photo: sim.edu.sg & fgould.com

Arms race in education: School or Skills?

by Kel

Faced with an education arms race in Singapore, students are rightfully worried about their job prospects and employment. This fear is worsened by the fact that less than half of private school students found full-time jobs within six months of their graduation as shown by the results of the latest Private Education Institution (PEI) Graduate Employment Survey (GES).

Students that graduated from full-time external degree programmes between May 2016 and April 2017 responded to the survey. The results showed that even though 79 per cent found work (includes permanent, freelance and part-time jobs), only 47.4 per cent of the survey respondents obtained full-time permanent employment in the six months.

In comparison, full-time permanent employment rate for students from autonomous universities (AU) like National University of Singapore, Nanyang Technological University and Singapore Management University - was 78.4 per cent. Post-National Service polytechnic graduates was 64 per cent.


More importantly, the survey showed that the median gross monthly salary of private school graduates was lesser than AU students. While fresh autonomous university graduates and post-National Service polytechnic graduates earned S$3,400 and S$2,480 respectively, the salary for PEI students working in full-time jobs was S$2,650.

There are some points to be drawn from the study.

(1) Given that AU graduates are paid more than PEI graduates, it gives off the impression that the former is more valued in the market place than the latter. This suggests that the quality of AU graduates are seen as being better than PEI graduates in the eyes of employers.
(2) If point 1 is true, than it stands to reason that PEI students should think hard before enrolling for a degree course at PEIs.

Some have attributed the relatively low rate of employment and salary of PEI graduates to "perceptions that their degrees are not as prestigious."(3) In a tight job market, these perceptions can lead to discrimination between the haves and have-nots with regard to the classification of schools. In another report by MTI (Returns to Education For Graduates Of Private Education Institutions), the study also found that AUs graduates have a significant starting wage premium over PEI degree graduates. (4)

So for students who do not enter AUs or Polys, does that mean that going to PEIs is not a good option?

Although there have been dodgy PEIs in the past, students should not be too worried about enrolling to study at private institutions. So long as they adhere to CPE and Edutrust requirements and standards, students should be rest assured that said PEIs have the necessary standards and quality of a good learning institution.

But students studying at PEIs should not be worried about perceptions even though they can lead to discrimination. What students need to focus on is to acquire the relevant skills and if possible professional accreditation (e.g. ACCA etc) to complement the degree.

Because in an age of digital disruption, people need to constantly upgrade and develop new skills and not be worried about past performances and history. By constantly upgrading one’s skillets, opportunities will open up in the future. Thus the arms race in education is not necessarily where one gets the degree but in the kind of skills and knowledge that one has learnt from formal education.