sixth Autonomous University, or AU. As an AU, UniSIM will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the other AUs such as NUS, NTU, SMU, SUTD and SIT. In time to come, our sixth AU will be UniSIM.

A Sixth AU With A Unique Proposition

  1. UniSIM was built on the foundation of SIM’s partnership with the Government, to provide opportunities for working adults to develop and upgrade their skills at the degree-level. This partnership started in 1992, when SIM was invited by MOE to run an Open University Degree Programme. Building on this, SIM later proposed to set up a university for adult learners and the proposal was approved by the Government in 2005. Over the years, the Government has worked with UniSIM to expand its offerings, including part-time programmes, new full-time applied degree programmes, and more recently, the hosting of Singapore’s third law school, which will see its first intake in January next year. UniSIM now occupies a unique space in our education and skills training landscape.
  1. UniSIM today is an entity under the SIM Society. To become an AU, changes will have to be made to its governance structure, and similar to the other AUs, it will come under the ambit of MOE. MOE has discussed the proposal with the SIM Governing Council and UniSIM’s Board of Trustees, and all parties have agreed that it is a positive and logical next step in the development of UniSIM. However, given that SIM is a membership organisation, the proposal needs to be presented at a general meeting of SIM members before a final decision is taken. I understand that the SIM Governing Council will be taking the necessary steps to do so.
  1. As an AU, UniSIM will focus on applied education, targeted at both students and adult learners. Just as SIT will focus on applied programmes in Science, Technology and Engineering, UniSIM will focus on social sciences, and preparing students for socially-related careers. This will include social work, human resource, psychology, early childhood education, and also law, focusing on family and criminal law. It will retain limited offering in other areas such as accountancy, business and engineering.
  1. In other words, UniSIM will be a unique Singapore university, focusing on applied learning, in the domain of social sciences.

It Comes Back To You – The Individual

  1. These changes will take time to effect, including the passing of a Bill in Parliament, which I will have to take through. As graduates of UniSIM, you can be proud in knowing that you have played a part in the development of the university. Your stories, journeys and experiences are part of the reason why we are making UniSIM an AU, to support more opportunities and pathways for Singaporeans who choose to embark on this path of continual and lifelong learning.
  1. As graduates of the new AU for lifelong learning, you can be ambassadors of lifelong learning, and help to shift the paradigm that education precedes work, to a new perception that education and real work life experiences are part of a continuous and interspersing process.
  1. In conclusion, remember that this is only the start of your lifelong learning journey, and never stop learning. Look back with much pride at what you have achieved, and look forward to the fulfilling future ahead of you as you apply and hone the skills you have gained. Mark the culmination of months and years of your hard work, commitment, and perseverance with much joy.
  1. I thank UniSIM for inviting me here today, and to the UniSIM management, faculty, parents and family for supporting the graduands. This ceremony is as much for you as it is for them. Thank you, and congratulations to the graduands!


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