‘Frills’ or ‘No frills’ education?

A decision at the end of August 2014 led to a string of letters to be published in the Straits Times over the next two weeks.

These letters basically represented two camps – one advocating for universities to only offer courses pertaining to the student’s major and the other that students should take a broad-based education. Who is correct?


What was the decision that led to the sudden debate on the forum pages of the Straits Times? The decision was the National University of Singapore  and the Nanyang Technological University letting their students drop grades from some of their first year courses. You see, students choose a variety of different modules in their first year before becoming more specialised from the second year onwards. Some of the modules chosen can have nothing to do with their major. For example, a Computer Science student can choose a basic psychology module. The problem was that sometimes, they chose a module that turned out to be something they were unable to cope with. This made them do badly for the module, and the bad grades affected their final result when they graduate.

The universities probably allowed the grades to be dropped because they felt that first year university students were still unsure of their eventual career path and were probably still experimenting when they selected their modules in year one. This was inline with what most universities were practising in United States, Britain and Australia.

However, a letter written by a member of the public suggested that most students already knew what they wanted to do when they arrived at university and letting students study irrelevant subjects was a waste of money. I think that letter struck a nerve because there were many negative comments on the online version of the Straits Times. Subsequently, many other letters, both for and against it, were published.

Our View

We believe that a broad-based education is necessary and this is especially so at the Primary and Secondary school level. There are many reasons why we feel this is the most beneficial to all students. But before we discuss, let us address the viewpoint that most students know what they want to do when they arrive at university. While it true that some students know their future careers, especially those studying in Law, Medicine, Accountancy and Dentistry, we think that most students are not exactly certain of their future job. Just ask around – many students still do not know for sure. And just because some students know their future doesn’t mean that we can ignore the rest and do away with this system of allowing students to take a wide and varied courses in Year One!

Regardless, there are quite a few reasons why a broad-based education, even at the Primary and Secondary school level is beneficial:

1. Interests change – It is a fact that people change as they mature and gain experience. Locking them into a set path might not be beneficial. Even students who study Law, Medicine or Accountancy do end up in jobs that have nothing to do with their initial training. Students who have the opportunity to take a variety of courses will have been given an opportunity to decide on a set path latter in life, yet have the experience of other interests; this will help them even if they eventually need to change direction latter in life.

2. An interdisciplinary approach – The world has become more complicated; using knowledge and skills from one single discipline to solve problems is unlikely to be sufficient. A person with broad knowledge of various fields will have more ideas and skills to rely on to solve problems. This is clearly so for global problems like poverty or the environment. Some argue that employing a team of specialists is better, but we are not arguing that individuals cannot specialise. A specialist with broad knowledge can see the gaps in knowledge in their own speciality better and will know how to compensate for any weakness and complement their own abilities.

3. Requirements of the job market – Jobs have changed dramatically over the last ten years. They have become ever changing, calling for different roles and multi-tasking. In fact, there has been many feedback from business leaders that they value people who have the ability to learn, integrate and adopt knowledge effectively; they need to think critically. Having a broad knowledge helps in building the soft skills needed to do well in the future job market. Ultimately, the more soft skills and broad knowledge they have, the more likely they will succeed in life.


We believe that a student who had completed a broad-basde education will be one who knows his interests, and has made a good decision in his choice of career. Yet, he knows what opportunities there are if his current career turns out to be not as satisfying as initially thought. He will have a strong focus in his specialised skills, yet flexible enough to operate in other roles. After all, his broad training has equipped him with the soft skills required to excel in any sector.

Let me end with an anecdote. Steve Jobs, as we all know, was a brilliant inventor and entrepreneur who revolutionised the world by introducing really innovative products like the iPhone. He did go to university, but did not complete it as it was too expensive for his foster parents. While he was there, he majored in physics, literature, and poetry. After he dropped out, he continued to live on the campus for 18 months, dropping in on creative classes like calligraphy. The diverse education he had honed his sense of beauty and design, and together with his technical abilities, he created products that dominated the market. We truly believe a person should have broad knowledge to succeed.