Maintaining SMU's Competitive Edge
When I go back to 2010-2011, that first academic year, where I had to learn a lot about the university, one of my observations was that probably the undergraduate program had gone through a cycle and was at the end of its success cycle. The way I say this is that when I came here, everybody was enthusiastic about the model, and I will not repeat it, but we all know about the small class sizes, the holistic education etc. And everybody was enthusiastic and say “Oh, we’ve been successful because our students find good jobs”. But when I was listening around, I got more and more signals that people were saying, “Yes, but you’ve lost your edge, NUS and NTU are catching up.” And yes, it was a great model but they have changed. And it’s true, they moved actually much more to an American system also.
So the feeling I started having after a few months is that we were at the end of a cycle in the sense that we had come up with something totally new. In the beginning probably our colleagues had neglected what was SMU doing; then suddenly they discovered that our students got good jobs and higher salaries on the average. And they reacted as one would expect to do, and they gave us the biggest compliment that one can give you by copying what we had been doing successfully. And thus, there was sort of this perception in the market—and I got it very strongly from some employers who said yes, but you’re losing the edge, you’re losing that differentiation that you had vis-à-vis the other schools, the other universities here in Singapore. So I felt that there was a need for a, I call it a second cycle, but maybe it’s just giving it a second impetus. Yes, doing something with the program—not because it was bad but because it was losing its edge, let me put it that way.
So I worked with the teams because the undergraduate is not something that is directly my responsibility as the president. I have to work with the Provost and with Vice Provost for undergraduate education. But I mean it took a bit of time to have the institution realize that we shouldn’t become complacent, let me put it that way, right. And so, what I tried to stress is that this holistic education was still very good, but that we had to complement it with other things. And over the years, Provost and Deans have actually reacted quite well to it. So that I believe that today, our program again is much more recognized as being a differentiated program, offering something very different to our students. Things that have contributed to that would be the introduction of SMU-X in the experiential learning, would be the more interdisciplinary degrees or majors such as PLE—Politics, Law and Economics, the Smart- City Management and Technology, more recently the Health Economics and Management. So bringing in new tracks that are aligned with what the industry and employers want to have, the hundred percent overseas exposure that we have decided. Again, it’s not that we really transformed completely the undergraduate program, but we got into a mode of innovating every year. And I think that’s what really was needed.
I’m actually very happy that when Lily Kong, our Provost came on board that she took actually the bull by the horns and said we’re going to actually look at the composition of our core program, something that we knew had become a bit stale after 15-16 years. She took the bull by the horns and actually said we are going to review and revise that core program. Again, significant innovation that will be rolled out over the coming years, and I think that maybe, I put it a bit black and white, but I think that we went from a mode where we said we have something that works very well, we can’t touch it, to a mode of yes, we have something that works very well, but we need to innovate every year, and we need to improve every year, and we need to change every year.