The Indomitable Soul of a Physical University

HO Han Kiat
Dean of Students, Office of Student Affairs (OSA)

In this Special Feature, NUS Dean of Students Assoc Prof Ho Han Kiat reflects on a physical university’s value in a post-pandemic world, and how we as educators can perceive the value of this space and in doing so, facilitate student learning and hone core student attributes.

Photo courtesy of NUS Image Bank
Ho H. K. (2022, August 10). The indomitable soul of a physical university. Teaching Connections.

The COVID-19 pandemic has spurred astronomical growth in educational innovations. Over this period, we have adapted many aspects of teaching and learning using newfound avenues: Online platforms have facilitated teaching without a classroom; interactive tools have redefined multi-user discussion and the sharing of ideas; e-assessments have superceded pen-and-paper assessments in significant ways; we also saw a rise in virtual internships that had rendered experiential learning much more accessible than before. To a large extent, we have been successful in adapting to this crisis.

Yet paradoxically, this same enablement has unearthed an inconvenient question on the relevance of a physical university: if everything can be done online, why do we still need to meet face-to-face?

As we now transit to the endemic phase, we are compelled to confront this question head-on, and identify the learning gaps that can only be bridged through physical experience. What would this be? Introspectively, three things come to mind:

  1. The social connectivity that widens the global mindset and community development of graduates;
  2. The team-based intellectual discourse that maximises individual and team effectiveness, potentially sparking new ideas; and
  3. The spontaneous and deliberate mentoring that builds character and hones future skills.


Social Connectivity

Social connectivity is critical for growing the human and cultural intelligence of individuals. While online platforms can support cognitive engagements, acquiring a deep appreciation of individuality and nuances takes much more than that. Among which, a community’s value and social network is most clearly expressed in the context of residential life.

In NUS, we have close to 11,000 students staying on campus across different hostels. Within each enclave, students of different disciplines live and thrive together through structured and unstructured co-curricular activities, which become the vessels where individual creativity, interests and leadership are expressed and developed. As they spend long hours in close physical proximity to one another, they learn to accept diversity in perspectives and lifestyles. Having the “skin in the game”, they learn that individual choices and contributions are intertwined with the environment, and therefore the only way to move forward is together. Hence, these circumstances drive individuals to foster a communal identity and adopt a global mindset. The ultimate gain is greater self-mobility and adaptability towards an increasingly complex and inter-dependent world.


A Conducive Learning Space

Zoom and Microsoft Teams have evolved into the mainstream online platforms that we use for academic discussion. While these media have demolished the constraints of physical distance, they do not permit a fluidic exchange of ideas. Inherently, only one person can speak at one time, and attendance is usually agenda-specific. Yet, we are cognisant that innovations are often seeded as a tangent to the main agenda, through informal side conversations and the unplanned convergence of thoughts. Using a trivial analogy: one cannot tell a good joke online because you simply cannot hear the audience’s laughter! This anecdote illuminates the importance of “resonance” as a needful reception to any idea, and this concurrence requires a full display of body language and emotions as aided by face-to-face encounters. If this postulation is correct, what can we do to reinforce this with the benefit of a physical university?

I would like to use the transformation seen in the library as an illustration. Traditionally, the library is a physical repository of books and journals. However, today it is a conducive space where students can choose to study alone or engage in team-based learning. It is also a one-stop resource for information and for guidance on research tools and methodologies. Extrapolating from the historical development of libraries, the pandemic has taught us the need to create dynamic and integrated mixed-use space that facilitate human interaction. The comfort and the convenience of a quality physical space should go a long way in providing provide uninterrupted and unhurried periods for thoughts to incubate and for ideas to flourish. Hence, we should continue to expand and to make this type of space more ubiquitous and alluring for students in the days ahead. At the same time, students should also explore and identify their own alternatives on campus that fulfil the same purpose.


Effective Mentoring

Thirdly, a physical university can accentuate effective mentoring. A physical connection offers the latitude for trust and respect to be established, which in turn sets the pace and the tone for mentoring.

More broadly, the university ecosystem—comprising students, staff, alumni and partners—creates countless touchpoints where each student can be nurtured to actualise their potential. Each stakeholder can bring a different dimension of experience to enrich the student. Seniors with their recent tertiary experiences can help younger students navigate through their daily learning and identify immediate pitfalls that they can avoid; newly minted graduates and other young alumni can help paint the emerging work landscape for young minds, and emphasise the need for continuous and lifelong learning; older alumni as well as community and industrial partners can share their life experiences and help our students redefine the meaning of success for themselves. Last but not least, faculty members and staff can help connect the meaning of their learning against the ambiguity of the real world.

A physical university removes the veil for authentic conversations and encourages students to reach out. Such a setting would certainly facilitate mentoring in both a spontaneous and a deliberate way.


How Can Students Respond to This Reality?

Overall, I count these attributes as the indomitable soul of a physical university. Though they are not transcribed into the academic curriculum, the intangible values may yet outweigh the cognitive gains that are now wholly accessible through online means. My further assertion is that the post-pandemic era will now bring these values to the foreground, and challenge us to exploit them for the students’ benefit. So as university students and educators, how should we respond to it?

Firstly, the hiatus of on-campus activities over the past few years may require a deliberate orientation process to reintroduce the amenities and resources that the university can offer. Students should be part of this process to keep abreast of such information as much as possible.

Secondly, both the physical and the virtual space will present an influx of information and activities for students to be a part of. Amid the bombardment of information, students can easily lose their bearings. As a response, students need to develop personal effectiveness through careful planning and prioritisation. While most activities can enrich an individual’s holistic development, the indiscriminate participation in all activities could be counter-productive. Hence, students should plan ahead and make informed decisions that align with their personal goals and interests.

Finally, thriving in a physical space takes active engagement and receptivity. Using mentorship as an example, the best outcome will require two hands to clap. Students must play the reciprocal role of being proactive in the engagement process, and constantly provide constructive feedback to refine the process and steer the outcome. With all these put together, it is my hope to see all students seize the best of what a premier physical university can offer, strive to prosper in intellect and character, and grow to become leaders of change for tomorrow.


HO Han Kiat, Ph.D., DABT, is the Dean of Students at the National University of Singapore (NUS) and an academic staff of the Department of Pharmacy. In 2009, he started his own research programme in NUS, exploring various aspects of liver diseases including the management of drug-induced liver toxicity, liver fibrosis and liver cancer. Over the years as a faculty member, he has published more than 90 papers in internationally recognized journals and won multiple university-level teaching excellence awards, including the Outstanding Educator Award in 2020. He was recently recognised for his research by winning the 2020 Distinguished Alumni Award for Excellence in Pharmaceutical Sciences and Research, conferred by the University of Washington, School of Pharmacy. He is the Vice President of the Toxicology Society of Singapore, editorial advisory board member of Biochemical Pharmacology and Current Opinion in Toxicology. He is also a diplomate of the American Board of Toxicology.

Han Kiat can be reached at


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