Great Aspirations

By Kwan Jin Yao

Despite Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s insistence at the National Day Rally that the university is not the only pathway to a bright future, this shift must go beyond rhetoric and the recommendations of the Applied Study in Polytechnics and Institute of Technical Education (ITE) Review (Aspire) committee. In the long-term the diversity in the schools and at the workplace will be beneficial, yet the present transition will be met with scepticism.

In other words, how do we convince Singaporeans that the university – so good at churning out cogs for our economic machinery – is not the be-all and end-all?

The immediate outcomes for students and parents – as Senior Minister of State for Education Indranee Rajah explained in Parliament in May earlier this year – are still “good pay, good career prospects, and upward progression”. She heads the Aspire committee, which after an extensive review process seeks to strengthen applied education in the ITE and the polytechnics. That six in 10 ITE students and four in 10 polytechnic students wish to get their next qualification right after graduation is not propitious for PM Lee’s vision.

At the root of this scepticism is the persistent role of academic qualifications. The reality at the workplace without a degree is plain: lower starting salaries, as well as fewer opportunities, and options. Therefore while aware of the multiple pathways the ITE or polytechnic graduate – like their junior college (JC) counterpart – wishes to advance quickly. Even though learning on the job might be a good pathway, this endeavour will take incredible resolve.

In other words, how do we convince Singaporeans that the university – so good at churning out cogs for our economic machinery – is not the be-all and end-all?

And because the academic degree is the signal to success at the workplace, while it is well-intentioned, the notion that the “academic route might not be suitable for all” could be read as “some are not good enough”. Recent remarks by the government have highlighted the risk of graduate obsolescence – such as Law Minister K Shanmugam’s concern over the lack of training contracts for Singaporean law graduates returning from overseas – but critics could see them through political lenses, and dismiss such talk as a bunch of malarkey.

Two things should happen from here.

First, the government risks the label of a hypocrite if it does not practise what it preaches. On the one hand PM Lee praises employers in the private sector for looking beyond qualifications, yet on the other in the public service the degree holder is looked upon more favourably vis-à-vis a non-degree holder. Unrealistic for the government? Perhaps, since the public service hierarchy seems to discriminate against those without a degree. Glass ceilings are aplenty. University degrees rank differently too.

The example of the People’s Association at the National Day Rally was hardly convincing too. The proposition that the non-graduate has to “prove their worth” or “work their way up” implies that the graduate is already better. Which – at the workplace – is not necessarily true.

Second, the Aspire committee’s plans for work study programmes and internships must be matched not only by tangible benefits at the workplace, but also by shifts in mind-sets. In this discussion specificity matters too. “Giving our people full opportunities to achieve their potential” is an ideal, and the Aspire committee should be explicit about the prerequisites for these “opportunities”. Highlight more role models who have done well in spite of their education backgrounds. Challenge the role of university education in Singapore, which – somewhat ironically – has focused on vocational and job-specific skills. Contest stereotypes of ITE, polytechnic, and JC students, and encourage interaction across these institutions.

Times, they are a-changin’. Academic qualifications are hardly guarantees for anything in the world. Unless there is a commitment to see this through, PM Lee’s speech and gestures – of holding the rally at the ITE College Central campus instead of the National University of Singapore for instance – will count for little in a country so stuck in its scholastic ways.

This commentary was first published over at the blog of Kwan Jin Yao on 18 August 2014. It is reproduced with permission.


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