In August 2012, PM Lee Hsien Loong announced that Singapore would be adding more universities. This will increase current full-time university intake, and enable 40% of each cohort to go to university by 2020, up from 27% today.

Back then, I wrote a letter to TODAY expressing my concerns on this matter. Having lived in Europe previously. I questioned if Singapore may end up like the situation many countries in Europe are facing whereby youth unemployment is high as we may not having enough jobs to accommodate these graduates.

Secondly, I was concerned that it would be an inequitable policy given that the two universities mentioned are available mostly to the higher-income students. This makes it unfair for those who come from impoverished backgrounds but who may be more deserving of a place based on merit.

While some of my points were valid, I had made an insensitive comment about STI and SIM stating that their entry requirements “seem low”.  Then, I had written a blog post to express that I regretted and deeply apologize for this statement because it was quite mean and resulted in some students from these schools feeling very hurt.

The purpose of this post is to re-discuss and share my revised perspective on this issue with my fellow Singaporeans:

In Singapore, there are two popular perspectives on this issue in Singapore. One group believes that university education is a birthright regardless of capability or diligence. The other believes it is a privilege for those who have worked for it. The latter is often labeled as “elitist” while the other is seen as “idealistic”.

Why do so many people want a college degree in Singapore?

Aside from the love of learning, the main reason for Singaporeans wanting a college degree is for increased social mobility. In 2011, an Education Ministry official was reported by Wikileaks to have told a US diplomat that Singapore did not plan to encourage more students to study in university. The campus enrollment rate would stay at 20 to 25 per cent.

This outraged several Singaporeans.  According to Gilbert Goh from Transitioning.org, tightening graduate enrollment upsets the local population as they cannot full reap the reward of the current economic growth and their social mobility is restricted.

His comment contains a few assumptions. Firstly, he is assuming that people having no degree will definitely earn less money and thus have lower social mobility.  Secondly, many members in our community look down upon those who fail to study, get a good grade and a good job as illustrated by Jack Neo’s movie “I Not Stupid”. Another reason would be our materialistic culture, Singaporeans are generally motivated by the 5Cs so they need a degree to get more disposable income.

 

How about those who disagree?

Those who disagree that all should be given an opportunity to pursue a college degree have valid reasons too.

Firstly, some believe that there are currently too many graduates for limited white- collared/ PMET jobs. This problem is faced by several developed countries. South Korea has over a third of their unemployed having university degrees. According to China’s Ministry of Education in 2011, the number of people graduating from college has tripled to 6.6 million. However, demand for graduates has not kept pace. In Beijing, only 50 percent of the class of 2011 found jobs before leaving full time education.

Singapore is no exception. Yoong Siew Wah, our former director of Internal Security Department (1971-74), said that Singapore has 30,000 P-METs who have been unemployed for quite a long time. Many PMETs in Singapore end up working as taxi drivers, property agents, insurance agents, financial advisers, remisiers, or tuition teachers. Yoong added that this problem is worsened by the presence of foreign workers.

However, the problem of foreign talents is not the sole reason.  Another reason could be the fundamental mindset of Singaporeans which discourage them from pursuing blue-collared jobs. Professor Linda Lim from the University of Michigan business school said that Singapore is too fixated on the professional, managerial, executive and technician (PMET) jobs. This mindset creates a problem as when too much emphasis is placed on such high-skilled jobs, the prestige of lower-skilled occupations, such as bus drivers and carpenters, would be low.

Secondly, merely increasing university spaces for the sake of it may lead to lax academic standards.

The easiest way to enroll and retain more students is to lower entry requirements in universities. This problem is faced in China whereby the ministry focused on quantity, not quality. In higher education and merely expanded college capacity so as to “absorb excess labour and boost consumption after massive layoffs at state-owned enterprises in the late 1990s”. This highlights to us the importance of not blindly increasing spaces without focusing on quality.

The view is shared by sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa in their book Academically Adrift  that even with the increase in college students, academic standards have been laxed and this results in a situation whereby “45 percent of college students hadn’t significantly improved their critical thinking and writing skills after two years; after four years, the proportion was still 36 percent”.

Lastly, many fear that motivation of students may possibly be affected. Will students be motivated to work hard in pre- university education if everyone can get into college regardless of grades? Would this system experience the same flaw as communism whereby people start to think “Why should I study hard if anyone can get into this course?”

 

Solutions

I believe that all should have the opportunity to attend university if they have the right qualifications. As I said many times before, money shouldn’t be a barrier and we should do our best to level the starting line.

However it is destructive to blindly believe in the pervasive idea that if one has no bachelor degree, they will be resigned to the lower-middle class forever.

I share the same view as sociologist James Rosenbaum of Northwestern University who argued that “One size doesn’t fit all”. I would suggest an alternative that could improve social mobility and helping Singaporeans reach aspirations but at the same time, not adding to the demand for the PMET jobs.

Economics Professor Linda Lim explained that due to the low value placed on blue collared jobs,  citizens would typically not take them up and thus the need for foreigners to fill this instead. But can foreigners fill it forever? Eventually these countries will be developed too. Where is Singapore going to get blue-collared workers from? This is not a sustainable solution.

Perhaps we could follow Robert J Samuelson’s suggestion of turning to what Europe is doing – Apprenticeship programs combining classroom and on-the-job training.

This is being done in Germany where vocational education and training is deeply embedded and widely respected. The system offers qualifications in a broad spectrum of professions and flexibly adapts to the changing needs of the labour market. It produces SKILLED workers without having to put pressure on the PMET jobs.

How does it work? As an article on Bloomberg describes:

After students complete their mandatory years of schooling, usually around age 18, they apply to a private company for a two or three year training contract. If accepted, the government supplements the trainee’s on-the-job learning with more broad-based education in his or her field of choice at a publicly funded vocational school.

Usually, trainees spend three to four days at work and one to two in the classroom. At the end, the theory goes, they come out with both practical and technical skills to compete in a global market, along with a good overall perspective on the nature of their profession. They also receive a state certificate for passing company exams, designed and administred by industry groups—a credential that allows transfer to similarly oriented businesses should the training company not retain them beyond the initial contract.

I think that this is a good system worth exploring in Singapore. The advantages are clear.

Firstly, both white collared and blue collared careers would be perceived and considered respectable by society. Also, the TVET ensures there’s a job available because no one is admitted unless an employer has already offered a training contract. In this way, no years of hard work go unrewarded by the market. This contrasts with what is happening in many countries where some youths have to pay a lot to attend college, only to not be able to find good jobs after graduation.

In conclusion, everybody deserves a chance to receive higher education if they are willing to work hard to achieve the standards required. Vacancies should be however provided according to capacity.

Everyone has a right to a higher education that prepares them to make a contribution to society.  However, one must note that this does not always come in the form of a college degree, nor should it. You don’t require a degree to be an electrical technicians, medical technician, chef, artist, landscaper, etc. However you need access to the base of education to be credible in those professions.

Encouraging students to pursue careers that fit them best is more viable than pushing every single person towards traditional university degree route.

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