SINGAPORE: Before this year’s Budget debates, the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) published the Economic Survey of Singapore. It included a feature article on the return to education for graduates of private education institutions (PEI).
The study had aimed to offer new insights on the monetary returns to PEI and autonomous university (AU) degrees.
Among other metrics, it reported that AU graduates enjoyed an average of 28 per cent premium in starting wages compared to graduates of degree programmes from foreign universities that were taught offshore via PEIs.
These results mirrored the findings of the Graduate Employment Survey reported by the Committee for Private Education and SkillsFuture Singapore three months prior, which showed the median gross monthly salary of the graduates from PEIs in full-time permanent employment was S$2,550, compared to that of fresh AU graduates at S$3,325.
When queried about the GES, SkillsFuture Singapore qualified it was “not intended as a comparison of the quality or value of the respective institutions, and should not be interpreted as such” given the small sample size for some of its data points.
For instance, 18 of the schools polled had fewer than 10 respondents, while 23 had fewer than 20.
Both studies did not identify the main reasons for this difference in starting salaries between AU and PEI degree holders.
Yet the MTI study suggested the wage gap could stem from “differences in … employers’ perceptions of the degrees”.
While it is not uncommon knowledge that graduates from AUs are better paid, it is unfortunate that such surveys exacerbate an unhealthy fixation on starting salaries as the benchmark of returns from quality higher education.
In fact, such myopia misses the mark in our larger debate, where we should be setting our sights on how Singapore’s diverse ecosystem of higher education institutions can collectively raise the overall calibre of Singapore’s human capital to enable Singaporeans to better compete globally.
HIGHER EDUCATION BENEFITS INDIVIDUALS, THE ECONOMY AND SOCIETY
Granted there are some students who value higher education because of the benefits it brings in the form of a higher salary, improved career prospects, or a higher chance of securing a desirable job. Where higher education is seen as an enabler to better economic outcomes, it might be fair to keep starting salaries as one factor of consideration.
But the same argument could be made with those who are encouraged to embrace lifelong learning through SkillsFuture courses.
Yet a society steeped in a culture of learning will enable its citizens to benefit more widely from the opportunity to lead a more fulfilled life – through knowledge acquisition, critical thinking, learning to deconstruct entrenched and possibly outdated worldviews, holistic learning that integrates theory with practice or developing higher-order skills to be better prepared to face the challenges of the 21st century.
In The Lessons of History, Pulitzer Prize winners Ariel and Will Durant assert that “a society in which all potential abilities are allowed to develop, function and thrive will have a survival advantage in the competition of groups”.
To that end, by defining the returns of higher education in mere earnings, we are simply caricaturising the benefit that a better educated population brings instead of appreciating the impact that it has in unleashing potentialities for the collective well-being of society.
Singapore’s transformation into a manpower-lean economy means we will have to rely less on talent from abroad while doubling-down on cultivating more talent from within. In that regard, everyone should be encouraged to both pursue a degree, and be competent to learn throughout life.
Where the benefits of lifelong learning have been so often touted in this country, it would be a mistake to believe that the accumulation of knowledge and vocabulary through higher education is not necessary and that lifelong learning arises naturally.
Cognisant of the relevance of higher education in the cultivation of home grown talent, the Ministry of Education has announced plans to evolve our publicly-funded institutes of higher learning (IHL) to be more closely aligned to Singapore’s efforts to champion this spirit of lifelong learning.
PRIVATE EDUCATION AND HIGHER RETURNS
If we consider AUs, almost all of them aim for prestige which comes from academic research. A good university is associated with measures used in the league tables.
Climbing the university rankings may be a laudable goal. But we should also open our eyes to other purposes of higher education.
Some universities focus on applied research that is specifically relevant to the nation - to raise the standard of living of farmers, for example – rather than paying particular focus on theoretical research which has a higher tendency for acceptance in top-tier journals.
While our AUs do well in this regard, it is important to recognise that if the role of higher education is to train a future workforce, then PEIs which focus more on teaching rather than research can also provide students with strong academic and non-academic support that prepares them for industry.
Generally speaking, PEIs facilitate student admission into diploma and degree courses that are based on interests and aptitudes, and not just on academic results. In that sense, they broaden access to higher education by believing your professional development and preparation for a career should also be enriched by one’s working experience and life experience.
It was heartening to hear Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung make a similar point in last week’s Committee for Supply debates.
"40 years ago, schools suffered from high dropout rates. The uniform curriculum also did not cater for students’ varied pace of learning," he pointed out, adding:
The then-Minister for Education, Dr Goh Keng Swee, said that the starting point should be to identify the ‘causes of things’, before putting in place solutions to fix them. His solution then was to allow students to study at differentiated paces that suited them. School dropout rates fell dramatically.
At PEIs, more students even those relatively less academically inclined can enrol into a variety of diploma or degree courses as they are presented with these “differentiated paces”. And if more students are likely to enrol into courses that interest them, they may have a higher chance of going on to achieve success in studies, careers and life.
For example, graduates from PSB Academy have earned first class degrees and gone on to work in prestigious Singaporean and multinational companies.
Ms Adora Sarah Chou is one of these graduates from PSB’s university partner, the University of Wollongong Australia. In recounting her story, Adora shared how she was “always deemed a failure – an N-level student, poor grades and a 32-pointer for O-levels”.
But through hard work and determination, Adora spent seven years pursuing her studies and is today doing well as a group marketing manager for a prominent pizza chain - a path that may not have been opened to her had she not had a chance to hone her skills in an institute of higher education.
Many others have seized the opportunity of a second chance at a quality higher education and these stories need to be told - stories of personal growth and advancement of students who have their lives transformed by PEIs.
The important point is this - we must do more to do away with judging higher education institutions through a single scale, for good reasons. A higher education – whether through an AU or a PEI – is not an automatic ticket to a high paying job.
Aside from perpetuating this fallacy, unintended signals of bias against PEI graduates can add to the worrying cracks in Singapore’s social divide.
BRIDGE, NOT EXACERBATE SINGAPORE'S SOCIAL DIVIDE
An Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) survey on social capital last year reported that despite our aspiration to be a meritocratic society with high social mobility, Singapore may in fact be more divided by class.
This is a divide that may stem from the fact that as open economies, cities like Singapore cannot totally iron out the inequalities of rewards that globalisation accords in a meritocratic way.
Yet as a truly globally-oriented economy, Singapore should not fixate on education’s role in the mere allocation of jobs but instead take on a broader worldview of enabling all potential abilities to develop, function and thrive in our bid to raise our collective human capital and competitiveness as a global node in Asia.
Moreover, when we make a distinction between AU and PEI degree holders through surveys that further entrench prevailing biases, we unknowingly contribute to Singapore’s class divide in two ways.
First, through encouraging social exclusion where graduates from publicly funded education institutions might see themselves as socially more superior than others.
Second, in a scenario where such bias becomes deeply entrenched, Singaporeans might not feel motivated to upgrade themselves through formal education when they neither qualify for a place in a publicly-funded tertiary institution, nor can afford to study overseas.
This might result in a society divided by social classes, where the wealthy can well-afford to skirt the stigma of being a PEI graduate, and pursue his or her diploma or degree from overseas – as some already are doing so.
Since 2009, the Committee for Private Education has done a remarkable job in raising the standard of private education in Singapore. There are PEIs of good standing in the market that offer students with many paths to good higher education when they miss out on the opportunity to acquire higher education qualification early in their life, or when other options simply aren't available.
But it would be unfortunate if in the pursuit of education and lifelong learning, the debate remains fixated on choosing among an AU, PEI or vocational SkillsFuture programme.
We should be a society that affords Singaporeans more choices in educational options, that encourages all Singaporeans to pursue a quality higher education, and that embraces a culture of lifelong learning where Singaporeans strive to make an impact for themselves and their communities, regardless of which stage in their career they might be.
Dr Sam Choon-Yin and Marcus Loh are dean and vice-president of PSB Academy respectively.