Mr Speaker, my Adjournment Motion speech today will address the issue of ensuring a culture of accountability to students and staff at our Institutes of Higher Learning, or IHLs. I was moved to give this speech by having met many young people over the years, be it at my Meet the People sessions or during my constituency walkabouts, house visits and other events in the Serangoon ward of Aljunied GRC. Current students, teachers, as well as alumni, have also reached out to my volunteer team and I over to share their ideas and suggestions, which they often feel are not being reflected or heard at the decision-making level at IHLs. I am proud of them for standing up and speaking up for the welfare and rights of their colleagues, their fellow students and juniors. In this speech, I hope to share some thoughts and proposals that have been inspired by what they shared.
Sir, accountability is something we speak about in politics. But its dynamics at IHLs, which I will focus on for my speech, is quite different because of the power structures and rules in place. Which is why my speech will focus on IHL boards and management being more accountable specifically to students and staff.
Against this, it could be urged that IHLs are not democracies any more than companies are. Why is there a need for some degree of accountability and transparency about decision-making? The reasons for why this is important may be self-evident to some but I will spell these out.
For one, IHL management, as with the management of any organization, may have blind spots to what students and staff need. An example is how mental health challenges faced by students are very different from those staff face, and different too from those faced by older adults. And unlike employees in a company, students cannot easily change courses and IHLs, as doing so would have repercussions for their career progression.
Secondly, giving students a say in their own education helps them fulfil their purpose for learning, which I believe for most people is broader than what their future employers want. We must recognise that IHLs are not merely factories to churn out economically useful graduates. The part of their lives that students spend at IHLs is often among the most memorable, precious and formative of their lives. These experiences can help ground students and enable them to contribute to their communities in multiple ways later on in life, not all of which can easily be captured in dollars and cents. Ensuring that the environment in the IHLs is conducive to these journeys in character formation is vital, to help ensure that those who pass through their portals become self-aware, self-actualised and socially engaged citizens.
Thirdly, being accountable means students and staff have greater ownership over their institution and have a better student experience. In economic terms, this could mean strong alumni engagement which may translate into better fund-raising capacity downstream, to cite one example of a concrete benefit. A good environment and a strong culture of accountability could also translate into the IHL being more attractive to students and faculty – in other words it could be part of that IHL’s competitive advantage and collectively contribute to our national competitive advantage.
As our IHLs seek to go beyond rankings, and this is a goal that the Minister for Education has said he seeks1, they should also build a reputation of being great places for students. And this includes being more open, responsive, and consultative.
But perhaps most importantly, an enhanced accountability culture at IHLs helps set the tone for creating such a culture across society.
Signs that not all is right
Sir let me go on to highlight some incidents that suggest where the gaps may lie. I don’t think these are necessarily representative of the institutions they took place in and it is not my wish to single out any particular IHL for criticism, but they serve to give us a sense of what students in IHLs feel are some of the areas where the accountability culture can be improved.
To start, there was widespread dismay among students at NTU regarding the hall allocation for the 2021/2022 Academic Year. The release of hall allocation results on 1 July 2021 left many international students (who had been staying on-campus throughout due to COVID-19) suddenly homeless and scrambling for alternative lodging before the 15 July deadline. Local students were similarly affected, especially Year 1 and 2 students who were supposed to have been guaranteed on-campus housing according to NTU’s guidelines. A petition, signed by 5,500 people, was set up to urge the management to reconsider their decision. A day later, a statement was put out that more hall spaces were opened up, with space for students on the guaranteed two-year-stay guideline as well as international students who were already staying on campus then.2
Student discontent with infrastructure can be found elsewhere. For example, out of the 30 Halal options at NTU, I understand that many are vending machines. There are also only a limited number of canteens, out of the many at the residential halls, that have Halal stalls. A media outlet interviewed students who said that they had highlighted this issue to the administration for some time.3
Buses at NTU are perceived by some to arrive irregularly. Anecdotally wait times range from 5 minutes to 30 minutes.4 It is my understanding that the NTU Students’ Union has highlighted bus-related issues to the administration in the past.
Another example which speaks to the staff experience – during the pandemic, NTU initially made the decision to not allow students and faculty stuck overseas due to border closures to attend lessons online. Students were asked to miss the semester, and faculty members were asked to take no-pay leave should they be unable to make it back to Singapore physically.5 This affected students’ learning and the teaching of faculty members as many staff members had to cover for those absent.
The National University of Singapore (NUS) experienced similar issues of a perceived lack of accountability and transparency with the merger of Yale-NUS College (YNC) and the University Scholars Programme (USP). The timeline for the implementation was short, with the announcement made in August last year. There was an early claim that the replacement NUS College would provide a liberal arts education.6 Then a later announcement said that liberal arts subjects would likely not be included in the core curriculum, to the surprise of many.7 The new NUS College has already admitted its first students as of August this year.8
There is feedback from some students and staff that there was no transparency on the endgame for the merger of YNC and USP at NUS. The decision-making process was seen by many as opaque and with limitations on the autonomy for working group student representatives.9 Sir, this was a decision that would affect student education and their on-campus residence, given that both YNC and USP offer programmes that include residential components. Some staff had similar feedback, lamenting that they were given little opportunity to participate in the process. For example, the then-President of Yale-NUS College commented that the decision was only shared with the Governing Board in advance of the announcement for information.10
Mr Speaker sir, when reflecting on this and other feedback, I think the underlying perceptions by some students and staff can be distilled into two broad ones.
Firstly, some students feel that they are treated as economic digits, with IHL decisions made based on the return on investment (ROI). For example, some feel that the reason why infrastructural issues are sometimes not fully addressed is because there is no incentive to improve it. Students are not going to leave in the short run, and will be forced to put up with this if they want to finish their education and receive their degrees.
The second broad issue is the perception of top-down decision-making.
Many students and faculty perceive insufficient transparency, consultation and co-creation in decision-making. For example, IHL governing boards often have absolute discretion over Student Union regulations and all decisions made by the IHL. Many students believe that the Unions have little ability to seek structural or policy changes, and decisions are often made without consultation. This was shown clearly in the case of the merger of YNC and USP.
And when consultations are held, these are often non-binding, with the consequent decision-making being somewhat opaque.
The same transparency deficit may apply to disciplinary action for sexual offences. The case of Ms Monica Baey is instructive and well-known. NUS had initially prescribed what was seen by Ms Baey and many as a relatively light punishment for the perpetrator of a sexual- offence, even after Ms Baey had made a police report.11 The reasons and the process behind why NUS meted out that punishment were not made transparent to Ms Baey in the first instance. Another individual university student has very recently gone public about a case where she was the victim of a sexual offence and she publicly suggested reforms such as the university providing reasons for the disciplinary action taken and to offer a right of appeal for the victim.12
The dismissal of Dr Jeremy Fernando of NUS’s Tembusu College has also been seen in some quarters as not having been handled well.13 None other than Professor Tommy Koh, then-Rector of Tembusu College commented that the university had “fallen short” as the process was opaque and there was a “considerable gap” between the time NUS dismissed Dr Fernando, and when the rest of Tembusu College was informed.14
One last insight that comes through in feedback is the perception that academics are insufficiently represented on boards of trustees, boards of directors or councils, or in other words the governing board. The view here is that the weightage of trustees in the education sphere can be increased vis-à-vis that of business leaders and civil servants, so that more well-informed views about educational quality, the faculty experience and student life quality could be brought to bear on deliberations. I reviewed the lists of the Boards at Singapore IHLs and in most cases I confess that I have some sympathy with this view. I think the weightage of educators and non-educators on these boards is an issue that deserves more study and thought on the part of MOE, perhaps drawing on international reference points.
Sir, let me conclude this discussion of some of the perceived issues with a few suggestions to address these issues of perceived accountability and transparency deficits. I hope MOE can review these suggestions and work with our IHLs to encourage them to adopt policies along these lines. Doing so would be in the interests of the IHLs themselves, as it would enable them to enhance their competitiveness and attractiveness to students and faculty.
Proposal 1: Including more rank-and-file faculty on senates or other oversight bodies
First, I would like to talk about empowering rank-and-file faculty in university senates or oversight bodies. Typically, senates or president’s councils have strong representation from senior university administrators and less representation from the faculty rank and file. This could be seen as there being little separation between the President or Provost and faculty members who can provide oversight.
To illustrate this point with a question, do we know how many times other senate members succeeded in making their President or Provost reconsider certain decisions? In the various incidents I referred to earlier, what roles did university senates play and what roles were they able to play?
In many universities across the world, it is not always or perhaps often that university administrators lead senates which are supposed to provide oversight over executive decisions. Restructuring and opening up senates to more rank-and-file faculty could improve oversight.
One area where this may be helpful is on the issue of academic freedom. I filed a Parliamentary question on this earlier this year15, referring to the results of a survey undertaken among academics which suggested that there may be a significant proportion of academics in our IHLs who feel concerned about the state of academic freedom here; a survey which, by the way, should be looked into and where further research to validate it should be done in the best interest of cultivating a strong academia here.
Proposal 2: adding a representative for the student body and staff onto governing boards
Second, I propose granting a student union representative and a representative of rank-and-file faculty a seat on the Governing Board as a voting member or at least a nonvoting observer.16
This ensures that the voices of students and staff can be directly represented in the decision-making process, which in turn promotes inclusive decision making that actively considers the views of all stakeholders. Even if student and staff representatives on the Board are not given veto powers, such a move creates greater transparency.
The practice of granting student unions and staff a seat on the Governing Board is not by any means novel. Already, at least 13 of the top 50 universities in the latest QS World University rankings from Hong Kong17, North America18, Europe19 and Australia20 have adopted this practice. Singapore’s IHLs can and should do this too. In some universities, the governing board is required to have student and faculty members who are elected to that role by their peers.
Proposal 3: Requiring the consideration of petitions that enjoy strong support
Thirdly, I propose mandating IHLs to consider petitions above a set number of signatures. Doing so serves the following two functions.
For the university population, it legitimises petitions as a tool for policy change by providing certainty that such petitions will at the very least be considered by decision-makers of IHLs.
For the IHLs, it serves as a filter mechanism that prevents unnecessary consideration of frivolous petitions.
Such a move should prevent a repeat of what happened to Students representing Fossil Free Yale-NUS and Students Taking Action for NUS to Divest respectively. In March 2019, these two student groups calling on NUS to divest from fossil fuels, were granted a meeting with NUS administrators after making such a request for 6 months, only to be told that their petition, which had garnered nearly 800 signatures, was not enough to show substantial support for divestment.21 This raises the question of what number of signatures is enough.
Creating a requirement for IHL management to address petitions with a sizeable number of signatures would strengthen accountability and transparency. One happy side-effect of such a system is that it may also help students learn about how they can be active and involved citizens in a democracy.
Proposal 4: Simplifying the process for setting up new student groups
Fourth, I propose simplifying the process for setting up new student interest groups. For many students, campus life is a defining feature of their time in university. Interest groups are one of, if not the biggest contributor to a vibrant campus life. When students’ interests and passions are not served by existing interest groups, they should be empowered and facilitated in setting up their own.
Could the registration windows be extended or made more frequent? Or perhaps could registrations be accepted on a rolling basis as is, from what I understand, currently the case with SMU but not the case with some other IHLs?22 Could IHLs also make available to students a “model Club Constitution” so to speak, to make setting up a new group easier?
Proposal 5: Sharing Best Practices among IHLs
Lastly, we need to learn from not just mistakes or gaps, but also places of strength.
When the Singapore Management University was founded just over two decades ago in 2000 and was facing the challenge of how it should brand itself and create a school culture, it took only three years before they set up Singapore’s first formal peer helping programme in a university. This was at a time where mental health was nowhere near receiving the public and institutional attention that it now receives. While the impact on employability and other standardised metrics of peer support may not be clear, talking to students and studying feedback on this programme, I think it is clear that the student response has generally been supportive of the programme. There are now 1,200 qualified peer helpers with 200 helpers being trained each year.23 This is a good example of how IHLs can make positive change quickly and effectively by just listening to the voice of students.
To take another example, I believe in the wake of a spate of sexual offences and sexual misconduct incidents in some of our IHLs, some IHLs now have much more robust approaches specific to sexual misconduct. But some have proposed further reforms. I think some degree of collective experience sharing would help codify how IHLs take in and act on student and staff feedback on issues related to sexual misconduct and other issues.
Therefore, in addition to my earlier proposals, I would like to suggest that more be done to share best practices among IHLs and encourage levelling up – particularly in regards to the domains of feedback handling, accountability and the campus experience of students and staff that I have talked about today.
To conclude, Mr Speaker sir, our IHLs are to some degree a microcosm of our society. The environment we create there will have ramifications for the character development of our students, which in turn will play a huge role in determining the course that our nation takes in the decades ahead.
The proposals I have made to strengthen accountability and transparency at IHLs would also set a good example for the tone we want in our wider society. By giving them more scope to make a difference in their IHL through feedback and activities like creating petitions, we would be better equipping and encouraging our IHL students to become better citizens of Singapore in the years ahead.
Delivered in Parliament on 28 November 2022
1 https://www.moe.gov.sg/news/speeches/20220210-speech-by-minister-chan-chun-sing-at-straits-times-education-forum-at-the-singapore-management-university ; https://mothership.sg/2021/09/chan-chun-sing-successful-nus/
16 https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2015/nov/02/fighting-fees-and-carving-out-credibilty-studenton-a-university-board Shaping university boards for 21st century higher education in the US: https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/education/our-insights/shaping-university-boards-for-21st-century-higher-education-in-the-us