ASPIRE – A difficult but worthy vision towards greater egalitarianism
Reading the ASPIRE report, I was reminded of an anecdote told by a professor of sociology at NUS (National University of Singapore) many years ago. He was reflecting on how Singapore society over-valued paper qualifications. He noted that society respected him because he was a university professor, but whenever his car broke down on the highway, he could do nothing but stand by his car while waiting for a mechanic to arrive. He said: “I just stand there while he rescues me. Yet nobody takes notice of him.”
As a former polytechnic lecturer, I have also seen polytechnic graduates leave jobs in their field of study, disillusioned by lack of career paths or recognition. Besides pursuing a degree, many moved to commission-based sales jobs to improve their income. There is a strong desire for better pay, as pointed out in the ASPIRE report at Annex B. This is understandable, as the disparity between university graduate pay and non-graduate pay is great. According to MOM (Ministry of Manpower) statistics, the median starting pay for polytechnic graduates is about $2,000 without NS, while that for a university graduate from the public universities is over $3,000. ITE graduates’ starting pay is around $1,350 for NITEC holders and $1,800 for Higher NITEC holders. (MOM Yearbook of Manpower Statistics 2014). The difference in pay is often amplified over time, when annual increments are calculated from the base pay.
The early departure of these polytechnic and ITE graduates from industry is a loss, as they could have become specialists in their technical area, if they had stayed and built on what they had learnt.
To this end, the Workers’ Party is supportive of the recommendations of the ASPIRE committee. At one level, there is an economic imperative. Singapore will be in trouble if it cannot offer jobs to Singaporeans because their qualifications are not in demand. We want Singaporeans to be able to find fulfilling work in Singapore, and we want job vacancies to be filled by Singaporeans. At a more fundamental level, we should aim to reduce the current inequality between university graduates and non-graduates, in terms of income as well as status. An egalitarian society is more stable and cohesive than one with high inequality. However, for ASPIRE to succeed, non-graduate pay must rise.
For the remainder of my speech, I would like to share some observations about the committee’s recommendations. I will focus on Recommendation 2 on internships, Recommendation 4 on the lead institutions for key industries, Recommendation 6 on supporting students, and recommendation 10 on skills frameworks. I will also touch on Part 2 of the Motion.
Recommendation #2: Enhancing internships
The committee rightly noted that students’ internships can be a bit of a hit-and-miss affair, with a wide range of students’ experiences. The move to get educational institutions and industry partners to work more closely to ensure clear and relevant learning outcomes is good. However, it is also important that students do not misunderstand this to mean that the employers owe them a living and that they should be doing interesting work all the time. Learning workplace and life skills, such as getting along with colleagues, working under pressure or doing mundane tasks for the business, should also be part of the learning outcomes.
Currently, I believe that there is already some form of pre-deployment consultation between the employers and lecturers supervising the student to ascertain the potential for learning during internship. The practical difficulty is usually that during the internship itself, the exigencies at the workplace will trump any training plan, leaving interns to fend for themselves or help in repetitive tasks like storing documents for office renovations. It would not be fair to hold an employer accountable if some learning outcomes are not met.
Already, it is not easy to find employers to take interns in some industries. With the additional responsibilities expected of the host employer under ASPIRE e.g. providing suitable mentors, greater employer commitment and buy-in will be needed. Perhaps one way of getting more buy-in from employers is to alleviate the current manpower demands by providing student manpower during the peak periods for the industry, or to de-conflict the internship periods among institutions to assure employers of a steady stream of interns throughout the year. Perhaps the lead institution appointed for each industry sector could look into this.
Students currently do internships from between two months to six months, but this may not be enough in certain industries. It would be good if companies could get involved earlier in the education process to ensure students are market-ready. One good example today is Temasek Polytechnic’s Lufthansa Technical Training Centre, which provides training for the polytechnic’s aviation students, which helps prepare them for an industry accreditation recognised by the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore. We should encourage more of such collaborations.
Recommendation #4: Role of lead institutions
The committee has recommended designating a key polytechnic or ITE college as a lead institution, to co-ordinate efforts in working with different stakeholders. It was stated that the lead institution should work with the relevant economic agencies, employers and other stakeholders to ensure course offerings are relevant and to partner them in internships and industry projects (para 3.12). It was further stated that all institutions and students would be able to benefit (3.14).
I would like to ask whether the lead institution would have any advantage for itself by doing the co-ordination role. For instance, if a lead institution is appointed for the hospitality industry, does this mean that it will have priority for research projects in hospitality, or is the lead institution just a co-ordinator who will have to open projects up to all institutions for discussion? As for the academic programmes themselves, will non-lead institutions continue to run them, or does the Ministry expect some sort of rationalization i.e. individual institutions concentrating on certain industries? )
Recommendation #6: More development and support for students
The committee highlighted the challenges that some students face in their studies, due to their different abilities and family difficulties (para 3.21). It was stated that there were adequate financial schemes to cater to the financial needs of students. However, it should not be assumed that all is well on the financial front. My own observation is that not all students who need the schemes eventually get helped by them. Families in financial difficulties are often unstable, with some even selling their homes and moving to stay in Johor Bahru. Some parents perceive the application process for financial aid as cumbersome; some even pressure their children to work and even to stop studies to work full-time. These cases need strong guidance and support.
The committee suggested that polytechnics and ITE offer more development programmes to strengthen students’ resilience. However, I would suggest that it is important to beef up the capabilities of staff as well, to help students undergoing emotional or financial stress. Besides having counselors or specialists in sufficient numbers in educational institutions, academic staff should also receive sufficient baseline training to better support their students, since they are the ones who see the students regularly and know them well.
Recommendation #10: Sector-specific skills frameworks and career progression pathways
ASPIRE recommends developing sector-specific skills frameworks linked to progression pathways for each sector to serve as national benchmarks. The intention is for all employers and employees in a particular sector to have a common reference point, to facilitate promotion based on skills. The intention is a good one. However, it is not an easy task, to devise skills frameworks and progression pathways which are credible and usable across an entire sector.
While getting the frameworks and pathways in place is one thing, making them effective to improve salaries is another. A case in point is the private security industry. For about a decade, a CET framework under the WSQ (Workforce Skills Qualification) scheme was devised. It aimed at imparting specific skillsets to security officers and supervisors, to enable them to be more professional and improve career paths. Yet, despite evidence that standards have risen and job scopes have increased, and despite a market shortage which can only be filled by locals and Malaysians, it remains a low wage industry. Employers were also reluctant to send their staff for non-compulsory courses for two main reasons: first, because more costs may be incurred to hire cover staff, and secondly, staff would expect to have pay increases after completing the courses. While each industry is different, I believe this experience with the private security industry may hold lessons for other sectors on the possible challenges and buy-in needed to make the frameworks and pathways produce results, to create the “virtuous cycle” we aim for.
Part 2 of the Motion
The second part of the Motion calls upon this House to support a tripartite approach to instill a culture of lifelong learning and a reward system based on skills and performance. Instilling a culture of lifelong learning and having a reward system based on skills and performance, rather than qualifications, is easier said than done.
For instance, an employer committed to lifelong learning will have to accommodate release of staff for courses and even hire cover staff, which can be disruptive. Educational institutions and course participants will also need to be flexible to accommodate work exigencies. I have personally had the experience of co-ordinating CET courses at my former workplace, where we had large cohorts of students who were law enforcement personnel working on different shifts. Major planning on the part of the employer and the educational institution was required to enable staff to attend courses, with disruptions to course schedules due to major deployments for events such as World Bank meetings and General Elections.
As for rewarding staff based on skills and performance, this can have its challenges too. In theory, staff who are better trained and have larger job scopes are more productive, and naturally should justify higher salaries. Ideally, with better training, the organisation’s productivity and earnings would rise, and employers would share those rewards down the hierarchy. However, there is no guarantee. On the other hand, some employers may be reluctant to send their staff for training, as staff would return from training expecting a pay increase, which would in turn increase the employer’s costs.
Given the challenges of implementing ASPIRE’s recommendations, an approach involving government, employers and employees makes sense. However, as the Senior Minister of State said yesterday, it cannot be limited to those stakeholders; we need the concerted effort of everyone, “government, industry, educational institutions, workers, unions, students, parents and educators” (para 1.24) to move to a new paradigm where alternatives to a degree are equally respected and a viable economic option.
Caution against discouraging academic progression
In our zeal to deepen technical competence and uphold pathways to success, we should be mindful that we do not inadvertently discourage individuals from pursuing higher academic qualifications just because of their starting point. We should ensure that ASPIRE’s recommendations do not get translated into advising our ITE and polytechnic graduates NOT to aspire. Where an individual has good academic potential, he should be encouraged to pursue those goals. Academic progression must always remain open. To this end, ITE graduates must be able to progress to polytechnics, and polytechnic graduates must be able to progress to public universities. The recent set-up of the Singapore Institute of Technology is very welcome, as it gives polytechnic graduates the opportunity to earn applied degrees in Singapore. Over time, our economy should be able to cater for a workforce which is not only better-trained, but better-educated.
Leading the change, Government must change
At the cultural and mindset level, is it possible for us to change the prevailing mindset that a degree is the baseline for a good life? In order for ASPIRE to work, each of us must believe that our own children too should be content to go through the technical pathways drawn up by ASPIRE. As many have noted, this is a tough sell for Singapore parents.
As for employers, they should be as open as possible to looking at qualities other than paper qualifications to hire and promote people. In this regard, the private sector fares better, as it tends to be more performance-oriented in its reward system. Instead, the biggest culprit at over-emphasising qualifications might actually have been the government itself, which has even distinguished among the graduates: scholars and non-scholars have different career progression and pay, and employees with “good” honours degrees may get higher starting ranks and pay than those with “less good” honours degrees; the differences between graduates and non-graduates in the civil service are even more stark. It is noteworthy that the Public Service Division has announced some changes and said that a review is in progress. It may be necessary to review the entire civil service and uniformed services hiring and promotions system; otherwise, we would only be paying lip service to the principles espoused by ASPIRE.
Our society can never be totally equal, and some differentiation gives incentive and motivation to work for a better life. Nevertheless, the ASPIRE recommendations highlight the need to remedy the great divide in Singapore in the pay and standing of those with university degrees and those without. A national effort to improve the prospects of ITE and polytechnic graduates is a worthwhile mission, and the Workers’ Party supports this mission.
This speech was first published over at The Workers' Party website on 9 September 2014. It is reproduced with permission from Mr Gerald Giam, Non-constituency MP and chairman of Workers' Party Media Team. Note that The Domain of Singapore Tutoring Experts is not politically affiliated with any party/organization.
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