June 03, 2013 00:00 By Seah Chiang Nee
A number of political leaders have appealed to Singaporeans not to place too much faith on university degrees in an apparent effort to manage public expectations.
This is the clearest sign yet that the authorities are expecting a sustained period of relatively low economic growth and slower employment opportunities. Singaporeans, especially parents, who have long regarded the university degree as a key to a good life will likely be shocked.
For decades, the government has been encouraging youths to study hard or lose out in a competitive world. This apparently spells a change in education strategy. It has also thrown more light on a baffling revelation made earlier by a senior Education Ministry official to American diplomats.
This revelation was that the global economy embraced by Singapore has made it much less conducive for over-educated societies.
Having a large number of graduates, once thought crucial for Singapore’s prosperity, is now considered not conducive to the changing manpower market, at least in Singapore.
However, none of the political leaders – the prime minister and three ministers – has mentioned another reason for the excess of graduates – the mass intake of foreigners.
Led by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan, the leaders are now advising Singaporeans to consider non-university routes to success.
Khaw said: “You own a degree, but so what? You can’t eat it. If that cannot give you a good life, a good job, it is meaningless.”
He added that Singapore could not have an entire nation of graduates.
“Can you have a whole country where 100 per cent are graduates? I am not so sure. What you do not want is to create huge graduate unemployment,” he said.
Then it was the turn of Education Minister Heng Swee Keat, who said that a good qualification alone does not guarantee a career, let alone a job.
Thirdly, Acting Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing said it is not the degree or diploma that is most important for graduates, but the ability to learn a different set of skills. “The soft skills in life have to be acquired and have to be continuously refreshed. If not, even with the best degree from the best universities in the world, we may find ourselves obsolete one day.” They were taking the cue from Prime Minister Lee who had earlier told polytechnic students that getting a degree is not the only option. He encouraged them to work for a few years or start their own business.
“You will gain experience and understand yourself better and then be better able to decide what the next step will be,” he said at Ngee Ann Polytechnic’s 50th anniversary celebration.
All these political leaders have served to clarify a comment made by a senior education ministry official that the government does not encourage more Singaporeans to get higher education. As revealed by Wikileaks last year, assistant director of planning Cheryl Chan told the United States diplomats that it would instead cap graduate enrolment rate at 20 per cent.
The reason, she said, was: “The labour market does not require too many graduates.”
She also admitted that only 23 per cent of Singaporean students who entered primary school would ever complete a four-year tertiary education, a figure far below that of the United States (50 per cent) and Taiwan. This gave confusing signals to a worried population, which probably ranks as one of the most enthusiastic in Asia about getting a degree for their children. Many continue to make great personal sacrifices to help their children and are unlikely to abandon this just because of what the government says. The new emphasis is for multiple skills and drive.
So far, the government has not reduced the places in university but has instead increased them. The number of universities were raised to five with a total enrolment of about 13,250 students, with about a third being foreign students. Cutting down tertiary education is obviously not in the cards – but “discouragement” is now taking place.
The ruling party is dependent on the scholarship system to recruit its future leaders, and it is still bent on attracting bright foreign students to its shores.
In addition, nearly 18,000 Singaporeans are studying in foreign institutions, mostly in Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom. According to local media reports, the market is unable to absorb the large number of graduates coming onstream.
One report quoted a McKinsey & Co study as saying that almost half of the graduates are holding jobs that do not require a degree.
The oversupply is having a dampening effect on graduates’ salaries (again no mention of the foreign arrivals), it added. In the past 10 years, undergraduate numbers have doubled.
The effort to get Singaporeans to abandon the paper chase for their children is almost like mission impossible. Many have begun to spend thousands of dollars a month on private tuition for their kids starting as young as seven years old. What is the new drive aimed at? One possibility is that it is trying to reduce the number of below-average students from joining the paper chase while encouraging the bright ones to carry on. Economically, Singapore barely escaped another technical recession with a revised first quarter GDP showing a rise of 1.8 per cent. Gone are the days of double-digit growth, probably never to return. So what work can non-graduates do? One suggestion from PM Lee is: “Become hawkers.”