Nick Alchin, Head of College, United World College of South East Asia (UWCSEA)

An Odyssey in Education

Nick Alchin’s journey in education began in 1993 at a state school in the United Kingdom. He recalls, “It was a truly comprehensive school with a catchment area covering the ‘dreaming spires’ of Oxford and some very socially deprived areas, and a terrific place to begin what has turned out to be a wonderful experience in education.”

Driven by a thirst for adventure, Nick and his wife Ellie sought new horizons and in 1995 they secured roles in Singapore, at UWCSEA Dover, where Nick taught Theory of Knowledge and Mathematics. “We spent six idyllic years really learning the craft of teaching,” he shares. “Like parenting, it’s not something that you ever master, though things begin to seem more familiar and natural after a few decades!”.

In the decades that followed, Nick’s career path took many turns and saw him in various roles at the International School of Geneva in Switzerland; Sevenoaks School in the UK; and at the Aga Khan Academy in Mombasa.

It was 2012 when Nick returned to Singapore as the High School Principal of the newly opened East Campus. Here he played a pivotal role in establishing the UWCSEA East High School. Fast-forward 10 years to August 2022 and Nick was appointed as Head of College at UWCSEA.

Reflecting on his time at UWCSEA, Nick shares, “My three kids are now UWCSEA graduates, and have had a spectacularly enriching education,” he says. “My wife Ellie is now Director of Teaching and Learning at our Dover Campus, and I find myself with the enormous privilege of leading this 6,000-strong school with such an inspirational and important mission for peace and a sustainable future.”

Nick’s academic journey is underpinned by a robust educational background, boasting a Bachelor’s Degree in Natural Sciences from Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, and postgraduate certificates in Engineering and Education from Wolfson College, Cambridge, and Manchester College, Oxford. Additionally, he holds a Master’s in Educational Leadership from the Open University.

His extensive professional expertise extends to serving as the Ex-IB Chief Assessor for Theory of Knowledge globally and ex-Vice Chair of the IB Examining Board. Nick is also a respected textbook author, IB examiner, workshop leader, and consultant.

Nick Alchin, Head of College at UWCSEA, scales the climbing wall on East Campus in support of the UWCSEA Foundation’s annual Giving Day event.

The importance of meaningful work

Reflecting on his career choices, Nick emphasises the importance of allowing for spontaneity and joy in one’s career pursuits. “I wouldn’t say I ever ‘pursued a career’ – I changed subjects at college every year, including for postgraduate work, and I always took jobs that looked interesting, more than simply taking the next step on the ladder,” Nick remarks.

“A poignant moment in my life was when I was working with children with profound needs at summer camps in Pennsylvania,” he said. “The work was the hardest work I had ever done, by far, and also the most rewarding.” This experience set the tone and trajectory for Nick’s life-long journey in education, “While I have always loved the intellectual excitement and thrill of new ideas – it’s knowing that the work has made a difference that has kept me going,” he affirms. “What we do at UWCSEA is important, it’s meaningful work and with inspirational colleagues; I honestly wouldn’t want for anything to be different,” he adds.

UWCSEA students rehersing their cultural dance for the annual UN Night celebrations.

The philosophy of learning

The landscape of educational philosophies is vast and diverse. When asked about his view, Nick quotes Dylan Wiliams: “Everything works somewhere, nothing works everywhere.” He goes on to reference the contrasting educational philosophies of the Scandinavian emphasis on intrinsic motivation and individualism versus the Confucian emphasis on academic rigor and conformity. “These two systems take strikingly different approaches; both seem to be topping the international educational leagues.” he said.

“I’ve worked in schools which sit towards both ends of this spectrum; UWCSEA sits squarely in between these two extremes. Our holistic, liberal progressive approach is placed within a driven Confucian work ethic. We value both individualism and community; our massive Service and Activities curriculum exists alongside the out-of-school tuition culture,” he says.

Of learning as a leader Nick has this to say, “It’s really important that you go back to the things fundamental to your beliefs about the purpose of education. Is it to develop students who are work-ready for today? Or for tomorrow? Who will conform to social norms? Or who will challenge them? Students who are deeply embedded in their own culture? Or able to switch between several others? Who will go along with and succeed in the world as it is? Or who will disrupt it, and strive – likely at some discomfort to themselves – to make the world a better place?

There is no objective answer to these questions – which is why the debate will never stop. In his essay on Modern Education and the Classics, T. S. Eliot argued that to think about the aims of education is also to think about fundamental ends and purposes as human beings: “Education is a subject which cannot be discussed in a void: our questions raise other questions and the bearings are on more ultimate problems even than these: to know what we want in general, we must derive our theory of education from our philosophy of Life.”

Nick Alchin, Head of UWCSEA College with Sinéad Collins, Director of Engagement and External Relations at UWCSEA.

The Importance of Regeneration

At the heart of Nick’s stewardship as Head of College at UWCSEA lies a dual commitment: to uphold the College’s mission of fostering global unity and peace while navigating the complexities of governance and growth. Reflecting on his role, he emphasises the imperative of continuous renewal to ensure the vitality and relevance of the College. “At one level it is obvious – to help the College fulfil its mission to unite people, nations and cultures for peace and a sustainable future, Nick states. “But as Head of College, I have also become aware of the privilege and responsibilities of directing a College that employs over a thousand people as one of a network of 18 schools globally around the world.”

Acknowledging the unique challenges and opportunities inherent in serving both Singapore and its expatriate community, Nick emphasizes the need for College regeneration to counter complacency and embrace innovation. “For me, it’s not a question of excellence, but one of regeneration,” he explains. “No matter how excellent we may be, it’s also possible – especially as a 50+-year-old successful organisation – to be caught in habits and rigidities that will bring us down.”

Drawing inspiration from John Gardner’s insights on leadership and renewal, Nick advocates for a multifaceted approach to Collegeal revitalisation. “Continuous renewal is necessary,” he asserts. “Leaders must understand how and why human systems age, and must know how the processes of renewal may be set in motion.”

East Campus Primary School students learn about sustainability, urban farming and permaculture through hands-on activities with a brood of resident chickens.

He goes on to emphasize the significance of remaining curious and adaptable in navigating diverse organizational contexts. “A key is always to remain curious – not to think that something that worked well for me somewhere will necessarily transfer,” he asserts. “If you can maintain that curiosity, then it likely means you are always learning, which is both fun and also – critically – energizing for everyone.”

In practical terms, Nick stresses the importance of cultivating exceptional individuals and teams through inclusive hiring practices and robust professional development initiatives. “At UWCSEA, we’ve put enormous effort into ensuring we hire as diverse a group of people as we can, who share our vision,” he shares. “We run courses in pedagogy, curriculum, on how to be a coach, on leadership, on dozens of technical aspects and so on.”

Nick takes pride in the College’s ability to foster continuous learning and growth among its staff, noting the high satisfaction levels reported in exit interviews and the propensity for former staff to return. “All this adds up, I think, to a central role being to foster the release of human possibilities, through education and lifelong growth,” he says.

High School students propagate saplings of threatened rainforest tree species as as part of UWCSEA’s Rainforest Restoration Project in collaboration with Singapore NParks. Students are pictured here with Kirtida Mekani, Independent Director of UWCSEA Foundation and 2024 inductee to the Singapore Women’s Hall of Fame as a champion for the environment.

Finding the right balance in a holistic programme

UWCSEA’s holistic Learning Programme comprises five elements – Academics, Activities, Personal and Social Education, Outdoor Education, and Service. In reflecting on the essence of this holistic education, Nick emphasizes the importance of recognizing the distinction between means and ends. “While academic excellence has some intrinsic value, it is not an ultimate good,” he asserts. “If we churn out thousands of brilliant, intellectual graduates who are not at ease with themselves, who feel no responsibility to others or to our precious planet, and who cannot get along with others, then we will have failed.”

Instead Nick advocates for a nuanced approach that acknowledges the transformative power of academic achievement while embracing personal growth and social responsibility. “It is an absolute moral imperative to hold these two truths in one’s head simultaneously,” he emphasizes. “I see so many cases where the emphasis seems to swing too far one way or another.”

At UWCSEA, holistic education extends beyond the confines of the traditional classroom, encompassing curricular, extracurricular, and co-curricular experiences. “Students will learn things wherever they are – the only question is, what will they learn and how will they learn it?” he reflects.

Contrary to the notion of balance as a dichotomy between academic excellence and broader participation, Nick sees a confluence of the two. “Our most academically high-attaining students are often extremely highly committed right across the programme, often in leadership roles,” he notes. “In reality, it’s more often a synergy.”

Students gaining important personal and social skills as they support each other on the Dover Campus high ropes course.

Charting a Path to Future Readiness

As Head of College at UWCSEA, Nick is responsible for spearheading transformative initiatives aimed at aligning the College’’s educational offerings with the evolving needs of its diverse student body and the dynamic landscape of the future workforce. “I have long thought we could do better than to follow the UK (i)GCSE courses,” he remarks, highlighting the College’s departure from traditional curricular frameworks in favor of developing innovative and bespoke Grade 9 and 10 courses. “Free of the constraints of courses written for a different time and many thousands of kilometers away, we can deepen the academic stretch, create interdisciplinary experiences and be far more creative with assessment.”

This departure from conventional norms extends to the College’s involvement in shaping the future landscape of international education. UWCSEA is at the forefront of piloting new courses to inform the 2030 International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (IBDP) renewal, with a groundbreaking “Systems Transformation” course designed to empower students as agents of change. “It addresses real issues and is taught through projects and authentic assessments,” Alchin explains. “It has the chance to go live for all schools globally – so this is a profound opportunity for us to shape the future of international education for millions of students.”

Nick Alchin and UWCSEA scholars share the impact of giving at a donor celebration event organised by the UWCSEA Foundation.

In addition to academic innovations, UWCSEA places a strong emphasis on preparing students for the world of work through its expanded Careers Programme. Leveraging its extensive alumni network and strategic partnerships within Singapore, the College offers students diverse opportunities for company placements and internships. “Programmes are increasingly creating powerful creative thinkers who are more like fresh graduates than high school students,” Nick observes.

This multifaceted approach reflects UWCSEA’s commitment to equipping students with transferable skills and nurturing their growth as responsible global citizens. “All of it adds up to our determination to educate our students for a future where things will be very different,” he adds. “And to be decent human beings who will leave the world a better place than they found it.”

High School students using VR technology as part of their mathematics lesson.

Inspiring Stories and Lifelong Impact

Nick reflects on the transformative experiences and profound impact of UWCSEA’s scholarship program, global initiatives, Singaporean ethos, and alumni conversations. “In our scholarship program, we recruit students of promise who may not otherwise have the opportunity to join us,” he explains. “Every one of those students has a marvelous story.” He recounts the inspiring journey of Kim, a Cambodian student who overcame immense challenges to excel academically and contribute meaningfully to her community. Kim came from extreme poverty and had no formal education. She graduated from UWCSEA with her IB Diploma and a full scholarship to a US College. She is now back in Cambodia working in development and giving back to her community. Kim’s story epitomizes the transformative power of education and leaves Nick optimistic about the future.”

When talking about the  highlights of the initiative undertaken by UWC alumni to bring meaningful education to refugee camps worldwide Nick says, “The enthusiasm from students, parents, teachers, and administrators across UWCSEA allowed Amala Education to set up the first-ever high school diploma designed for and with refugee youth.” Despite uncertainties, the commitment and determination of the UWC community have led to tangible outcomes, offering refugees hope for a better future.

UWCSEA High School graduate accepts his graduation certificate from Nick Alchin.

Reflecting on his time in Singapore, Nick acknowledges the nation’s remarkable achievements in creating peace and prosperity for its citizens. “What I have learned from the country and from Singaporeans is the power of people who can stand against fashionable sentiment and commit to causes outside themselves,” he observes. This ethos of principle and service has profoundly influenced Nick and the UWCSEA community.

Conversations with alumni further highlight the long-term impact of UWCSEA’s education. Nick recounts the journey of a former student who, years after graduation, realised the significance of his time at UWCSEA in shaping his approach to life. “Our success is not to be measured in the short-term,” he reflects, “but really happens when our alumni work out what our Mission might look like for them, in the context of their own lives.” These experiences underscore the joy and responsibility of education. “We really do make a real difference,” Nick shares. “Across a lifetime, the impact can be profound.”

UWCSEA High School graduate accepts her graduation certificate from Nick Alchin.

Embracing Innovation and Human Connection

When talking about the evolving landscape of education, Nick emphasises the need to preserve what works while embracing innovative practices. “The tech paradigm often dominates thinking, but we must remember that human development follows steady biological laws.”  With this in mind, Nick stresses the importance of retaining and amplifying what works in education, particularly the fundamental role of human connection in schooling.

When asked about key innovations shaping the future of education Nick talks of greater student freedom, a focus on growth over control, and enhanced attention to well-being and ethics. He advocates for more group work, real-world case studies, and interdisciplinary learning to foster transferable skills and global awareness.

With these in view, UWCSEA will continue to build on its foundations, moving towards a more personalised, inclusive, and ethical education. For Nick, education is not just about preparing students for adulthood, but empowering them to critically appraise and improve the world around them. He extends an invitation to educators who share a vision for a more peaceful and sustainable world. “We need educational institutions to amplify our aspirations,” he concludes, urging educators to join him in shaping the future of education and society, one change-maker at a time.

For More Info:

Content Disclaimer

Related Articles