In his Address, the President spoke about the Government’s pledge to ensure that Singapore remains a nation of opportunity for all. Being a nation of opportunity involves:
First, creating the conditions that will generate opportunities for Singaporeans to do well and prosper (and the energies of our economic agencies are focused intensively on this, as we have heard from MOS Teo Ser Luck just now).
Second, enabling our people through education to access and leverage on these opportunities:
- Now and in the future;
- In Singapore and internationally.
That is where MOE comes into the picture. Members would know of the Applied Study in Polytechnics and Institute of Technical Education (ITE) Review (ASPIRE) Committee, which was formed principally to focus on opportunities for our polytechnic and ITE students.
Update on ASPIRE Engagement
I would like to update the House on the committee’s work so far. We have engaged in extensive public engagement. We have spoken with more than 2000 stakeholders from 5 polytechnics and ITE, including students, parents, staff and alumni. We also surveyed more than 10,000 polytechnic students, 4000 ITE students and some 600 parents.
In the course of our review, we have found that there is strong endorsement for the education provided by our polytechnics and ITEs. However, this is accompanied by a very strong desire on the part of students and parents for immediate further academic upgrading. Paradoxically, though, if everyone goes that route, it may not work out in the best interests of our students.
When I was working on my speech, I was wondering how best to convey this conundrum. I found the answer in today’s Straits Times, which carried four separate articles that illustrated the issues for our applied education landscape today:
The first was the article on page B7 reporting on how more polytechnic graduates have scored places in law and medicine in university. We are happy for these students – and this also shows the strength and quality of our polytechnic education. As the article reported, 40 per cent of our students who qualified for junior college chose to go to a polytechnic instead. The reason most often cited for so doing was that they wanted to get hands-on learning straightaway.
From the students’ and parents’ perspectives, the outcomes they want are good pay, good career prospects and upward progression.
Currently, this is equated with academic upgrading:
Almost 6 in 10 ITE students and 4 in 10 polytechnic students wish to upgrade immediately upon graduation, even though they are in fact ready to be employed.
The ITE student feels he will not be successful if he or she does not upgrade to a diploma while the polytechnic student feels that he will not be successful without a degree.
Additionally, they are worried that if they do not pursue academic upgrading immediately they may lose momentum.
However, on page A2 of the same paper, there was a big article entitled: “Degree holders most vulnerable to retrenchment”. It reported that in the last two years, degree holders have found themselves most vulnerable to losing their jobs, among all qualification groups.
SIM University economist Randolph Tan was quoted as saying: “As graduates become more available, it brings about more friction in the job matching process. Many graduates think that getting a degree is the pinnacle of achievement but what they don’t realise is that the workplace demands much more of them.” In the article, Sylvia Tan, an IT manager who was retrenched, reflected on the fact that if she had been able to pick up new skills like cloud computing and analytics, perhaps she might not have been retrenched.
In short, the basic principles continue to apply – supply should not exceed demand; real skills and competencies matter and Continuing Education and Training (CET) is becoming ever more important.
In addition, when you speak to employers, they will tell you that what really matters to them even more than a paper qualification are the intangible qualities – clearly a potential employee must have the basic technical and substantive skills, but what employers value most are the intangible qualities such as: diligence, analytical skills, resilience, teamwork, communication skills, Emotional Quotient (EQ), leadership qualities, and problem-solving skills.
This was reflected in a third article on page B12: “Education must match economy’s needs: Experts”. At a forum held in Singapore organised by the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, the experts voiced their view that: “Education remains the key to Singapore’s success as a knowledge-based economy, but it needs to be targeted at developing the right skills.”
Dr Siriwan Chutikamoltam, director of banking and finance at the Nanyang Technological University’s (NTU) Business School said: “There should be less emphasis on just getting degrees… Education should match what is going on in the economy.”
How do you encourage polytechnic and ITE grads to take advantage of their diplomas and certificates and meet their aspirations at the same time?
Part of that answer was provided in a fourth article on page B11: “Good HR policies draw talent, boost business growth”. An electronics firm, Jason Marine Group, won the Small and Medium-sized Enterprise (SME) Employer of the Year Award in February. They sharply reduced staff turnover by 50 per cent, after they revamped their Human Resource programme and developed an upward career path for their staff. This boosted both their recruitment and their retention.
In response to the question on what he had learnt about building employees’ careers, the founder Joseph Foo said: “Everyone wants to be developed and trained, to continue to improve – not just training in terms of skill but also experience and exposure….As for a career path, everybody wants to know how far he can go from here.”
One other thing that came out strongly, both in our study trips and engagement sessions was the need for information and assistance in making the right career choice. One of our findings was that when it comes to making career decisions:
Students are most influenced by their parents and their (as well as their parents’) perception of career opportunities in related sectors.
In second order of importance of influence are career platforms such as exhibitions, talks, career fairs and the media.
Some parents I spoke to said that they were not aware of the many different types of careers and job option available today, and as such they tended to fall back on the usual or more well-known, traditional choices.
The takeaways for the ASPIRE committee from our studies, engagements and interactions are as follows:
First, real skills and intangible qualities matter. They must meet industry needs. In this regard we are looking at Workstudy programmes, and how to structure the curriculum and internships, so that there will be a tighter nexus between what is taught and what is required in the workplace.
Next, upward progression for polytechnic and ITE grads is important. The desire for the degree is driven by the outcomes people anticipate that the degree will give. However, if all chase a degree route immediately, that would actually not result in the best outcomes of our polytechnic and ITE students, as explained earlier. What we should aim for therefore is a multiplicity of pathways that are viable options in and of themselves. So, they should be able to either:
- Pursue further studies immediately; or
- Work first, and pursue further studies later, preferably in a related sector; or
- Work and progress upwards through professional certifications and training, even without the need for a degree.
Ideally, what we want is for each of these pathways to be able to still give our students the outcomes they hope for in terms of career prospects and progression. We are looking at how we can facilitate progression pathways to enable our polytechnic and ITE graduates to progress upwards even without a degree, or before they get one.
CET and skills upgrading is important, as illustrated by the example of Ms Sylvia Tan, mentioned earlier. We are looking at how we can help our polytechnic and ITE graduates stay on top of the game and navigate the vicissitudes of the future through CET, industry certifications and short courses that will add to their repertoire of skills and keep them in high demand.
Next, staying at the cutting edge matters. In order for our students to be at the forefront of technical skills as well as the intangible ones, the educators must be at the forefront as well. We are therefore exploring ways in which the polytechnic and ITE educators can continue to be at the cutting edge of industry skills and practices.
Next, industry participation and collaboration is vital. None of the above would be possible unless industry and employers are invested in and collaborate with us to achieve these objectives. We are studying how we can work closely with the employers and industry in order to achieve the objectives mentioned earlier.
Finally, providing information to make right career choices is important. In this regard, we are looking at career guidance not just for school, but given that education is now a lifelong continuum, from school throughout working life, so that people can find the careers that are best suited to their strengths and circumstances at different stages of their lives.
The reality of the situation is that the world is changing so fast that in the next five to 10 years, new jobs will come into existence that have not been invented today. The people who will thrive in that kind of future are the ones who have relevant skills and are continually able to learn new ones. The strength and uniqueness of our polytechnic and ITE qualifications lies in their flexibility. Our graduates can work immediately, but their qualifications give them a base on which to acquire further learning. Given that the future is likely to be more unpredictable and volatile, a qualification which imparts technical or professional skills, coupled with strong CET or professional upgrading to stay ahead of the curve, will give good outcomes in the long run. The future for our polytechnic and ITE students is bright and ASPIRE is working on ways to enable them to access the many opportunities that lie ahead of them.