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When NTU president meets student president

NTU Students’ Union President Bryan Chiew sits down with NTU President Prof Subra Suresh to discuss how the university can reimagine education for a world disrupted by technology
by Foo Jie Ying

Photos: Amin Shah

Bryan Chiew: Prof Suresh, my generation grew up with technology in our lives, and we feel the need to be connected to the world 24/7. As an academic with deep insights on the impact of Industry 4.0, what do you think the success or failure of technology hinges on?

Prof Subra Suresh: The critical thing is the human interface of technology and related to that is the ethics of using technology. For example, we can use artificial intelligence to make certain decisions for us. But can it make the right ethical decision when needed?

Digital hygiene, respecting people and their privacy in cyberspace, knowing where to draw the line, cyber security – everyone needs to be aware of these things. At NTU, we want to sensitise you to not just the sophistication and potential of technology, but also its potential downsides. This is what we can do for education, as a university that does cutting-edge explorations in all of these.

B: As a second-year public policy student, I have taken modules about e-governance, and how using technology effectively and ethically is a new and important challenge to democratic institutions. I find that the line between disciplines seems to be increasingly blurred.

S: Yes, broadly speaking, in this digital age, there is no distinction between the physical, digital and biological worlds. There’s no clear demarcation line between personal and professional matters – it’s all blended together.

B: These blurred lines seem to be changing the workplace as well. What does this mean for me and my fellow NTU students?

S: It means that moving forward, it’s unlikely a graduate of today is going to work for the same company for 40 years, for example. It’s also a lot less likely that most of the young people will only want to work for big organisations. There are many more start-up, entrepreneurial and gig economy opportunities today than 20 years ago.

It’s also very likely that with medical advances, you will live and work longer than previous generations. You will not only change jobs more frequently; you may even change professions during your productive career. So if you take all that into account, it’s impossible that you’ll acquire all the information you need in the next 50 years in your four years at NTU, or any other university.

B: Going by that trajectory, is it time for university education to be redefined so that we can robot-proof ourselves?

S: After spending four years to get a degree, you will become an expert at something. But more than learning about something, a university education should be about learning how to think, and preparing you to ask the right questions throughout your life so that you can figure things after graduating and beyond.

The best way the university can prepare you and your peers to be more successful is to give you a really solid foundation in rational, broad, interdisciplinary and analytical thinking, and a good grounding in many of the softer skills, like communication and thinking in the face of uncertainty, rather than black-and-white thinking. It doesn’t matter if you’re a mathematician writing equations, for example – you will need to make a pitch for your projects and communicate the significance of what you do.

B: Yes, that’s a challenge I face as a student leader reaching out to over 33,000 students.

S: These are skills all leaders need, and we are starting a leadership academy that I hope many NTU students like you will benefit from. It’s a natural progression for our graduates to be in leadership positions so you might as well be prepared from the beginning.

B: The leadership academy sounds like a good initiative. Any other words of advice for us?

S: Show up for class so you can get to know many professors and fellow students! I sometimes joke that the person you are sitting next to at a lecture may be the CEO of a large company 20 years from now. So be nice to them now, and they’ll be very helpful later. Jokes aside, do take the time to develop friendships and networks, and engage with your professors.

Your three or four years on campus will be the best time of your life, so make full use of all that NTU, and its global networks, has to offer. You don’t have to confine yourself to one particular field in your four years here. If there is a public lecture on campus that is not in your field, go for it. Because once you start working, or have a family, you may have less time for this.

B: Thank you, Prof Suresh. It has certainly been an enlightening chat.

S: It was my pleasure, Bryan.