Redefining success “starting to take effect”, PM Lee says

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Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong says the Government’s move to redefine what constitutes success beyond paper qualifications is starting to take effect.

As an example, he said “parents are more open-minded”, as can be seen by the competition for entry to schools like the Lasalle College of the Arts and the Singapore Sports School.

Mr Lee was speaking on the broader aim of education and in particular why Singaporeans need to be more astute when it comes to deciding on whether the graduate degrees they sign up for will provide them a job.

“When you study for a degree, you have to be sure the degree is rigorous, and there is a market demand for it,” he advised.

He said that while the Government “make sure the standards are there” for universities, and that “the right courses are there in the right numbers”, it is quite different for private universities, which account for about one-third of all degrees obtained by students in Singapore.

“In private universities, you have to be careful,” Mr Lee cautioned. “We can’t say every degree or diploma is worth exactly the same and will be able to guarantee you a job. What counts is what skills you have, what contribution you’ll be able to make.”

But is there a glass ceiling for diploma-holders in the civil service, a caller who was a civil servant and is presently unemployed asked the prime minister.

“It should depend on your performance,” Mr Lee replied. “Whether you are a graduate or not should not be so critical – for many jobs degree- and diploma-holders work side by side.”

In August, the Public Service Division announced changes to various Government schemes to improve the career prospects of Institute of Technical Education (ITE) and polytechnic graduates.

The improvements would give non-graduates in the Civil Service who perform well and are ready to take on larger responsibilities an opportunity to progress faster in their careers, based on their performance, the PSD said then.

The PSD said it is also studying merging both the graduate and the non-graduate schemes to give its officers the opportunity to progress on the same career track, a point Mr Lee raised last night as well.

The issue of whether Singaporeans should pursue the paper chase has been in the news in recent months, since the Government raised concerns that graduates may not be able to find the jobs they want.

In March this year, Manpower Minister Tan Chuan Jin raised the red flag about a potential “glut” of graduates here, a predicament which Taiwan and South Korea are facing today.

“Their relentless pursuit of paper qualifications resulted in a glut of graduates,” he told Parliament then. “The director-general of Taiwan’s Ministry of Education stated that ‘the abundance of (university) places had undermined the quality of degrees and created a skills mismatch in the job market. People became over-educated and underemployed.”

Mr Tan noted that by 2020, Singapore would see a 40 per cent cohort participation in its local universities, besides those pursuing private or overseas degrees.

He said that while “this can mean that we have an increasing pool of better educated and skilled workforce”, it is also something the Government needs to keep an eye on.

“We will need to watch this development carefully and help Singaporeans make informed educational choices,” he said.

Mr Lee said that it is justified for parents to ask their children to consider their career paths after they graduate.

“It is sensible to worry where your next meal is going to come from,” he said. “If we all go and smell roses, who is going to feed us?”