The diverse mix of local and international students in NUS that contributes to its multicultural make up is something hard to come by.
This was the view of one of the three international advisory panellists on a visit to NUS between Sep. 18 and 22 for a review of the University Scholars Programme, a first since its inception in 2001.
Professor Scott Bierman of Carleton Colleges said NUS has greater cultural diversity compared to universities in the United States.
“NUS is sitting in a remarkable, incredible position. And we all remarked on how phenomenally multicultural NUS is and what a huge advantage that is.
“And we (in the United States) struggle enormously to just achieve a fraction of what you guys have,” said Bierman, an economics professor and dean of college.
However, tertiary education in American institutions, such as Yale College where panellist Penelope Laurans comes from, has the advantage of residential colleges that foster communities of close-knit relationships among students.
Laurans, associate dean of Yale College, said, “The intensity of living together is another educational experience.”
Not that NUS is lagging behind. Plans for a similar style of education are underway with the construction of University Town, to be completed by 2010.
Touted as an integrated social and academic environment that incorporates residential colleges housing, University Town is designed with multiple facilities to allow students to study and stay together in close proximity. Each college will be a community comprising 500 to 600 students.
Bierman said, “And the fact that NUS is developing residential colleges, is I’m sure, in recognition of relationships and of how students learn and we all know that learning is crucially dependent on learning from each other.”
Besides emulating residential college living and taking advantage of the multicultural presence in NUS, the strong foundation of local students provided by the Singapore education system should not be taken for granted.
Laurans said, “Well I think fundamental skills are for many, many reasons, like maths and science, especially important in the 21st century.
“You people are better grounded at an earlier age than Americans are.”
Building on those skills to maintain the analytical edge of its students, USP is offering critical thinking modules that students outside the programme are not required to take.
And one such module caught the attention of James Leloudis, fellow panellist and associate professor from University of North Carolina.
Leloudis said “the best example is the critical thinking and writing module” offered by USP as it emphasises thinking ability and expression of ideas.
“It’s about learning how to use writing not just for communication, but to use writing as a means of thinking, harnessing questions, thinking about evidence,” Leloudis said.
Emphasis on developing critical thinking is to equip students with a general set of skills and not to prepare them for a specific profession.
Such an education that does not strictly focus on a particular speciality is similar in its approach to a liberal arts education, where students are required to take a broad range of subjects such as physics, history and philosophy.
An exploration of different disciplines also buys time, as undergraduates earning their first degree might be hard pressed to decide the choice of career in the future.
Laurans said, “The theory is that you will discover that you are too young to know exactly what you want to do.
“So you discover what it is, where you can make a contribution and who you really are in those four years and you will get the ability to adapt.”
Students can then better respond to the possibility of switching careers as the pace of globalisation displaces professions more rapidly in the future, Laurans said.
This fact has been recognised in the United States as there is a resurgence of interest in a liberal arts education.
Bierman said, “Twenty years ago, a liberal arts education in America did face some very real threat. And now, there is a better understanding for all the reasons we talked about earlier – a liberal arts education has more value than what people imagined.”
As part of their five-day visit, the international advisory panel interacted with USP students, alumni and faculty members.
All three panellists, visiting Singapore for the first time, will write a review evaluating the past performance and future prospects of USP.