Before you leap: what should you look out for in a ‘modern’ university?

Modern. Trailblazing. Leading. These are a few popular adjectives you might spotted have many universities adopt while university hunting and boy, doesn’t everything sound so inspiring? Who wouldn’t want to study at a university that’s a trailblazer? We sure would.

‘Leading global university’, ‘modern university’… hurry and sign us up already! (Image credits: Universal Pictures)

There’s just one important thing to remember: it’s easy to get swept away by the awe and excitement these descriptions kindle in us, so don’t forget to do a little fact-checking of your own! You’d be disappointed if your chosen university doesn’t meet your expectations, wouldn’t you?

To help you get started, we’ve done some of the legwork! Here is a guide of some things you can look out for to get a feel of what makes a modern university, well, truly modern.

Did you know?

‘Modern’ has an additional layer of context for universities from the UK! It’s used to refer to any University formed after the Further and Higher Education Act was passed in 1992; at the time, 35 polytechnic colleges were also granted full-fledged university status. While this isn’t the ‘modern’ we’re discussing, we thought it’d be good to know.

(Image credits: Universal Pictures)

1) Does the university have a strong emphasis on industry relevance and employability?

Why is this important? While change is inevitable, the arrival of the 4th industrial revolution has ushered it in at such an unprecedented rate that we have to run as fast as we can just to stay where we are. Advances in automation—think self-driving vehicles and lawyer bots—are displacing entire roles and creating new ones all the time, with skills needs shifting towards basic digital skills, higher cognitive skills (creativity, for example) as well as keen social and emotional skills[i].

Already, fresh grads are witnessing a mismatch between the skills they have and the skills employers want: as many as 61%, according to a survey conducted by recruitment platform Monster Singapore in 2017, grappled with a lack of industry knowledge in their first jobs.

A modern university is clear of this reality and readies students for the constantly evolving workspace through:

  • Providing ample opportunities to gain industry exposure and preparation (through the strong fostering of industry ties)
    • Tip: another way to get a rough feel of this, apart from the university website and open house visits, is to check out established rating systems like the QS Stars University Ratings! The former assesses a university’s performance across eight different categories, ranging from employability to internationalisation.
  • Innovative curricula with experiential learning, which broadens students’ perspectives and helps them think creatively and critically
    • Modern universities react quickly to emerging markets and technologies by coming up with new subject offers and multidisciplinary courses.

Seize the chance to take great interdisciplinary modules! Don’t find them a chore; you never know how this exposure will come in handy.  A calligraphy class Steve Jobs took would go on to inspire the Macintosh’s typography ten years later. Interestingly the man himself, at the time, thought that “none of this had even a hope of any practical application in [his] life”.

  • Encouraging lifelong learning and a growth mindset to promote upskilling and staying relevant
    • Singapore’s very own NUS, for example, has recently made student enrolment valid for 20 years through the NUS Lifelong Learners programme—the first school in the world to have done so.

2) Does the university have a quality learning environment and a vibrant culture?

Modern universities also understand how crucial it is to create a school environment that is conducive to learning. Often, this is done through the upgrading of campus facilities and infrastructure. Take Nanyang Technological University’s newest learning hub, The Arc, for example: launched in February 2018, the 6-storey building adds 56 more smart classrooms (in different shapes and sizes!) to the university, along with a lecture theatre with flexible seating that allows for small-group discussions.

The exterior of The Arc (image credits: NTU Singapore)

Across the pond in England Coventry University, UK’s top modern university for 7 consecutive years, adopts the latest technologies to provide students with cutting-edge facilities for hands-on learning. Particularly interesting ones include an academic trading floor with 42 dual screen Bloomberg terminals for its business and finance students—the largest of its kind in Europe— as well as a life-sized virtual rehearsal portal that allows for theatre students to rehearse with students around the globe as if they share the same stage!

Of course, modern universities also do not forget the importance of creating cheerful and vibrant campuses. Aesthetically pleasing spaces aren’t just insta-worthy spots: they help spark better moods in faculty and students and are vital in inspiring continued, collaborative learning outside the classroom. Local private education institution PSB Academy, for example, has a ‘grassy’ town hall in the middle of its Marina Square campus. Used for gatherings and discussions, it instantly brightens the moods of all who walk in.

The town hall we speak of, right in the heart of PSB Academy’s campus at Marina Square! (image credits: PSB Academy/Google Maps)

Did you know?

Another mark of a modern university is in its promotion of more flexible approaches to modes of study, pre-entry qualifications and age restrictions—this has allowed many student communities across the world to enjoy “enhanced social cohesion as a result of the commitment of these universities to ensure that people from a wide range of backgrounds have the opportunity to benefit from a university education.ii

If you’re wondering why this is important, remember that your peers will eventually form your university’s alumni network—which you can tap on to help you further your career!

  3) Is the university growth-focused?

Simply put, a modern university knows that it too cannot stand still—or risk being left behind in a fast-paced world.

Remember Coventry University? The United Kingdom’s top 13th university[ii] has boldly declared its desire to become a ‘global’ university by 2020. Ways they achieve this include the incorporating of substantive international elements like overseas case studies and international literature reviews in all their programmes, as well as widening access globally and making their programmes available to students all around the world.


A university’s efforts and competitiveness is often reflected in the consistency—or increase even—of its rankings in the higher education league tables. We all know, for example, how NUS and NTU have secured solid places in both the Times Higher Education World University Rankings and QS World University Rankings for themselves. This is largely due to high research output and citations per faculty, as well as increasing graduate desirability.

In fact, Coventry University has made good its promise; the young but fast-rising university currently offers its degrees in 32 countries, including our little red dot. Here, 28 programmes can be taken up through various academic partner institutions across many disciplines, from business to fashion design to global logistics. One such programme, the Bachelors of Science with Honours in Ethical Hacking and Cybersecurity (offered through PSB Academy), was brought here to address Singapore’s need for deep technological talent to help spearhead Singapore’s Smart Nation efforts.

As Coventry University demonstrates, modern universities aren’t content with the status quo; they’re constantly innovating and expanding their reach, making sure their growth is aligned to what the society needs.

(Image credits: Universal Pictures)

Noted these 3 points down yet? If you’re on the lookout for a modern university, keep them in your mind and you’ll be off to a pretty decent start! We hope that your university search will be fruitful and wish you tons of good luck!


[ii]The Guardian University Guide 2019



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