THE National University of Singapore (NUS) should look into starting an undergraduate liberal arts programme, so that its students are ready for risks and change - necessary traits for today's economy.
Speaking at the National University of Singapore Society's Kent Ridge Guild House where he received an honorary membership, National Research Foundation chairman Tony Tan called for Singapore's oldest university to review its education system.
Dr Tan, a former education minister who now chairs an international advisory panel responsible for helping the Government chart the direction of its education policies, said this is 'pertinent' with the changing world economy characterised by 'major restructuring of industries and the transitory nature' of jobs.
He said that the American liberal arts programme may be why the United States economy is 'more dynamic and more entrepreneurial' when compared with the traditional European ones.
In the liberal arts, students study varied fields from the humanities to the hard sciences before they go on to specialise.
Describing the current British model used by universities here - where undergraduates study a subject in depth - as having served Singapore well, DrTan said that it is now timely for NUS to look into liberal arts programmes for a selected group of high-achieving undergraduates.
To make it attractive for Singaporeans, NUS could combine a liberal arts programme with a professional course such as law or medicine. Students could then graduate with degrees in the liberal arts and law in five years, or the liberal arts and medicine in seven years.
Highlighting Brown University's Programme in Liberal Medical Education (PLME) as a successful example where the liberal arts and professional education are merged, Dr Tan said students there have a better and more complete appreciation of the economic and social impact of their professions.
Under the PLME, students are admitted to Brown's liberal arts and medical schools at the same time. Besides meeting pre-medical requirements, they can choose from a range of undergraduate majors such as history and politics before embarking on the study of medicine.
Although NUS will have to contend with higher tuition fees if it sets up such a programme, such concerns can be allayed with scholarships and financial assistance, Dr Tan added.
The idea of a liberal arts college is not the first to be mooted here. In 2008, the Government announced that Singapore was looking into the possibility of a small liberal arts college affiliated to one of the main universities here. NUS said in the same year that it had submitted a proposal to set up a liberal arts college.
Yesterday, the Ministry of Education said it is still studying the feasibility of setting up a liberal arts college and that 'more details will be provided in due course'.
When contacted, both NUS and the Singapore Management University said they have developed programmes which are broad-based and inter-disciplinary.
Brown University graduate Louis Tee, who is now studying medicine in Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School, said his experience in Brown had exposed him 'to various fields of study and myriad ways of thinking'. His major was in biomedical engineering but he took subjects such as creative writing and literature.
In Duke-NUS, he added, medical students with different bachelor's degrees are able to contribute different ideas and provide fresh perspectives for research.
Meanwhile, other Brown University local graduates said that the setting up of a liberal arts college here must come with strong support.
Product sales specialist Eugene Lim, 31, who graduated from Brown in 2003, said the liberal arts college here must be recognised by the Government and companies. Otherwise, he said, students may still choose to go to top liberal universities overseas.
Added 25-year-old Shirlene Liew, a civil servant who graduated from Brown in 2007: 'We can start off small - by expanding or giving more support to existing broad-based programmes here.'
Both graduates, however, expressed reservations about combining a professional course with a liberal arts programme here.
In the US, they said, medicine is a postgraduate degree, meaning it is necessary for students to do a basic degree first. In Singapore however, an undergraduate medicine programme is available.
'If it is a graduate programme like what the Duke-NUS medical school is doing, it will work. But if medical students have to take additional subjects, I am not sure if they can cope.
'The curriculum would have to be stretched and I don't know if students want that,' said Ms Liew.