Is Ong Ye Kung wrong? Can you eat a degree?

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The remarks by the Minister of Education (Higher Education and Skills), Ong Ye Kung, that the proportion of graduates is capped at 30 per cent to 40 per cent in each cohort have been met with criticism and incredulity, especially online.

Mr Ong was speaking at the 47th St Gallen Symposium in Switzerland earlier this week. The theme of the discussion was on politics and education in the age of disruption.

Mr Ong was explaining how and why Singapore’s education system needed to adapt and change, and to adopt a “dual-education track”, in which young people can become craftsmen in a wide range of fields.

This, he explained, was to ensure that one’s education would lead to employment.

He added that an education system which is focused on skills will help people find jobs and improve their lives. This, he said, is politics – building a social compact between the political elites and the masses.

“And that has to do with employment and education, (helping people find) a sense of self even in a very globalised world,” he said.

However, some have questioned if imposing a cap on graduate enrolment is necessary.

The issue is not a new one. In fact, it was in the spotlight in 2011, when the Government announced that it was setting up a panel to look into expanding the number of university places for Singaporeans.

“The Government will add another 2,000 university places in the next three years, so that 30 per cent of Singaporeans from each cohort will have places in them, up from the current 25 per cent,” the Straits Times reported then.

Straits Times, 2011

The move came after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s National Day Rally speech that year, where he unveiled “the Government’s plan to provide more degree opportunities for Singaporeans, as the economy will need more graduates, and because schools and polytechnics are producing more students with good grades.”

However, at the same time, then Education Minister Heng Swee Keat cautioned that this must be done while keeping an eye on “the needs of the economy”, so that Singapore will not find itself saddled with unemployment and underemployed graduates, as is the case elsewhere.

In 2012, PM Lee noted in his National Day Rally speech the rising aspirations of Singaporeans for a university degree. He announced that there would be 16,000 undergraduates places available each year.

“The additional 3,000 places from the usual 13,000 placements will be provided by through the new Singapore Institute of Technology and SIM University,” the Straits Times reported.

There would therefore be a total of “16,000 places yearly by 2020 at six institutions offering full-time courses.”

This will mean 40 per cent of the cohort will have a chance at university education here by 2020.

By 2015, however, the Government was encouraging Singaporeans to consider different pathways to success, besides that afforded by a university degree.

Mr Ong, who by then had joined politics via GE2015, had noted in October then that beyond traditional academic qualifications, there was a “burgeoning market” for alternative qualifications, which are becoming credentials in their own right.

However, while there was nothing wrong with paper qualifications, he said the Government wanted to encourage a more diverse approach which would be more realistic.

“What we do want to prevent is paper chase for its own sake, and an overemphasis on one particular type of paper qualification,” he said.

“If we succeed in our effort, we will have a better balance between knowledge and skills pursuits, between academic and competency accomplishments, and across a wide spectrum of disciplines that is more reflective of the needs of the economy and personal aspirations,” he added.

The next year, 2016, PM Lee expounded on this and spoke of how even those who enter the ITEs have new opportunities opened up to them, so that they can proceed further to the universities if they wanted to.

Speaking at the Singapore Institute of Technology Dialogue with SITizens, PM Lee explained the rationale behind the Government’s thinking and concerns when it comes to how many undergraduates to accept into the institutions each year.

He said: “So the education opportunities have opened up but it is not just schools, it is also making sure that you having earned a good certificate or diploma, you have skills and you have know-how which you can put to use and will help you to find good jobs and achieve your aspirations.”

And to ensure that graduates are able to find good jobs, PM Lee explained why it was necessary to limit the intake each year.

“The difficult thing is to train people and to build the economy at the same time in such a way that after you graduate, having done something that you want to do, there is a job that is available, which will match your aspirations and what we have invested in you.”

He said this was “much harder” and the Government has had to “manage the expectations”, so that if “you cannot get exactly what you want … you get something like what you want.”

He said the problem was not peculiar to Singapore.

“Other countries struggle with this problem too. Many European countries which have proliferated graduates have found that they cannot find jobs for them and are now trying to tighten up,” PM Lee said. “In Asia, if you look at South Korea and Taiwan, nearly everyone has a degree of some kind, nearly everybody, but many graduates cannot find jobs to match their degrees and youth unemployment is a serious problem.”

This is why, he explained, it is necessary for there to be “applied pathways… leading to qualifications which are relevant to the industries.”

“So the polytechnics and universities, particularly SIT and UniSIM, are very good examples of that. And that means the opportunities are there, to get a degree first or at least a good qualification and ultimately, a job, a career, and a bright future. That is why in Singapore, we do not have a youth unemployment problem, unique amongst many of the developed countries.”

All these “overwhelming” adjustments in Singapore’s education policy, Mr Ong said in March this year, was to prepare our students for the changes in the world, where economies and industries are seeing disruptions and uncertainties amidst technological and scientific discoveries and advancements.

Having more universities to cater to more students was not the solution.

“I can’t just make a big change in the system by pumping in another billion dollars, build another polytechnic, build another university,” he said in an interview with the media. “But instead, it’s changing the way we do things — uncovering students’ talents, developing them to the 
fullest.”

“Altogether, I think we’re taking meaningful steps, changing the way education should work for our children, so that they grow up fully prepared for the changed world ahead.”

So, is Mr Ong – or the Government, more accurately – wrong in capping the graduate intake at 30-40 per cent?

Well, while we continue to debate the point, it is worth noting that the number is not a static one or one cast in stone. It was, after all, a mere 25 per cent pre-2011; from 2012 it was raised to 30 per cent; and by 2020, it will be 40 per cent.

It is obvious that the “acceptable number” runs parallel to what the Government feels the economy can absorbed at any point in time. Is this a bad thing?

Some have suggested that the Government could tweak the numbers for each vocation or field of study. For example, it could allow a higher number of places for those who wish to study medicine, since Singapore has a shortage of medical professionals.

And also, if there is an insufficient number of jobs for Singapore graduates, perhaps the Government could tighten the flow of foreign graduates who come here to look for jobs. They would, after all, be competing with our own graduates for the limited employment opportunities, would they not? But is such protectionism desirable?

There are many questions which need to be answered and it is hoped that Members of Parliament can raise them in the House so the minister can provide clarity.

In the meantime, there is really nothing wrong in what Mr Ong said – that education must ultimately lead to employment. Can you have 100 per cent enrolment and provide the kinds of jobs graduates would expect? Are there lessons we should learn from other countries’ experience?

As Mr Khaw Boon Wan, then National Development Minister, said in 2013, at a Our National Conversation session then:

“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.”

There is some truth to that, isn’t there?

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