The success of universities is increasingly being measured by the number of employable graduates they turn out every year – and by this metric, south east Asian universities are failing. Indeed, with a recent global ranking suggesting that only one university within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) group of countries was within the top 20 higher education institutes worldwide in terms of graduates securing good jobs, experts have called for reform.

The National University of Singapore (NUS) clinched the 16th spot out of 150 institutions in the Global University Employability Ranking 2017, published by Times Higher Education.

This marked a slight setback for the NUS given the fact the university was ranked 15th last year. However, NUS president designate Professor Eng Chye Tan told People Management he was pleased its graduates “continue to be among the most sought-after by employers around the world.” He said nearly nine in ten NUS fresh graduates secured employment within six months after final examinations.

He argued that the NUS was transforming itself into an “institution for lifelong learning, where our graduates could continually upgrade their skills and develop new competencies to excel in their careers.”

But the NUS is very much an ASEAN exception. Only one other local higher education institute made the list at all – the University of Malaya – and it was almost on the bottom of the list, in 147th slot.

The findings are an eye opener. According to Dr Bob Aubrey, chairman of the HR Committee of the European Chamber of Commerce (Eurocham) in Singapore and senior advisor for Asia to the European Foundation of Management Development, universities in Asia need to “adopt the European model of longer internships with academic recognition.”

Eurocham wrote a white paper for Singapore’s ministry of manpower and the ministry of education with this recommendation way back in 2015. “To date, the Singapore polytechnic universities have adopted this longer internship and made it a requirement, which puts Singapore ahead in Asia in helping students into the workplace,” Dr Aubrey said.

The HR community has a role to play in bringing other universities up to scratch, he argued. HR professionals can work with universities “to provide personal and career development so that students can explore what it means to be part of a global workplace,” said Dr Aubrey. “They will be learning at work in very different ways from the way they learn in a classroom.”

One problem is that the need for universities to adapt their courses to produce job-ready graduates is becoming more acute because of digitisation. A Microsoft Asia Digital Transformation Study conducted between October and November 2016 indicated that Asian universities were not responding quickly: “In fact, only 77 per cent of education leaders indicated that they are either in progress with specific digital transformation initiatives, or have limited or no strategy in place,” the study said. Don Carlson, director, education at Microsoft Asia Pacific, advised that universities needed to be “empowering faculty and non-teaching employees, engaging students, optimising institutions and transforming learning, with data and the cloud being the key enablers.”

Dr Tan agreed: “In addition to solid technical skills, good soft skills are what differentiates the best graduates from the rest, and employees with such skills help organisations thrive.” With that in mind, the NUS offers two specific programmes to ensure its graduates are digital-ready. Its overseas colleges programme offers full-time internships within start-up companies located in nine IT hubs around the world, including Beijing and the Silicon Valley in the US, while attending entrepreneurship-related courses at prestigious partner universities. And the NUS’s Roots & Wings programme encourages students to develop a holistic and multidisciplinary mindset and develop personal and interpersonal effectiveness skills.

The university said it saw an “overwhelming response” to a lifelong learning initiative for NUS alumni introduced in May 2017. The university has received more than 8,000 applications for the 404 places available across 79 modules. It is now looking into expanding this initiative, freeing up to 25,000 places over five years. “As the future of work changes in Singapore and around the world, so must the way we impart knowledge and learn,” Dr Tan said, adding the NUS “intends to be at the forefront of this revolution, shaping the future.”

However, Dr Aubrey sounded a note of caution about making too many assumptions around skillsets needed in the workforce. “If you consider that most jobs today will not be the jobs that university students will be doing, it means we should not jump to conclusions about what will be the right skillset and mindset,” he argued. Because many skills are being influenced by artificial intelligence and robotics, he said: “We should be careful about recommending to students that they should develop skills that AI cannot match, such as empathy and creativity, or on the contrary recommending that all students learn how to programme AI. Both areas could be useful, but we can’t be sure just how.”

And Dr Aubrey warned against “relying on western profiles and skillsets as templates for Asia.” Citing an instance where he was having a brainstorming session with Asian students on what tools they use for developing people, he said they all came from the west. But when they brainstormed on what would probably emerge in China, “there were some interesting concepts that came from their creative work where westerners would be at a disadvantage,” he noted.

For example, in China, leaders are not expected to “show extreme emotions or push extreme ideas” and western leaders in China who would try to whip up strong commitment to a goal or policy would be looked on as weak or immature. “Asian ways of doing things or thinking will become more predominant,” Dr Aubrey noted.

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