Higher Education’s Role in Building a Sustainable and Resilient Future

Higher Education’s Role in Building a Sustainable and Resilient Future

By SMU City Perspectives team

Published 31 March, 2023


To secure a sustainable future, we have to first undergo a paradigm shift and commit to a new mission: to cultivate future generations of Singaporeans who think beyond themselves; beyond the institution; and beyond the here and now.

- Chan Chun Sing, Singapore’s Minister for Education

In brief

1) Institutes of Higher Education (IHLs) play an important role in helping Singapore build a sustainable and resilient future. By integrating sustainability into their curriculum and mandating it for all students, these institutions can help students develop their sustainability knowledge and skills, thus generating the expertise the country needs to overcome its current constraints.   

2) Companies can learn from each other and use various tools to help them achieve their respective sustainability goals. To create meaningful impact, business leaders should prioritise sustainability by embedding it into every product area and function of their business. 

3) While Singapore’s supply of skilled green workers is catching up with demand, a skills gap currently exists. IHLs serve an important role in closing this gap by developing a sustainability talent pipeline and must be thought leaders in envisioning the country’s future.

Higher education has been central to Singapore's rise as one of the world's strongest economies. Now, these Institutes of Higher Learning (IHLs) have an additional role in shaping, influencing and contributing to Singapore's Green Plan 2030, a plan that sets out the Republic’s aspirations for a green, sustainable and resilient economy. This was the central point of discussion at the Straits Times Education Forum, held on 11 March 2023, in partnership with the Singapore Management University (SMU). Here are four takeaway points, as discussed by the event’s illustrious panel. 

3 sustainability challenges that Institutes of Higher Learning can help to solve

Mr. Chan Chun Sing, Singapore’s Minister for Education, highlighted three major challenges faced by Singapore in building a sustainable and resilient future. The first is in finding its relevance on the world stage; a challenge that requires Singapore to deeply understand its global partners and their needs. Minister Chan believes that students need to develop a curiosity for and an understanding of the world beyond the borders of Singapore. For this reason, the Ministry of Education has set an aspirational target for 70% of each IHL’s cohort to undergo an overseas exposure programme, 70% of which should be to an ASEAN country, China or India. 

The second challenge is in creating sustainable livelihoods and lifestyles given Singapore’s carbon constraints. Minister Chan believes that these energy limitations create an opportunity for Singapore to transform the way its citizens live and work, just as the country has overcome other constraints in the past. IHLs can play a part by developing research and thought leadership on envisioning the city’s future. This could be in the form of energy generation, distribution, management and consumption, as well as city design, transport, healthcare and waste management systems. 

The third challenge that IHLs can help resolve is in improving the quality of life for all people in Singapore. Minister Chan highlighted that in developed countries, there is a tendency for stratification, widening inequalities and reduced social mobility to occur as the society matures. In order to prevent this and instead help every Singaporean achieve their potential, the definition and pathways of success must be broadened to focus on skills over grades. IHLs play an important role in this meritocratic skills ecosystem and can do so by having a more diverse profile of students, allowing for more holistic assessment of applicants, and by providing variegated entry points and pathways for lifelong learning.

  1. Mandating a foundation in sustainability to prepare students for the green economy

Professor Timothy Clark, Provost of SMU, explained the need for IHLs to adjust their course offerings and align them with the needs of a green economy, and he shared Singapore Management University (SMU)’s plans in this regard. In addition to requiring that  every student does a global experience activity, SMU will soon also require all students to have a foundational understanding of sustainability issues which map against the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. This will be taken a step further in 2024, when students will be required to take a course within the curriculum that can deepen their understanding of selected sustainability issues on an intermediate level. The University also has plans to develop more sustainability programmes and pathways. Currently, undergraduate students can take a second major in Sustainability, offered by the Lee Kong Chian School of Business, and from August 2023, have the option to choose a second major in Sustainable Societies, offered by the School of Social Sciences. SMU also caters to professionals who are keen on transitioning to emerging domains in the green economy. Professionals keen to make a career transition into the green economy can consider SMU’s Professional and Continuing Education and postgraduate programmes, which hone priority green skills, for example sustainable investment management in the emerging domain of Sustainable Finance

“Our intention behind mandating that undergraduate students develop at least an intermediate understanding of sustainability, is to ensure that they graduate with a range of relevant skills for the green economy”, says Prof Clark.

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2. Technical expertise must be met with a culture that prioritises sustainability

Mr Ben King, Country Managing Director of Google Singapore, talked about the company’s plans and commitment to being carbon-free by 2030. Stressing on the importance of collective action, he highlighted some of the tools that are available to help Google’s partners in their own missions to tackle climate change. Google’s Environmental Insights Explorer, for example, is a free tool that helps governments measure carbon emissions and is currently available in 42,000 cities around the world. The tech giant is also looking into more ways to help its users make eco-friendly decisions, such as integrating cycling maps into their Google Maps application, and helping them locate nearby electronic vehicle charging stations. He shares that while talented and energetic people with the technical expertise are necessary to bring such ambitious plans to fruition, it is equally important to develop a company culture that embeds sustainability into all the different product areas and functions. He says ” if we can have everybody thinking about how we can become more sustainable as a company, then we've got a much better chance.”

3. Singapore needs to close the skills gap for green jobs

Mr Frank Koo, Head of Asia, Talent and Learning Solutions at Linkedin discussed the cultural shifts that are happening in the labour market, as well as the evolution of ‘green skills’ and ‘green jobs’. Highlighting the Linkedin platform’s new feature that allows companies to indicate important causes they are committed to, he explains that this approach holds companies accountable while also helping job-seekers find companies whose values align with their own. Mr Koo cited statistics from the company’s Global Green Skills Report 2022, which revealed that the number of green jobs in Singapore has increased by 8% on average in the last five years. However, the green skills intensity, which is the extent to which different countries, sectors and jobs use these green skills, is only at 6%.  He says, “While the supply is catching up to the demand, we can see that there is actually a skills gap in Singapore right now. So I am glad to hear about the programmes that (SMU) is running to accelerate green skills.”