Singapore graduate surge: Exponential, not gradual, growth

“Do degrees matter?” asked the Straits Times. Well, university graduates certainly start off better paid than polytechnic graduates.

Number of university graduates in Singapore

The median gross monthly starting salaries of polytechnic graduates working full-time last year ranged between S$2,000 and S$2,500 depending on their course of study. University graduates who had completed four-year programmes, on the other hand, started on median salaries ranging from S$2,800 for those who took courses in accountancy to S$4,000 for degrees in dental surgery and law. The figures are from the Singapore Yearbook of Manpower Statistics 2014.

Now the government wants to close the gap. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his National Day Rally speech said: “We will merge more graduate and non-graduate schemes to give everyone the same opportunities on the same career track and we will promote non-graduates more quickly to what used to be considered graduate level jobs, once they prove that they can do it.”

The initiative comes at a time when the number of university graduates is rising.

By 2012, Singapore had 674,000 university graduates. Nearly 26 per cent of the 2.6 million residents aged 25 or more had university degrees.

This figure will soon rise to 30 per cent. Nearly 30 per cent of the cohort entered the local universities last year, according to the Ministry of Education.

That’s spectacular growth – a threefold increase since the dawn of the new millennium.

In the year 2000, only 10 per cent of Singapore residents aged 25 or more – just over 105,000 out of one million — had university degrees.

By 2006, they made up 20 per cent – with 471,900 university graduates out of 2.4 million residents aged 25 or more. This is from Population Trends 2013 by the Department of Statistics, Singapore.

The number of university graduates has risen faster than the number of people holding diplomas and other professional qualifications.

There were 364,000 people aged 25 or more holding diplomas and professional qualifications in 2012, up from 189,700 in 2001. So their number has doubled – not gone up by two and a half times like the university graduates’.

The local universities’ total intake was more than 59,700 students last year when the polytechnics took in nearly 80,000 students in all – and the junior colleges almost 31,000.

The table below shows the number of university graduates, diploma holders and others:

Note: The resident non-student population refers to residents who are not attending educational institutions as full-time students. It includes those who are upgrading their qualifications through part-time courses while working.(Source: Population Trends 2013, Department of Statistics, Singapore)

True, more students are going to polytechnics after completing school than to junior colleges, the traditional route to universities.

Last year, 46.4 per cent went to polytechnics, 28.2 to junior colleges and 22.8 to the Institute of Technical Education, according to the Ministry of Education’s Education Statistics Digest 2013.

However, there are polytechnic graduates who subsequently enter universities like their junior college counterparts.

Universities are increasing the number of places not just because of popular demand. It’s a global trend.

“Governments have incentives to build on the skills of the population through education, particularly as national economies continue to shift from mass production to knowledge. economies,” says a report prepared by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Compared with other countries

The report, Education At A Glance 2013, looks at the percentage of 25-to-64-year-olds with a tertiary education in the OECD and G20 countries. The OECD average is 32 per cent, but the figure is much higher in Canada (51 per cent), Israel and Korea (both 46 per cent), the United States (42 per cent) and Japan (40 per cent).

The figure is high in Singapore too – almost 40 per cent, if you put the university graduates together with the diploma holders and others with professional qualifications. The figure is almost the same in the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Finland (39 per cent each) and close in Australia, Ireland and Norway (38 per cent).

The OECD report distinguishes between type A and type B tertiary education. It says:

Type A programmes are largely theory-based and designed to provide sufficient qualifications for entry to advanced research programmes and professions with high skill requirements, such as medicine, dentistry or architecture.

They require at least three years’ study but typically last four or more years.

Type B programmes are typically shorter than Type A programmes and focus on practical, technical or occupational skills for direct entry into the labour market. They take at least two years to complete.

Norway has the most Type As (36 per cent of the 25-or-older age group) followed by the United States (32 per cent). The United Kingdom has 30 per cent.

These are the figures Singapore is trying to match or cross: Our population is better educated than yours.

Education has its rewards. This is what the OECD report says:

“On average across OECD countries, earnings increase with the level of educational attainment but this increase is especially large for older workers.”

This article first appeared on on 1st September 2014. It is reproduced with permission.


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