Leveraging on Diversity

Here are the student demographics that some of you have been asking for. There are currently about 25,000 undergraduates at the NUS, of which over 5,000 are international students. (This post uses the terms international students and foreign students interchangeably. Figures are approximate and exact figures are available in the NUS Annual Report.) The graduate student population totals 8,000, of which more than half of the graduate students, or 5,000 of them are from overseas. Taken in total, we have about 33,000 students on campus; 10,000 are international students and the rest are citizens or permanent residents of Singapore. In addition, every year, we have 1,400 NUS students going away for at least a semester on exchange programs, and we correspondingly welcome a similar number of international students from our 180 partner universities for a semester exchange at the NUS.

Our international students

The topic of international students is a sensitive one to discuss, but I believe that as members of the university community, we are mature enough to broach this topic in a constructive and appropriate manner. Each year, the MOE stipulates the number of places to be given to Singaporeans and PRs, based on the Cohort Participation Ratio (CPR), i.e., the CPR is the percentage of locals, in a Primary One cohort, who matriculate into publicly-funded full-time undergraduate places at our local institutions. This year, the CPR was set at 26%. Local universities may admit international students; international students made up not more than 18% of the overall undergraduate intake at the 3 local universities in AY2011.

Why does the NUS admit international students? First, diversity creates a campus environment that mimics the global operating context. We thus value the diversity of cultures, perspectives and experiences that our foreign students bring. Second, many of our foreign students are talented individuals of high calibre; they are admitted on a more rigorous and stringent criteria. Foreign students set the bar high, and spur our local students to challenge themselves towards greater heights. And in the process, local students emerge stronger and better prepared to take on competition in the global workforce. Third, we hope to retain foreign students to contribute to Singapore’s economy. It is true that foreign students with service obligations may leave Singapore at the end of their term. Notwithstanding, they will  remain as friends, associations and vital links of the NUS community (and Singapore) whom we can tap on.

NUS is a microcosm of a globalised environment

With a diversity of nationalities and cultures right here on campus, the NUS is truly a microcosm of the global environment. At any one time, we have over 11,000 international students from a hundred countries around the world, studying in our campus. One of the key educational priorities at the NUS is to hone graduates who are effective at and ready for the broader global environment, i.e., graduates who are adaptable and able to communicate, engage and work in cross-cultural settings. 

Although we are physically present amidst a diverse campus environment; alas it is quite plausible that some of our students are completely oblivious to the rich opportunities for learning and discovery surrounding them. Take for example, Peter and Jane are enrolled in the same module. They sit next to each other twice a week, continuously over 15 weeks. Yet, at the end of the semester, they may be none the wiser about each other, and remain acquainted merely by name and face.

Here is a second conceivable scenario. Instead of being glued to their iPhones during class break, Peter and Jane may be having a casual conversation, on anything, perhaps where they’re currently residing and their experiences commuting with the internal shuttle buses. Jane is from Wuhan in China. Peter, a born and bred Singaporean who’s served NS, soon discovers how and why she came to Singapore, what sort of tests she had to take, how the educational system here differs from that in Wuhan and perhaps even how she views certain government policies in Singapore and how these compare with the Chinese government’s approach, and so on. Jane learns that Peter had served his NS as a combat medic, how he continues to be liable for reservist, drives a car that has a whopping COE price tag of $50,000 and so on.  What can emerge? How much can we learn from and through each other? The possibilities are endless.

Within the classroom

How then can we leverage more fully on this diversity in our university, to enrich our students and in so doing, better prepare and develop them for the globalised world? One way, is perhaps to create the time and space for us to talk to each other and to foster interactions, in our academic courses.

A professor once related this experience with me. He taught a class and assigned a term project. He requested students to form their own groups of 4 or 5 for the project. One group came to him, looking ostensibly unhappy. The group comprised two Singaporeans, two Chinese students from PRC, and a Vietnamese. The professor thought the composition of the group was great; it was a multinational team! He later realized students from the same nationality, had congregated to form their own teams: there were several Singaporean groups, some groups of students from India, some from China, and another from Vietnam. The multinational team was visibly unhappy, because it was made up of reluctant individuals who had described themselves as ‘leftovers’.

Henceforth, the professor never allowed his class to form their own groups. Instead, he thought through and allocated the group assignments, deliberately ensuring that each group was diverse. He explained that in our working lives, we often do not get to choose our colleagues and partners, and we should take the opportunity to learn to work with our assigned teammates. He also introduced peer appraisals, to obtain a sense of each student’s contribution to the group.

This got me thinking. If a professor does not take the active step to form diverse teams, what would the likely outcome be? Sometimes, some nudging does help to take us out of our comfort zone and to expose us to experience something different.

Living and learning together

Beyond academics, residential living also provides a wonderful platform for mutual learning and enrichment. At the NUS, we currently have 3 types of student accommodation, namely halls, residences and residential colleges. In our halls and residential colleges, two-thirds of the residents are Singaporeans and PRs, one-third are foreign students (including students on exchange).

By and large, the residing students do participate in the numerous social activities, and contribute to student life on campus and within their halls or residential colleges. This was especially so at the halls, when CCA points were the main criteria to secure hall places for the subsequent year. This year, we implemented a new scheme, the Residence Admission Scheme (RAS) to replace the Revised Hall Admission Points System. This was in response to students’ feedback, as students complained of being subject to excessive pressure to keep up the CCA-involvement within their halls. Some students had however raised the concern that students in the halls might become less active in social activities.  

The new residential colleges at UTown have academic program components, and I do hope that all students will participate actively to create a vibrant, memorable and exciting atmosphere. Ideally, students will engage with each other intellectually and socially, within and beyond the classrooms, in the corridors, dining halls, the lounges and wherever else.

Do take steps to explore, enjoy and embrace the rich diversity we have on campus.

Writing and Communications

English has become the lingua franca of academia, commerce and even diplomacy. Proficiency in the English Language – reading, writing and communications are now critical skills required in all vocations. This is also an area that employers have singled out as a weakness of NUS graduates.

I have been deliberating on whether it is necessary to introduce compulsory language and communications modules in the undergraduate curriculum. We do not want our graduates to be unnecessarily hampered or disadvantaged in the global talent marketplace, because of sub-par reading, writing or speaking skills. Language proficiency will give our graduates an edge in productivity and effectiveness at the workplace.

The undergraduate cohort is a diverse one. To cater to the varying levels of language competence, the Centre for English Language Communication (CELC) is looking into how students can be matched to programs of an appropriate level according to their language ability. Some pilots are already in place.

Our challenge is that students are not keen! Our pilot Writing modules are not attracting much interest from Science, Engineering and Computing students. And students from the Science and Technology disciplines are precisely the ones who are most in need of these courses, as they have far less opportunities to develop language and communications skills through their disciplinary modules.

I sincerely hope students are convinced of the importance of English proficiency. Prof Brent Strong, the Lorin Farr Professor of Entrepreneurial Technology at the Brigham Young University, has written a persuasive piece on ‘Why Engineers Should Read Shakespeare’. He argues the importance for scientists to develop the ability to express themselves articulately in terms that all can understand and to discuss scientific and other issues from a broad and comprehensive viewpoint.  He encourages engineers to read Shakespeare, and explains how Shakespeare will help us think, because we think in words.

Of course, we recognize that a single module, or a set of modules, does not suffice to produce sustained results; we must in parallel encourage faculty members to integrate writing and communications components into existing course modules (and for each major). Supporting infrastructure must also be put in place to encourage and assist with writing and communications; these may include seminars, workshops, and writing and communications stations and resource centres amongst others.

I had to realise the importance of, and then learn English the hard way. English did not come naturally to me. I was raised in a dialect-speaking environment. Father had secondary education but in a Chinese-medium school; Mother did not have the opportunity to receive any education. And so, my siblings and I picked up English in school. I managed alright, until secondary school, during which English and Literature became my weakest subjects.

When in Pre-U, I harboured hopes of going abroad for university. I excelled in Math and the Sciences. But alas, it wasn’t good enough. During a PSC (Public Service Commission) scholarship interview conducted in the middle part of Pre-U 2, a panel member remarked that he didn’t think I would be able to pass my GP (General Paper). There went my overseas scholarship.

I felt hurt and indignant. And I was determined to prove to them that I could do well in GP. I was from a poor family and my parents could not afford tuition. So I decided to self-teach. I bought a few assessment books and First Aid in English became my ‘bible’. I read voraciously and disciplined myself to write a GP essay every day. Eventually, I was happy to have managed a P3 at the ‘A’ levels – though not stellar, it was a decent grade.

I still have this in my Math office.
I still have this in my Math office.

Language can be likened to music. Music is a medium of expression; one can depict merry and melancholy through music. We have heard and can feel how tenderly an instrument like the violin can render ‘Air on a G String’. But we cannot execute the same, unless we have acquired technical mastery of the instrument. Language is our primary mode of expression and communication. Likewise, without the requisite grounding in grammar, vocabulary, semantics et al, we are not able to express ourselves as richly and fully.

Language acquisition is a lifelong endeavour; I am still at it. Never cease to learn, and never ever give up.


An unfortunate incident occurred on Saturday, 1 Oct 2011. 725 students were scheduled to sit for a Managerial Economics (offered by the NUS Business School) mid-semester test, which had to be cancelled at the last minute. Shortly before the test was due to start, the lecturer found that he had less than 500 scripts on hand. After considering various options, he decided to call off the test. Within moments, comments were tweeted and disseminated instantaneously. The mainstream media fielded many reports too. There was much interest, speculation and commotion. Later, our preliminary investigations confirmed that a human error had occurred. A staff was tasked to print 750 scripts, but had instead printed less than 500 copies. We must and will take steps to avert a future occurrence.

The brouhaha and outbursts witnessed are perhaps in part a manifestation of how intensely our students and society view examinations. The Singapore educational system prides itself as a meritocratic one. Somehow, the notion of meritocracy has been deeply entwined with examinations. I would like to take this opportunity to share about the evolving role of examinations at the NUS, and how we should develop a healthier and more balanced perspective towards examinations.  

When I was an undergraduate at the NUS some 25 years ago, ‘exams’ was a terrifying word. Then, each course was taught over two semesters, and a typical load was to read 6 courses. Each course entailed 5 hours of lectures and one hour of tutorial every week, excluding laboratory time! At the end of the second semester, we had to sit for a three-hour exam for each course. Exams determined everything – it was a ‘make it, or break it’ system (or some would say, ‘do or die’). Should you fail an exam, you can attempt a Re-exam (the proper term was Supplementary Examination). If you’re not able to clear any of the ‘Re’s, there were no ifs and buts about it – you’ll have to repeat the entire year.

The release of exam results was even more interesting. NUS students nowadays can go online to view their results, or opt to receive SMS notifications. But back in those days, the Registrar would print out the matriculation numbers and corresponding grades of all candidates; these would be posted on a notice board near the Registrar’s Office. Results were usually released at around 8 am and many anxious students will be congregating there hours before.

Imagine the fear, grip and trepidation that exams evoked.

But, let us examine objectively – are examinations necessarily evil or are they a necessary evil? Some students feel that exams are intrinsically linked to a CAP system and with a CAP system in place, exams will always take centre stage at the NUS. This is not so. My view is that exams certainly do provide a means to measure learning outcomes; they are the traditional, tried and tested assessment medium. There are however, also other alternative methods that are effective in measuring and assessing learning outcomes; many of these methods are notably more labour-intensive to employ. 

Should we then embrace or eschew exams? Exams are not intrinsically bad, but we should refrain from using them solely and deterministically. Yet, a system with no exams may not be ideal, as exams do provide a sound learning and testing platform for certain subjects. The sensible and constructive way forward, I think, is to adopt a balanced approach.

As such, the NUS has over the years been moving away from a rigid exams-driven system. We have progressively decreased the weightage of final exams, and to place more emphasis on continual assessment instead. Even with continual assessment, we hope that our lecturers will introduce innovative methods of continual assessments, beyond the traditional tests. Many modules now have project work as an integral component. Overall, the NUS system is today a more flexible and forgiving one. We no longer have Supplementary Examinations. If a student fails a module, he or she is not ‘retained’, but is given the opportunity to retake the module, without having to repeat the entire set of modules taken in the previous semester or year.

Ultimately, our aim is to enable and empower students to maximize their learning opportunities at the NUS. We have since allowed students to declare S/U options after the release of results – the motivation behind this move is to encourage students to try out challenging modules and not be deterred by possible CAP implications. Students know this S/U option very well, but many see this as an opportunity to ‘even out heavy course loads’. Many students would like the S/U option to be expanded beyond 3 modules. We may consider this and I will take this discussion further in a future post.

There is a place for exams, but let’s put exams in its proper place.

Global Readiness of NUS Graduates

We are living in a globalized and interconnected world; it has thus become imperative that our graduates are broadening their horizons, developing global mindsets and honing cross cultural skills.

 How we seek to achieve this is broadly two-fold. First, we try to create as many opportunities for students to gain an overseas experience. Over half of our undergraduates will have at least an overseas exposure stint; and a quarter of our undergraduates will spend at least a semester abroad. We have also expanded the range of international learning experiences, from student exchange programmes with universities all around the world, to an entrepreneurial work and study stint with an NUS Overseas College. There are also a range of programmes of shorter duration, such as internships, summer programmes and research attachment programmes.  Returning students have found their overseas experiences enriching and eye-opening.

 Still, there is the other nearly half of our undergraduate population who are not participating in any of our overseas programmes. And amongst this group, some are students who have done well academically. Perhaps some of you could share why you are not pursuing an overseas stint and what the impediments are. Is it due to the selection criteria, or are finances the key obstacle?

 Second, we are in tandem, ‘bringing the world to NUS’. Every year, we welcome over 1,400 exchange students from abroad. Faculty members join us also from across the world. There is so much richness in diversity, and its potential for mutual learning and edification is for us to embrace.

 Herein, many students have shared that residential living in Halls and the Residential Colleges has been especially beneficial for cross-cultural exposure and learning. Yet, I think we can leverage further on the diversity on campus, whether in class or in the dorms. Is there more we can do to help students benefit from this diverse community we have on campus? Would it be useful for lecturers to formalize interaction opportunities in the classroom, such as through the assignment of groups? Afterall, this mimics a working situation where we do not always get to choose our partners.