Singapore: Prof Graeme Britton

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Professor Graeme Britton Of Raffles Education Corporation

Professor Graeme Britton talks to Jim Playfoot about developing creativity, the transition from education to employment and the challenges of 21st century learning

As part of his role as Dean of Science & Technology at the Raffles Education Corporation in Singapore, Professor Graeme Britton works across the Asia-Pacific region. The Corporation is a private tertiary education provider running 26 colleges in 10 countries and is worth around $1+ billion, making it the largest company of its type in the region. Their programmes began with a particular focus on the design sector but have moved into business and science and technology qualifications in recent years. The company currently teaches around 40,000 students globally and focuses mainly on diploma and degree courses for school-leavers.

Professor Britton describes Raffles Education as "a vocational institution" and makes the point that "as governments want more economic value from education, universities and higher education are focussing more and more on developing talent for professions." He also makes the point that, in Asia, "people don't go into education to learn, they go to get the knowledge they need to get a job."


Developing Creativity

Fashion Design is one of the flagship programmes run by Raffles Education. Talking about the way in which this programme is delivered gives a good insight into how Professor Britton believes education should respond to current economic and workforce challenges. "The programme blends theory with the practical side - we make sure students are given all the practical tools they need to prosper in the industry. The focus is the production of a portfolio." He talks about the onus being on developing "deep skills in the trade". This is achieved, in part, through the involvement of practitioners in both the design and the delivery of courses. "You need experienced fashion designers working with students: a good practitioner can develop practitioner-based courses."

Beyond the practical, there is also significant emphasis on the creative. "The students are given training in the necessary techniques first and then encouraged to develop their own style." The design studio environment provides students with the right opportunities for reflective learning and the opportunity to develop what he calls "implicit knowledge. There is a lot of knowledge you can't write down in a book. Getting across the knowledge that you can't express only happens with a mentor in a design studio".


Connecting Education And Employment

The interface between education and employment is absolutely essential to the success of the Raffles programme. Professor Britton gives an example of how this works in practice: "We have arrangements with department stores in Singapore so that these stores display clothes from the final year shows in their windows. We also recently had Miss Singapore Universe 2009 wearing a dress designed by one of our students." Bringing the competition that exists in the marketplace into the learning environment really helps the students get a sense of the real world and gain exposure to the climate of business that they will face when they finish their tertiary studies.

Work placements are also essential to the successful development of 'job-ready' students. "The majority of our students undergo a minimum 3 month internship as part of their course. This is a vital part of their education."

In building stronger and more meaningful connections between business and education, Professor Britton points to the planning model currently operating in Singapore whereby the government produces a projection of where they want to expand the economy and then ensures the education sector provides the manpower that is needed. This system is used to guide students into specific sectors via the education system. He believes that the higher education sector is responding to these difficult challenges:

"Employers always want job-ready graduates - this is unrealistic. Having said that, Universities are becoming more vocational which is a good thing." He pinpoints what he describes as the "liberal arts universities" as providing a better, more rounded education with greater emphasis on the individual student. "At research universities, the pressure to publish papers often means the student plays second fiddle. At liberal arts universities, the interface with industry is there."


The Future For Learning

We conclude our discussion by focussing on the way forward for teaching. We talk about "experiential learning" as being key, picking up on the vocationally-led approach of the Raffles fashion diploma. The other key idea we discuss is "active learning". Professor Britton expands: "People have to be able to keep learning: they have to be active learners. Active learning means the individual taking responsibility for their life-long learning." He strikes a note of caution, however. "Both experiential learning and active learning are the way forward. But cutbacks in funding increase class sizes and put both of these approaches at risk."

And alongside the approach, it's the people - the teachers - that are all important. "Teachers need to be exemplars for students. They have to be well prepared and allowed time for sabbatical or industrial leave. Prioritisation should not be on the academic knowledge of teachers but on their ability to teach."