Bernard Tan

Dean of Students

National University of Singapore



Teaching and research


Teaching and research are the twin foundations of a university because the creation of new knowledge should go hand in hand with the dissemination of that new knowledge for the betterment of society.  Hence in any university, and certainly in NUS, teaching should be seen as an activity which is integral to the life of an academic, and not as an inferior adjunct to research. While NUS has now established itself as a research university with many of its research groups recognised as being among the best in their repective fields, it has paid equally close attention to its teaching programme.  


Hence we should imbue our teaching with the same level of quality which we aspire to impart to our research output.  As true academics, we should not regard teaching as a tedious task which has to be endured for the sake of research.  Indeed, teaching as an academic activity should be inseparable from and intertwined with research.


The long-range mission of university teaching


If teaching is a fundamental academic activity, what makes university teaching different from teaching in other types of institutions?  Obviously, we would like to give our students an education whose benefits stay with them for as long as possible.  In many academic disciplines today, particularly in rapidly advancing areas of technology, facts and skills taught to them will become obsolete within a few years of their graduation. 


Therefore university education should be characterised by a mission which has a long-range perspective.  We should, in planning and carrying out our teaching programmes, bear in mind that we are equipping our students for the duration of their working lives (and beyond, if possible).  Hence the courses which we teach should, wherever possible, emphasize basic concepts which are more likely to endure longer, rather than facts and examples which may be of current interest but which are likely to fall by the wayside.  While there should be a balance of basic concepts and current applications and examples, a thorough understanding of basic concepts must be of paramount importance in the university context.


Developing personal qualities and abilities


It can be further argued that it is not so much the content of our courses, but the qualities and abilities which we develop in our students during their stay in the university, which are of even more lasting importance.  There are of course the basic qualities which students in all types of institutions should have in order to learn effectively, such as intelligence, perseverance and dedication.  Indeed, these are skills and qualities which every working person needs to have to some degree in order to get along in life. 


At the university level, we should strive to imbue and develop in our students the qualities and abilities which characterise the ideal graduate, such as independent learning, creativity, team spirit and the ability to express oneself clearly and cogently.  For students with the right potential, the development of leadership qualities should also be encouraged.  While we can, to some extent foster these qualities in formal teaching, they are best developed in situations where our students are required to exercise them in some practical way.


For example, project work in which students work by themselves will require them to develop independent thinking and action.  While not all students may have the aptitude for a research career, a research project will encourage them to develop their innovative and creative impulses and to look for solutions and answers which do not exist in a cut and dried form.  Group projects will foster team work, though of course there will be leaders and followers in every team.


The university teacher as a role model


While project work and independent learning programmes can be effective in developing these desirable qualities, the personal role of the university teacher is in the long run the most vital factor.  These qualities and abilities are human qualities which cannot really be taught out of a text book.  The best project work and independent learning schemes will come to naught if the university teachers involved negate such schemes through their own personal attitudes and mindsets.  Whether we like it or not, our students will regard us, by default, as role models by which they verify the importance of these qualities and abilities.


For example, can one expect students to become independent learners and thinkers if their teachers are always waiting for top-down instructions before they act?  Can we expect students to be team players if their teachers are engaged in constant bickering and one-upmanship with each other?  And can students become creative and innovative when it is obvious that their own teachers do not exhibit any creativity or originality in their teaching or research work?


Conversely, university teachers who are themselves independent and self-reliant workers and thinkers, who are creative and original teachers and researchers, and who can work amicably with all their colleagues for the common good of their students, make superb role models who transmit these values effectively through their personal example.  One cannot expect every university teacher to be a perfect role model; however, it is useful for all of us to be aware that the transmission of such qualities can be strengthened or weakened, as the case may be, through our own personal behaviour.  Our attitudes and actions are continually on display and speak far more loudly and strongly to our students about these qualities than any formal teaching can ever do.


High technology and face-to-face interaction


Indeed, with university education entering a phase in which high technology is destined to play an increasingly important role, it is vital that we do not lose sight of the importance of personal interaction in our teaching programmes.  It is right that we at NUS should fully utilise and exploit whatever technology becomes available as to aid us in our teaching.  Tools like the internet and video-conferencing can certainly help us to make our teaching more effective, but they should remain tools which we may utilise in teaching our students.


While interaction via the internet and video-conferencing can play a very useful role in university teaching, and can open up new channels of communication between us and our students, these tools cannot replace the face-to-face interaction which must be at the core of our teaching programmes.  It is only through such interaction that we can hope to develop those qualities and abilities which will enable our students to be more effective and successful in their working lives.   Even more fundamental than these qualities and abilities are the values which will underpin our students' working lives and their interaction with their fellow citizens.  The transmission of such values is unlikely to be achieved without face-to-face interaction which is unmediated by high technology.


The transmission of values


We might ask if it is the duty of university education to transmit to students the basic values which underpin the society in which they will live and work.  After all, should not these values have been inculcated much earlier in school and within the family?  I believe that any university which strives to educate its students for life must unequivocally present at least a minimum set of values which it expects its students to take seriously, if it is to prepare them to be fully equipped as responsible members of society.


However, deciding on what values it wishes to transmit, and how they can be effectively transmitted, may well be problematical.  Different societies and cultures may emphasize different values and may approach moral and ethical issues in quite different ways.  How are we, as academics, to know what should be emphasized and transmitted, and how do we transmit what we have selected effectively?


Academic values


As members of academia, we do hold a set of values as being fundamental to the pursuit of scholarship and learning.  We expect scholars and researchers to uphold truth and honesty in the pursuit of knowledge. The academic community does expect its members not to be deceitful, and imposes sanctions on those who dare to publish falsehoods and fabrications as the truth.  The community also does not look kindly on its members who plagiarise the work of others or who misappropriate the research results of other workers as their own.  We academics also expect our colleagues to share their results of their work freely by publishing them in journals where their work is reviewed by their peers. 


All of these academic values are accepted as the common currency of the international community of scholars and academics.  While there are a very small number of people who attempt from time to time to subvert these values, they are in most cases quickly found out because of the way the academic community functions, whereby the results of scholarship and research have to be subjected to the most stringent tests and checks.


We may therefore assume that as academics in good standing, we should transmit these academic values to our students.  As an academic, I should say that if society paid more attention to these value and understood why we hold them so dear, perhaps society would be much the better for it.  Our students can be helped to absorb these values, for example, through the way we guide them in their research and project work.  However, the example of university teachers as role models is even more important for these values to be absorbed effectively by students, than for the development of the personal qualities discussed earlier.


Social and moral values


While I believe we can all agree fairly easily about values held to be important by the academic community, it may be more difficult for us in NUS, especially as our academic staff come from many different countries and cultures, to agree on what the key societal and moral values which we should transmit to our students might be.  For example, some cultures may hold the freedom of action of an individual to be a key value, while others may hold that the individual should always submit to the greater good of a nation. 


Singapore, for example, has defined a number of shared values which it believes are fundamental to its societal norms:


                        Nation before community and society above self;

                        Family as the basic unit of society;

                        Community support and respect for the individual;

                        Consensus, not conflict;

                        Racial and religious harmony.


These values have been arrived at after much discussion and debate, and thus represent the shared values which all its citizens have agreed to espouse.


While the university is not the only vehicle available for the transmission of these shared values, it obviously has a national duty to reinforce these values among its students, and its Singaporean students in particular.  Non-Singaporean staff and students will probably not find these values to be alien to their own values, as the Singapore shared values are a carefully balanced amalgam of values common to many cultures of both east and west.  The university's national education programme, in particular, will be an important means by which these values will be re-emphasized to our Singaporean students.


While these five values are specifically Singaporean, it might be useful to try to define a more general set of values specifically for the university which could underpin our teaching and our interaction with our students.  My first attempt at such a set of values is as follows:


                        The value of each student as an individual.

                        Respect for the law and societal norms.

                        Awareness of and concern for others in society.


If one compares these very basic values with the five Singapore shared values, it can be seen that they are easily mapped onto the five values, which is not really surprising as the five shared values are basic values espoused by many cultures and societies.


Transmitting values to students


If we can agree on a very basic set of values which we should espouse, how do we try to transmit and reinforce these values in our students?  Running a course in moral and ethical values could be one way of doing so, but these values can only be effectively transmitted in real-life situations.  Hence it is the manner in which we interact face-to-face with our students that we send clear messages to them about how seriously we ourselves take these values.


For example, in our daily dealings with students and student groups at the Office of Student Affairs, we fully realise that the manner with which we interact and deal with student will make a much more lasting impression on them than the issues being dealt with.  For example, in conflict situations, we ask student groups that we conduct our dialogue in as civilised and rational a manner as possible, as befits members of the university community. Whether as members of the administration or as members of the academic staff, all our personal interactions with our students can shape and influence them profoundly, probably more so than our formal teaching.


Our responsibility as university teachers


Therefore, as university teachers, we have a heavy responsibility.  We do not merely impart information to our students.  We have to prepare them as best as we can for their working lives, which means that we as university educators must adopt a long-range perspective.  We need to teach them basic concepts and ideas which are not transient, and we must help them to develop qualities and abilities, such as independent learning, which will stand them in good stead throughout their working lives.


Most important of all, university education is not complete if we fail to transmit, or at least reinforce, the basic values which will enable our students to be responsible and useful citizens, not only of the nation but of the international community.  These values cannot be simply the subject of formal lessons, but can be effectively demonstrated only through our personal interaction with our students.  As university teachers, we are thrust into our students' lives as role models whom they may emulate, consciously or otherwise.  This is a responsibility which each and every one of us as members of the NUS academic community bears, and which can make a difference in the lives of our students for a long time to come.


Information, knowledge and wisdom


Let me reiterate that while high technology will continue to provide useful and important tools for university education, there can be no substitute for face-to-face personal interaction with our students, if we desire to transmit more than mere information to them.  The information technology revolution has brought with it a flood of data and information, which sometimes threatens to drown us.  Information is the raw material which needs to be shaped by meaning and significance into knowledge; as university teachers, we try to give our students some understanding of this knowledge which will equip them to face the world.  The qualities and values which we should also inbue in our students through our personal dealings with them will, we hope, help them to distill this knowledge into wisdom.


This heirarchy of learning in which information is transformed into knowledge and knowledge into wisdom, in a way encapsulates our mission as university educators who should go beyond the teaching of mere facts and content onto the development of worthwhile qualities and the reinforcement of universal values.  I would therefore like to end with an extract from "The Rock" by T.S.Eliot in which he suggests such a heirarchy, and warns us not to lose sight of its higher levels by drowning in its lower ones. 


                        Where is the life

                                    we have lost in living?

                        Where is the wisdom

                                    we have lost in knowledge?

                        Where is the knowledge

                                    we have lost in information?