Expanding Education in Singapore: Associate Degrees

By Yap Shiwen

Background

Singapore has an education system that has over the years delivered a rigorous and quality education to its citizens. However, with increasing global and regional competition, changing demographics and a transition from a manufacturing economy to one that is more based on knowledge industries and service provision, it has emerged that there are clear gaps in the structure, especially in the area of post-secondary and tertiary education.

A problem has emerged in several forms. With the increasing level of technological sophistication and advancements in robotics, 3D printing, automation and computer technology, manufacturing jobs are now on a trend towards being middle-class and requiring an increasingly technical background and higher intellectual capital. This requires that opportunities be available for Singaporeans to reskill, upgrade and remain relevant throughout the next few years.

While our polytechnics provide a 3-year post-secondary education in a variety of vocations, combined with an industrial work attachment that grants practical experience on the operation and administration of business activities in the relevant sector to polytechnic students, there is a gap brought about by a lack of associate degrees in the Singapore education system:

  • a lack of accelerated tertiary education for ITE graduates

  • a lack of relevant vocational and technical skills by GCE A-Level graduates from junior colleges

  • a lack of accelerated tertiary education paths for working adults to reskill themselves in our education system.

A solution to this issue lies in instituting Associate Degrees as part of our public education structure. This is a program equivalent to the first 2 years of a Bachelor’s Degree Program and a solution that has been implemented in the USA, Canada, the Netherlands, Europe, Australia and Hong Kong.

Associate Degrees

An Associate Degree is an undergraduate first-tier degree, the equivalent of the first 2 years of a Bachelor’s Degree. It’s the lowest in a hierarchy of post-secondary academic degrees. While not as lucrative as a Bachelor’s Degree, it involves a lower investment in terms of both time and money, as well as accelerated entry into the workforce and the opportunity to reskill or upgrade themselves, much like the Specialist Diplomas and other options on offer in both the Polytechnics and PEIs (Private Education Institutions) in Singapore.

The primary value proposition to Singaporeans and Singapore is an accelerated tertiary education option. Associate Degrees involve a lessened expenditure of time and money, and with the option to be upgraded to a full Bachelors Degree or undertake a Graduate Diploma and other postgraduate options when equipped with sufficient vocational/professional experience. It prepares students for a career after graduation or enables a transfer into a Bachelor’s Degree program, and is suited for technically-oriented occupations.

An associate degree tends towards equipping students with greater technical competencies for their profession, rather than the knowledge competencies that most Bachelor graduates are equipped with. It equips graduates with applied skills to meet the operational demands of a profession in a shorter period of time than a Bachelor’s degree.

The primary challenges that an Associate Degree addresses to an extent are the opportunity cost, in terms of time and financial costs, that the Bachelor’s Degree entails. It provides for a vocational track that allows for people from the working class, lower middle class and intermediate middle class to reskill and shift sectors, as well as gain tertiary qualifications.

It also offers a tertiary track to ITE graduates that requires a time investment of 2 years, compared to polytechnic diplomas that require 3 years. Finally, it addresses the challenge that GCE A Level students have, given their academic background, which results in people with knowledge competencies but little in the way of technical competencies and technical skills compared to polytechnic graduates.

The Netherlands introduced the Associate Degree into their Qualifications Framework in order to address the structural deficit in their technical-vocational education system in 2011. Similarly, Australia introduced Associate Degrees into the Australian Qualifications Framework in 2004, classifying an Associate Degree graduate as having “…broad knowledge and advanced skills for skilled professional work”, making it similar in context to a Polytechnic Diploma.

An Associate Degree could offer both part-time and full-time formats, with academic direction provided by Singaporean tertiary institutions, as in the examples provided by the University of London International Programs or Open Universities Australia, or modeled after the Dutch and Australian systems.

It could preferably be organised around a trimester study terms for the part-time programs, which divides the academic year into three terms which can be as short as 8 weeks or as long as 16 weeks each. This offers greater time savings and an accelerated track than the dual semester academic terms currently used in the polytechnics and universities. This requires greater administrative infrastructure but has been successfully carried out by PEIs (Private Educational Institutes) such as James Cook University (Singapore). A full-time format would still be 2 years, offering a shorter commitment than the equivalent in the

Finally admissions should be based around an open admissions policy, a type of unselective and non-competitive tertiary admissions process, compared to the standard procedure practiced in NUS, NTU and AMU, which are rigorous, competitive and highly.

The proposed minimum criteria for entry should be a NITEC or Higher NITEC with a minimum of 2-3 years working experience, and direct entry via GCE A-Levels after National Service. This would go towards expanding educational opportunities and social mobility, providing additional educational opportunities to those from socially and economically underprivileged backgrounds, working adults and professionals seeking to shift sectors.

Finally, it would benefit Singapore by enhancing the range of educational opportunities available in the education market and enhance our status as an education hub in Asia, by expanding the selection of educational programs available. It would also offer an accelerated route into the workforce and a way to provide local employers with access to tertiary-educated personnel with the required knowledge competencies.

ITE Entry

The NITEC certification provided by ITEs is vocationally and practically oriented, offering employers a worker with a stronger value proposition than an A-Level graduate, in terms of technical and knowledge competencies. They offer an immediate value proposition to employers in technical roles and occupations, versus A-Level graduates who lack the requisite KSAs (Knowledge, Skills & Abilities) or alternatively technical and knowledge competencies most employers would require.

However the background of most ITE graduates tends toward those from the lower middle class, working class and socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds. The path towards tertiary education and social advancement is both longer and more difficult than for those possessing GCE A-Levels or Polytechnic Diplomas.

An associate degree track would offer the benefit of tertiary education and allow for enhanced career prospects and socioeconomic mobility, as well as improving upon the pool of human capital in Singapore. It would merge the strong technical and practical background and experience of an ITE graduate with some of the benefits of a tertiary education.

GCE A-Levels Entry

The GCE A-Level graduates produced by junior colleges, while having academic grounding, lack a value proposition other than basic administrative skills to most employers. They lack the technical background of the ITE or Polytechnic graduates, offering no substantive technical skills.

And given the intense competition to enter the local universities, such as SMU, NTU, NUS or SUTD, and lacking the Polytechnic background necessary to enter SIT, they often turn to PEIs. However this can impose a not-insignificant financial burden on their families and themselves due to the costs involved in private education, in the form of student debt.

Given the different demographics, lifestyle experiences and the opportunity cost imposed by the necessity of National Service, this makes their ability to enter into the workforce harder, as well as delays them achieving economic independence from their families.

An Associate Degree track would offer them the opportunity to enter into studying the discipline of their choice and accelerate their entry into the workforce, with an option to undertake further study to a full Bachelor’s Degree at a later point.

Conclusion

In summary, an Associate Degree offers a value proposition to both the people of Singapore, the nation of Singapore and the government. It serves both a social and market purpose, in offering greater opportunities coupled with a lesser time investment to students. It enhances the options available and greater social mobility through education.

Its addition could serve to enhance the educational ecosystem of Singapore and accelerate entry into the workforce of both men who have undergone National Service and women who would otherwise incur a financial burden on themselves or their families by undertaking PEI education, which is generally not subsidised by the government except with specific institutions.

The Netherlands conducted multiple pilot studies on Associate Degree Programs between 2005-2011, to assess its added value, before being added as a means to close the gap in their vocational education system. Perhaps a similar review of our educational system is in order, to better equip our workforce with the skills required in this age of disruptive innovations and increasing intellectual capital.

Given the nuanced and increasingly specialist requirements of various jobs in the market and the needs of employers, and the benefits to both society and the country, associate degrees should be reviewed as a possible addition to the education system in Singapore.

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Sources

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor (2003). The Editor’s Desk. Advantages from an associate degree. On the Internet at http://www.bls.gov/opub/ted/2003/mar/wk1/art04.htm

Lederman, D. (2009). Relative Advantages of Associate Degrees and Certificates. On the Internet at http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2009/01/22/pathways

Crosby, O.(2002). Associate degree: Two years to a career or a jumpstart to a bachelor’s degree.Occupational Outlook Quarterly Online, Vol. 46(4). On the Internet at http://www.bls.gov/opub/ooq/2002/winter/art01.htm

Marcus, J. (2013). Community-college grades out-earn bachelor’s degree holders. The Hechinger Report.On the Internet at http://hechingerreport.org/content/community-college-grads-out-earn-bachelors-degree-holders_11261/

Gans, S. (2013). Revised: Associate-degree programme attracts mainly mbo graduates. Statistics Netherlands. On the Internet at http://www.cbs.nl/en-GB/menu/themas/onderwijs/publicaties/artikelen/archief/2013/2013-3763-her.htm

Australian Qualifications Framework Council. (2013). Australian Qualifications Framework. [2nd Ed.] .On the Internet at http://www.aqf.edu.au/Portals/0/Documents/2013%20docs/AQF%202nd%20Edition%20January%202013.pdf

Netherlands Ministry of Education Culture && Science and (2010). Towards More Transparency in Higher Education: The Dutch National Qualifications Framework. On the Internet at http://www.nuffic.nl/bestanden/documenten/expertise/bolognaproces/folder-dutch-national-qualifications-framework.pdf

Netherlands Ministry of Education, Culture & Science (2008).The Higher Education Qualifications Framework in the Netherlands, a presentation for compatibility with the framework for Qualifications of the European Higher Education Area. On the Internet at http://www.nvao.net/page/downloads/NQF_Dutch_National_Qualifications_Framework.pdf