Room for more graduates? I believe so.


Yesterday, Senior Minister of State (Education and Information, Communications and the Arts) Lawrence Wong yesterday gave the assurance that the Republic’s economy has room for more graduates. He had said, “Going forward, clearly, we can accommodate more university graduates,”

I agree with the Senior Minister of State on this. Last year, I filed a Parliamentary Question and found that there were 41,000 locals studying in private universities in Singapore alone, excluding those doing so overseas. So the number of locals on private degree programmes is almost the same number as that in the funded autonomous universities. That shows many aspires for a university education.

One will then quickly argue that it does not necessary show that aspirations means there are enough jobs for graduates in the economy. Purist will argue that we will cheapen our degrees, that we could end up with unemployed and under-employed graduates. Indeed, some have swiftly written to the press about their concerns. These concerns are valid.

Like it or not, for years, many have struggled through on their own at private universities here and abroad. For years, some MPs have argued for more university places, right from the time that NUS was the only full university around. I recall reading Mr Chiam See Tong’s occasional battles in parliament with different Education Ministers over education places, and for the establishment of the then-third university. He was told “No”, each time. Gradually though, the number of university places and the number of universities rose till today when we will soon have our 5th and 6th universities.

I do not have data on what happens to graduates of private universities and I think no one has the complete picture as well. I have discussed with some private providers about the prospects for their graduates and have myself hired a number of such graduates especially in my previous business. In that business, nearly all staff are graduates and diploma holders. More than half of those who were diploma holders either joined my company already enrolled in a part-time degree programme, or started a part-time degree course during their employment with us. Most went with private universities. Some joined us with a private degree, either obtained after a diploma from one of Singapore’s polytechnic or they had gone entirely via the private route after leaving secondary schools or college.

As an employer, I hire based on assessing their skills and attitude, regardless of where their qualifications came from. Experience and qualification may mean a different starting point. However, once they have entered, their qualifications didn’t matter to us anymore. We looked at their work performance. I have shared previously that some who were promoted fastest were not the ones that started with the best qualifications nor from the better known institutions.

I know of many others that have done well, some who had new opportunities made available to them after obtaining qualifications from private universities.

We have always been having many graduates who did not go through our autonomous universities. With additional 3,000 places per year, it could likely mean that in the initial period, many of the borderline cases who previously would not have qualified for our autonomous universities would now be able to do so and receive government support. So there may not be the influx of 3,000 more graduates per year chasing for limited employment. These 3,000 are just getting better support enroute to earning their degree.

With increasing education level and rising grades achieved by students, it had been difficult to get into our autonomous universities. Some who had missed the cut may not necessary be inferior to those who made it through. Admission via the college route is based mostly on the GCE ‘A’ levels results, which measures mainly academic abilities. Late bloomers or those who are more inclined to do better at practice-based courses could find themselves excelling in tertiary studies. Having done less well at GCE ‘A’ levels may not mean they are also not capable of doing well in universities and in their jobs.

It is true that we need certain number of graduates with research abilities to fill academia and industry research positions. Singapore would also want to achieve a good standing globally in research publications and patents. These graduates will likely still come from the current autonomous universities that are research based, as these universities are better structured and resourced to do so. There is a place for teaching and practice based universities, to meet the aspirations of Singaporeans for higher learning and to get access to more job opportunities. These can be facilitated by the newer universities.

I hope those who fear for under employment of graduates will give more time for the graduates of the new universities to prove themselves. Given that many of the higher achieving graduates of private universities in the past have secured good jobs, it should give us encouragement that there are enough jobs for the graduands of the 5th and 6th universities.

The other thing that concerns me is that we have grown accustomed to the government providing pathways for us. Sure, graduates who slogged through rigorous academic routines would expect themselves to be rewarded with better job prospects. It is also the duty of policymakers to try to match training with industry demand, though it is not always possible to achieve this well.

The world is fast changing. Technology is fast advancing and business models are constantly being changed as barriers are broken down by the highly connected and dynamic world. It is hard to accurately plan for what the economic and jobs scenarios will be for a current primary school child who will only start work 10-20 years later.

We need to fall back on the basics of education, which is to fill the mind and enable the person with skills and with the attitude to learn continuously. We may not always do the job we are trained for but it should not stop anyone from constantly adapting and relearning. I recall a conference some ten years ago which I attended where Carly Fiorina, then-CEO of HP was speaking in. It struck me in her introduction that she graduated with Bachelor of Arts in History and Medieval History, yet rose to head one of the largest technology firm. I recall her joking about her study of Anthropology. Granted that her tenure at HP turned out to be eventful. My point is that she probably used little of what was taught in her university course but must have adapted and learnt along the way to rise to the top in the engineering world.

In our education system, we may have focused too much on testing, sorting students out and planning for their future much like running a manufacturing plant. Students have been ingrained with a mindset to study well and get into good schools so as to secure their future. It may be so in the past, but with a constantly changing world, it is difficult to continue to provide that assurance. Innovation and global enterprises are difficult to be engineered precisely. For our people to succeed in the new world, they must have creativity, innovativeness, adaptability and a desire to constantly relearn.

I hope even as we discussed about how many places to provide for higher learning, we must not forget to work in at all levels of education to break out of the mindset that the system can plan for everything. It ought to be cultivated into our next generation that education is to build their mind, and they need to adapt themselves to the 21st century and seize opportunities that come along the way. The emphasis should not be just on knowledge and skills, but also on developing the right attitude to life, such as confidence, resilience, character and love for learning. That can help our increasing pool of graduates stay relevant in the changing economy by the graduates themselves being adaptable to changing environments.

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One comment on “Room for more graduates? I believe so.

  1. very well said, but how do you propose this to happen when our system is still largely based on “merit” (which the fastest way is through academia)? this wouldn’t happen if there is no shift in mindset in the top level.

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