Singapore has been regarded by some as a leader in higher education in Asia, if not the world, so some new developments in that sphere may well be worth noting. Singapore’s Ministry of Education (MOE) co-organised a conference
with the OECD on higher education last month, where leaders in the field convened. It was as much as a celebration of the achievements of universities in Singapore and Asia, which have been rapidly moving up the university league tables, as well as an opportunity for posing more searching questions.
It brought us to a perennial policy dilemma related to the expansion of university enrolment, what the academic literature calls “massification”. It is all good and well to create more university places; but too many of it could lead to an oversupply of degrees (or at least the kinds of degrees) that the “market” doesn’t need.
The occasion was also the platform for the first major speech of Ong Ye Kung, the incoming Acting Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) of Singapore. It is the first time Singapore has two ministers of education, one of them overseeing a higher education portfolio. Other countries, such as Malaysia in its immediate region, have had separate ministers and ministries for higher education at some point of time.
There was nothing in Ong’s speech at the MOE-OECD conference that hinted to observers what had spurred the creation of a separate ministerial portfolio for higher education. Major changes in Singapore’s higher education landscape have already been worked out for some time, most notably the establishment of two new universities. This was part of a plan to increase the university gross enrolment ratio (GER) per cohort from 25 to 40 per cent, by 2020.
Instead, Ong took the opportunity to further flesh out the details of SkillsFuture, a major scheme for continuing education and the retraining of the Singaporean workforce, which takes as its inspiration and its model the German and Swiss apprenticeship schemes. SkillsFuture was already unveiled by the government in 2014, but with details left for later. Ong expounded on the proposed idea of “stacking credits”, where credits gained from courses of continuing education for working adults could eventually be “stacked” towards a paper qualification, perhaps even a degree.
This would be done, he said, in a way to preempt a “paper chase” syndrome, where students rush to obtain degrees which would then become worthless, due to a glut of degree holders in the job market. The Singapore government has long sought to keep the gross enrolment ratio of universities per cohort at around 25 per cent, to preempt the kinds of graduate unemployment issues now seen in South Korea and Taiwan, where the equivalent university enrolment rate is in the region of 65 per cent.
But, as the government has found out, Singaporeans still want a degree, rather than just a polytechnic diploma. Private higher education providers have thus filled that demand-absorbing role for the past decades, in a system where the public (though also autonomous) universities are generally considered the more prestigious option. This goes beyond the typical explanations about the primacy of a degree in a supposedly “Confucianist” society like Singapore.
Some said the government could not continue in this trajectory, after the ruling People’s Action Party took a slight drubbing at the polls in 2011. Among the concerns of voters were education and job prospects. Singapore is a highly globalised economy, and so is its job market naturally – polytechnic diploma holders in Singapore compete for jobs that are also targeted by bachelor degree holders from beyond; and some of these degree holders could have studied at universities like those converted from polytechnics in the UK in 1992. (The stance in Singapore has been that that is a bad move that would glut the market of degrees, and rightly so.) That just seemed grossly unfair, so Singaporean students who didn’t make it to the public universities would have invested a considerable amount of personal savings in a private degree course, without the government’s significant Tuition Fee Grant
– a degree for which quality is sometimes suspect.
Next, after something like SkillsFuture, the best way forward for a higher education system like Singapore’s would be to further improve the cross-over pathways between universities, polytechnics and other higher education institutions for deserving students. The government knows this, of course.
This is also a principle underpinning the top community colleges in the US, which offer two-year associate degrees that are much like polytechnic diplomas in Singapore – namely, that a deserving student from within the California Community College system, for example, can conceivably enter Harvard University eventually, through transferring credits. But that, in the US as in Singapore, largely remains just a principle.
Loke Hoe Yeong is Research Analyst at The HEAD Foundation, where his research focuses on higher education from an international comparative perspective.