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Singapore and the Educational Arms Race

Singapore and the Educational Arms Race

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Singapore’s massive investments and policies dedicated to education indicates the country’s strong belief in education’s intrinsic value. However, with the inevitability of the competition for scarce educational resources and a population living in a meritocratic society, what are the societal costs that Singapore can possibly (or already) face when the need to outdo others, through education, escalates? And what can be done to minimise them?

Mr Christopher Gee, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) explored the issue in a public lecture organised by The HEAD Foundation (THF) on 22 September 2016.

He began by setting up the context of the educational arms race, with education becoming a positional good in a winner-takes-all market. He then defined the educational arms race as “the continuing competitive attempt by two or more people in society to have more and more educational qualifications than the other”.

Mr Gee introduced a framework of thinking of how one might start to observe an educational arms race emerging. The model factored in the competition for scarce resources, differences in the returns that elite and non-elite students enjoy, and the costs involved. It then helps to illustrate that when societal inequality increases, there is also increased pressure on society due to educational costs.

Such pressures can be observed in many countries. In the US, the amount of student loans increased while the rate of unemployment for college graduates, particularly from non-elite institutions, have also increased. Thus despite the increased cost of education, the rate of returns is unclear for the “losers.”

In South Korea, families’ significant expenditure on education crowds out other types of spending and limits growth in the consumer economy. There has also been an observation that countries with higher educational expenses (such as Japan, Korea and Singapore) also have low fertility rates, implying a trade-off between quality over quantity.

In Singapore, statistics show that the upper middle class dedicates a greater percentage of their expenditure on private tuition than other groups. This illustrates the competition for higher rankings among this group who also end up bearing the brunt of the costs.

Mr Gee acknowledges that recent policies in Singapore, guided by the vision of “every school is a good school,” demonstrate the country’s efforts to cool down the educational arms race.  However, he emphasised that more can be done and suggested two ways of lowering the pressure of competition.
The first is to aggressively level up and allocate resources (such as teachers and facilities) to the less desirable schools to communicate to parents that such schools are worth considering for their children and minimise the fear of losing out. Singapore could also consider eliminating high-stakes assessments especially during the students’ foundational education years. Instead, schools can be encouraged to take risks on different teaching and learning styles.

The lecture then ended with a lively discussion with the audience who raised questions on further means of easing the pressure of the educational arms race in Singapore, and the possibility of aggressive affirmative action to address the issue.

Video excerpts of Mr Gee’s lecture can be viewed here.


Mr Christopher Gee 

Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies

Christopher researches the policy implications and outcomes arising from Singapore’s demographic trends, in particular those aspects relating to housing, healthcare and retirement adequacy. He has also co-led studies on the impact of parenthood measures on fertility preferences, and a multi-disciplinary review of the implications of projected demographic scenarios for Singapore.
Christopher’s current research focus is on the policy implications of longevity, inter-generational accounts and transfers and the “second demographic dividend”. He has published several papers on retirement financing, strengthening old age income support and managing healthcare costs for an ageing population. Christopher was previously in investment banking, leading equity research teams covering Singapore and Malaysia, and the Asian real estate sector. He has a BA (Law) from the University of Nottingham and holds the CFA charter.

Christopher holds a joint appointment with the National University of Singapore’s Department of Real Estate and the Institute of Real Estate Studies, and is a non-executive director of CapitaLand Retail China Trust, a Singapore-listed real estate investment trust with a portfolio of shopping malls in China.

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