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Staying relevant in a changing world

The fast-evolving nature of work requires new sets of skills that universities are trying to provide through their postgraduate programmes

"Today's job market is highly competitive and a postgraduate degree can be a valuable passport to better career prospects," says Prof Yue
"Our goal is to transform our students in terms of their world views, competencies, strategic vision, spirit of collaboration and appetite for problem solving," says Prof Zerrillo
"Our students' employability upon completion of our programmes is also a critical consideration to the graduate programmes we offer," says Prof Kankanhalli

Roundtable participants:

  • Professor Yue Chee Yoon, Associate Provost (Graduate Education), Nanyang Technological University (NTU)
  • Professor Philip Zerrillo, Dean of Postgraduate Professional Programmes, Singapore Management University (SMU)
  • Professor Mohan Kankanhalli, Vice-Provost (Graduate Education), National University of Singapore (NUS)

Moderator: Francis Kan, The Business Times

AS technology and globalisation makes the world a more complex one, more executives and professionals are seeking to upgrade their skills in order to navigate the volatility.

Many are turning to postgraduate degrees to achieve this goal - whether more traditional MBA programmes or newer ones in areas like data analytics and environmental sustainability. We spoke to Singapore's three main universities to get a sense of how their postgraduate offerings have evolved to remain relevant to today's working professional.

The Business Times: How is a postgraduate degree relevant today when forces such as technology and globalisation are changing the nature of many jobs?

Yue Chee Yoon: Today's job market is highly competitive and a postgraduate degree can be a valuable passport to better career prospects. A master's degree can command a premium with employers, especially if it is combined with relevant work experience and specialised knowledge in disciplines such as engineering, science and the financial industry. Holding a postgraduate degree also shows employers that the person is open to new ideas and is truly passionate about the field, and this may pave the way to higher responsibility and a higher salary grade. For example, NTU's Nanyang MBA graduates on average more than doubled their incomes three years after completing the programme.

Philip Zerrillo: Technology and globalisation are indeed a large part of the environment that we work in and changing the nature of many jobs, but what remains unchanged is that fundamental problem-framing and problem-solving skills are still needed. The critical analysis abilities and experiences gained through a postgraduate degree, especially one at SMU, better prepare students for leadership in the future world in vast ways.

SMU postgraduate students are enriched through innovative programmes that provide both Asian and global business perspectives, exposure to experienced and diverse faculty and classmates, curriculum designed in consultation with corporate partners including renowned overseas schools, current and practical applications with industry-based learning approaches in the programmes. We have unique modules such as "Agile and Disruptive Strategy", "Network and Alliance Building" that help students deal with both constants and the uncertain.

Mohan Kankanhalli: Graduate degrees are becoming increasingly relevant today, precisely because of the rapid changes to the globalised workplace and the increasing complexity of problems that the world faces, thus requiring individuals to acquire deep knowledge and solid interdisciplinary skills.

Many graduates in the workforce have a strong desire to keep pace with these changes, and choose to further their education and training through a rigorous graduate programme offered by a reputable university like the National University of Singapore.

Undertaking graduate degrees can help students deepen the knowledge and skills acquired through an undergraduate education, sharpen their competitive advantage in the marketplace for talent, and even help them ease entry into a complementary or completely different profession through retraining and retooling.

BT: How have your programmes evolved along with these trends?

Prof Yue: NTU offers a wide variety of postgraduate qualifications with 30 PhD and more than 80 master's degree programmes that can be completed by research or coursework. In the last five years, NTU has launched about a dozen new postgraduate degrees, with more focus given to interdisciplinary programmes and in emerging areas. For example, since the Interdisciplinary Graduate School was set up in 2012, NTU has introduced new PhD programmes in cutting-edge areas such as future healthcare, environmental sustainability and new media. Students in these programmes are researching into exciting innovations at the interstices of disciplines, such as nano medicine, tissue engineering and the invention of new medical devices.

Prof Zerrillo: Our programmes are increasingly more practice oriented. We find that the key to postgraduate education is to go beyond the simple concepts of exposure and comprehension, and move towards integration, synthesis and the ability to create new knowledge. Learning through a mix of case studies, project-based assignments, consultative experiences and internships, our students become both problem-spotters and problem-solvers. This is a very important distinction as it is necessary for our students to assist the management of the firm in being aware and proactive.

Prof Kankanhalli: Our graduate programmes are reviewed and revised regularly to stay relevant to advances in the discipline and to changes in the industry. We actively seek out and consult industry partners in enhancing the curriculum of our graduate programmes and have introduced new programmes where we perceive and anticipate industry demand. Our students' employability upon completion of our programmes is also a critical consideration to the graduate programmes we offer.

BT: What are your more popular programmes, and what new ones have you introduced in recent years?

Prof Yue: NTU's part-time master's programmes have been popular as they provide flexibility for working professionals to advance their knowledge and skills, while they continue to pursue their careers.

One of NTU's most popular part-time programmes is the flagship Nanyang MBA. Each year, about 30 part-time students and 70 full-time students are admitted. The Nanyang Business School also offers part-time executive MBA programmes in different tracks, targeted at more senior executives. Notable alumni of the part-time Nanyang MBA programme include Han Kwee Juan, chief executive officer of Citibank Singapore, and Ng Joo Hee, chief executive of national water agency PUB. Besides future healthcare, environmental sustainability and new media, NTU has also expanded into other hot emerging fields, such as data analytics.

Prof Zerrillo: Currently our Master of Science in Management is our fastest growing programme. This programme does not require work experience and appeals to many people who have either found that their undergraduate degree did not fully prepare them for their choice of career, or who may be entering family businesses. The School of Information Systems has seen rapid growth in a number of their programmes, and degrees in financial security and analytics are showing great promise.

In recent years, we have introduced new degrees such as the Master of Tri-Sector Collaboration that focuses on bringing the public, private and civil society sectors to study some of the greatest challenges facing mankind. We have also begun a Master of Science in Innovation, and a Master of Science in CFO Leadership for aspiring CFOs. This year, we have just launched the Master of Human Capital Leadership.

Prof Kankanhalli: The NUS graduate programmes across all disciplines have generally been highly sought after. We continually look at introducing programmes across a broad spectrum of disciplines to cater to diverse needs and interest. Some programmes that have been recently introduced include the Master of Science in Applied Geographic Information Systems; Master of Dental Surgery in Paediatric Dentistry; Graduate Diploma in Palliative Medicine; Master of Music; and Master of Science in Business Analytics.

BT: Has the profile of the postgraduate students changed in recent years?

Prof Yue: Our postgraduate students are typically young adults with at least a few years' work experience. Some reasons for this could be because they wish to improve themselves, upgrade their skills, or go deeper into their area of expertise. For some, taking a postgraduate degree can help them switch to another career that they did not study for in their first degree.

Prof Zerrillo: We have made great efforts to recruit more Asean students. We have seen our students' diversity grow in the past two years as we have spread our recruiting efforts more broadly.

Prof Kankanhalli: Apart from young graduates, we have been seeing increasing interest from early to mid-career professionals. This stems from the strong quest for knowledge and passion for inquiry among students, as well as the increasing need to better distinguish themselves in the highly competitive and challenging landscape.

BT: What sort of skills are employers demanding from graduates of postgraduate programmes?

Prof Yue: Despite strong demand for specialised manpower in certain sectors, employers today are more discerning and while a postgraduate degree from a good university can help to advance one's career, graduates also need to demonstrate that they are entrepreneurial, forward thinking, and able to solve complex problems. By engaging in real-world projects during their course, our graduates are better prepared for the competitive global job market.

Prof Zerrillo: That never changes! Employers always want people who will step forward, have the ability to spot problems, and exercise the leadership and initiative to solve them before they become issues. Our employers want people who can make sound decisions swiftly.

Prof Kankanhalli: Employers continue to value graduates that have a good academic grounding, with in-depth content knowledge, and strong analytical and critical thinking skills. They also value interdisciplinarity, good interpersonal skills, including communication and networking, and the ability to think creatively to solve real-world problems. We firmly believe that our graduate programmes will prepare our students for the challenges ahead, and encourage them to embrace lifelong learning.

BT: What new plans do you have for your postgraduate programmes in the future?

Prof Yue: Because today's global problems are complex and cannot be solved by any one academic discipline or sector, we increasingly require multidisciplinary approaches. Employers also want to hire graduates who can work collaboratively in interdisciplinary teams and they need graduates who are flexible and can think beyond a single narrow discipline to solve real world challenges. As a leading research intensive university, we will also seize opportunities in emerging areas and launch programmes which will help NTU establish itself in new research areas such as big data analytics, biomedical structural biology and future learning. Concurrently, we will strengthen our research in sustainability and healthcare.

Prof Zerrillo: Our goal is to provide a more transformative experience in all of our programmes. We are not just putting together programmes that earn you a postgraduate degree. Our goal is to transform our students in terms of their world views, competencies, strategic vision, spirit of collaboration and appetite for problem solving.

Prof Kankanhalli: NUS will continue to deepen its engagement with employers and industry, and the postgraduate programmes will be designed with their inputs. The graduate programmes offered will also provide more flexibility to working professionals, for instance, through the offering of online courses, and a student selection process that will take into account work experience and prior learning and not solely based on academic backgrounds.

NUS will also be establishing the new School of Continuing And Lifelong Education (SCALE) over the next three years, offering a mix of part-time certificate and non-certificate courses to enable Singaporeans and NUS graduates to skill and re-skill for existing or new jobs as well as to help companies and industries stay competitive by providing lifelong learning opportunities for their employees.