By Jeremy Au Yong
ONCE it was possibly the greatest centre of learning in the world, but these days, Cambridge University faces far more competition.
Top American universities have caught up, and institutions in China and India are on the rise as well.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong gave his take last night on his alma mater's changing status in the world as he reflected on the British university's long history.
Speaking at Cambridge University's 800th anniversary gala dinner, he said its long-held and privileged status as one of the world's few top academic institutions is no more.
'Cambridge remains a great university, but it now shares top placing not with one or two others, but perhaps half a dozen, mainly in North America,' he said.
He added: 'The best United States universities - Harvard, Stanford, Yale, MIT - have become outstanding centres of teaching and research. Top Ivy League universities are at least on a par with Cambridge.'
Such universities are more integrated into the economy and society, more closely linked with alumni networks, and more independent of the government in terms of funding and governance. They also have endowments larger than those enjoyed by the wealthiest colleges in Cambridge.
Furthermore, Asian universities are starting to make a name for themselves. Competition for places in the top universities in India and China is often far more fierce than for those in Britain or the US.
'The Indians say that if you have a bright kid, try for the IIT (Indian Institutes of Technology); if you can't make it, go to MIT,' he said to laughter from the audience of alumni and their guests.
Even though they are not yet premier institutions, he said they would improve as India and China develop.
However, he noted that Cambridge was also evolving with the times, for instance, by collaborating with industry through research and setting up a science park, among other things.
And he wished the school well.
'I hope it will adapt and flourish in the changed world, and remain a top institution that alumni around the world can be proud of,' he said.
Mr Lee read mathematics at Cambridge's Trinity College, graduating with first-class honours in 1974.
Last night, he also reflected on the different experiences of each generation of Singaporeans who had gone to Cambridge.
He noted how the students who go there now are so much more connected to home than was the case when he was an undergraduate there.
Where students these days have the benefits of the Internet, during his time, even telephone calls home were rarely made.
'A long-distance telephone call home was a major and costly undertaking, to be made only in the most exceptional circumstances, such as when reporting examination results,' he said.
Another difference now: A Cambridge education is no longer adequate preparation for life.
'Students nowadays also need exposure to the US and Asia,' he said.
He advised future or current Cambridge students to pursue internships and postgraduate programmes in the US and in Asia: 'It will be useful to you and to Singapore.'
Mr Lee stressed that Singapore's future would depend on its young talent, and not just those who went to universities abroad.
'We are also investing heavily in our local universities...so that even those who cannot go abroad can get a first-class education,' he said.
He added that Singapore's planned fourth university - the Singapore University of Technology and Design - will give 'many more of our ablest students an outstanding education in technology and design, and reflect the spirit of our society and people'.
'Singapore relies on all of them to lead and deliver our continuing transformation and progress,' he said.
This article was first published in The Straits Times.