Does SUSS deserve a spot among Singapore’s autonomous universities?

The Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS) has joined the ranks of the country’s prestigious autonomous universities. This brings a new approach to the top tier of the nation’s schools.

by Francesca Ross

The once-private university, the Singapore Institute of Management (UniSIM), has rebranded as an autonomous university in a move that should see more full-time applications and significantly higher revenues.

Ong Ye Kung, Minister for Education said, “as an autonomous university, UniSIM will support lifelong learning, targeting both students and adult learners, in the domain of social sciences.” The switch to a public school has been under discussion for some years but does it deserve its place among Singapore’s academic big-hitters?

The autonomous universities are traditionally known for their high academic standards

Singapore’s traditional five autonomous universities are generally renowned for their highly-competitive entry criteria. They also have a reputation for equipping graduates with the credentials that get them coveted positions in top-performing companies world-wide.

The National University of Singapore was named the top institution in Asia for the second consecutive year in 2016, rising two points to 24th in the World University Rankings. Nanyang Technological University (NTU) was named the World’s Fast-rising Young University by Times Higher Education, coming in at second place in Asia and 13th in the world.

NTU is in the world’s top ten for education, electrical and electronic engineering, and Materials Science. It is ranked sixth in the world in engineering. Singapore Management University is ranked tenth in Asia and the Lee Kong Chian School of Business (LKCSB) is the only Asian business school to make the top five international rankings.

The new recruit to the group offers courses with a more social focus

The new Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS), by comparison, boasts five academic schools, including law and accountancy. University leaders say their new strategic plan means courses will have a social focus and the school will carve out a unique role in the university system.

This is in line with the Ministry of Education’s pledge to increase the cohort participation rate, or number of people that go to university, to 40% by 2020. SUSS will support this by increasing the current annual intake of 580 students to 1,000 in the next few years.

UniSIM was traditionally considered a flexible choice for working adults who do not meet the prerequisites of other higher-profile schools. Some of their courses were entirely vocational and had no grade point average requirement. The university’s most popular courses were communications, logistics, early childhood education, social work, and project management.

Just 900 students were on full-time programmes with the school last year. This compared to 13,000 people enrolled for part-time degree study. Many of these were attracted by heavy government subsidies, bursaries and loans for part-time courses.

Recognition is likely to attract more students; and more revenue

UniSIM president Cheong Hee Kiat has acknowledged the importance of these subsidies. He believes they suggest “recognition by MOE that UniSIM offers quality degrees.” The new declaration of autonomous status is likely to underline this perception and push up enrolments.

This, in turn, will bring in more revenue for the university board. A four-year degree in Singapore currently costs around 53% of a person’s income and this is expected to rise to over 70% by 2030.

Current students hope the declaration of autonomous status will also increase the perceived value of their programmes by employers. Full-time accountancy student Tan Jun Cheng wanted to see the higher revenues from more full-time students pushed into, “more entrepreneurship programmes and stints that will give us more industry exposure.”

Applied skills education can help tackle youth unemployment and promote prosperity

The education minister says the move towards applied skills is desperately needed. “I cannot just make a big change in the system by pumping in another billion dollars, build another polytechnic, build another university,” he said.

“But instead, it is changing the way we do things — uncovering students’ talents, developing them to the fullest,” he explained.

The addition of SUSS to the fold of Singapore’s autonomous universities marks a new understanding of education priorities. The SUSS does not have the reputation or standing of the older five but that is not the reason for its promotion.

The SUSS has been elevated thanks to recognition by the authorities that the workplace needs more than thinkers with academic star quality. It also requires doers with practical professional experience that understand business and commerce. Full-time programmes offered by SUSS include a mandatory internship period which provides this insight.

The truth is that the management of the SUSS will make a lot of money from its upgrade thanks to increasing numbers of full-time students, but if that can bring down the worrying youth unemployment then – in the long-term – so will Singapore.