The Government seems to be taking one step forward and two steps back on the issue of university education.
During last year's National Day Rally speech, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced plans to set up a fourth university in Singapore, targeting 30 per cent of each cohort to enter publicly-funded universities.
However, based on the past week's news, it appears the Government is now preparing the ground for a possible downgrading of these plans.
More education could mean less growth: Minister
On 11 June, TODAY reported that Singapore Polytechnic had just launched a scholarship programme to groom top students to be future ministers. The report hinted that university degrees may not even be necessary to reach the highest offices in the land. Polytechnic diplomas could suffice.
Later that day, in his first major speech since his appointment, Education Minister Ng Eng Hen told an Australian university alumni gathering that "more education does not necessarily mean more growth". He cautioned against a "fixation" with numerical targets for undergraduate enrolment, and said that "expanding education thoughtlessly may actually weaken the link with growth".
This was also reported on by TODAY on June 12th.
The minister then sounded another alarm that increasing university numbers may reduce the overall quality of education. He further warned that universities could drain teachers from secondary schools. (It is puzzling why the minister thinks future universities will be staffed by National Institute of Education graduates, rather than PhD holders.)
Most of Dr Ng's postulations were quoted from the book, Does Education Matter?: Myths about Education and Economic Growth by Alison Wolf, a professor at King's College London. The minister's press secretary pointed this out in a reply to TODAY on 14 June, wherein she accused the paper of "inaccurate and misleading" reporting.
Having read the minister's entire 18-page speech, I thought there was nothing inaccurate or misleading about the article ran by TODAY. The minister quoted extensively from that book, and spent the next five pages of his speech arguing that more university education may not lead to economic growth, and that our technical institutes (ITEs) and polytechnics are serving our needs wonderfully. It is not unreasonable to assume then that Prof Wolf's theories lined up with Dr Ng's own views and, by extension, those of the Government.
Foreign talent and the "flexible labour policy"
The Government has always been unapologetic about its utilitarian approach in moulding the education system to meet market needs. However, foreign employment figures over the past few years point to a failure of the education system in producing the skilled manpower that employers are demanding.
As of December 2006, there were about 83,000 Employment Pass (EP) holders in Singapore[i]. The EP is a work pass for foreigners, usually degree holders, whose monthly salary ranges exceeds $2,500. These professionals are commonly referred to as "foreign talent", who possess the skills and talents that our local graduates lack — or so we are told.
This means that Singapore is short of about 80,000 university graduates to support the economy. It doesn't make sense for the Government to constantly lament about the shortage of local knowledge workers and import wave after wave of foreign talent, when it can solve this problem by providing more university places and financial support for Singaporeans to complete their higher education.
The Government has explained that it wants to maintain a "flexible labour policy", which sees it issuing more work passes during boom years, and cutting back during economic downturns.
While that sounds good in theory, the reality on the ground may not be so straightforward. There is no guarantee that during lean years, employers will suddenly awaken to their patriotic duty to retrench only foreigners and retain Singaporeans.
In fact, the additional costs of employing Singaporeans — paying CPF, granting National Service and maternity leave — mean that the pragmatic choice for employers would be to fire the Singaporeans and keep the foreigners when profits are down.
One step forward, two steps back
The Government seems to be taking one step forward and two steps back on the issue of university education. Back in 2003, a committee helmed by Dr Ng himself rejected the idea of setting up a fourth university. Now even with the commitment from the Prime Minister to expand local university places, he seems to be tempering expectations.
The argument that having more universities will lower overall standards is a red herring. No one wants the National University of Singapore (NUS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and Singapore Management University (SMU) to lower their standards and rankings. There is no reason to expect this to happen if a fourth or fifth university were to be set up. Why can't each university be the "best in its class"? A culture of excellence is, after all, the Singaporean way.
Even if Singapore were to go into recession, Singaporeans will still be better off as unemployed graduates than as unemployed non-graduates. After all, if graduates can't find jobs locally, they can more easily seek employment overseas. This is one of the key benefits of making Singaporeans "world ready", as the Government aims to do.
Political cost of higher education
Why does the Government seem reluctant to drastically expand graduate numbers? Compared to other developed countries, Singapore's proportion of graduates is dismal. Only 23 per cent of each cohort in Singapore graduates from university. In Australia, 60 per cent hold degrees. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) average is 36 per cent.
Perhaps the Government realises that having "too many" educated citizens may be politically inconvenient, especially if the economy does poorly and graduate unemployment numbers increase. With their stronger ability to articulate grievances, vocal graduates may require our highly-paid ministers to spend much more time thinking of the right way to "fix" them or "buy" them over.
Already, support in Singapore for a more pluralistic government is highest among the educated classes. A post-2006 election survey conducted by the Institute of Policy Studies found that most Workers' Party supporters were from the upper-middle and above household income group. A higher proportion of respondents with university qualifications also felt there is a need to reform the election system.
The fourth university: yes but not quite?
We can expect that in the coming months, the Ministry of Education and its "nation-building" press will continue to wax lyrical about how wonderful our ITEs and polytechnics are, and how their graduates find jobs much faster than university graduates. They will sound more warnings about how more graduates could mean poorer overall quality — just like "those other countries".
Finally, Singaporeans will be informed that the fourth university will be set up as promised, but it will be just a small liberal arts college with a cosy 200 or so students.
Meanwhile, thousands of Singaporeans, desperate for a university education, will continue to flock to overseas universities each year, in pursuit of that degree that they could have obtained at a much lower cost had there been more places in local universities.
More graduates needed for knowledge economy
A fundamental shift in mindsets with respect to university education is needed. Our knowledge economy needs many more graduates, and it will be better to fill the skilled positions with Singaporeans rather than importing more foreign talent.