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Polytechnic Graduates: To Work Or Study, That Is The Question

As a fresh polytechnic graduate, one must be receiving really mixed messages at the moment about how he or she should approach their futures. On the one hand, Government representatives are harping on the importance of work, that there are no guarantees even with a degree (on Saturday, TODAY did a better job than its ST counterpart, by providing some context of how policy-makers have recently weighed in on the same subject). On the other, based on what their family and friends have shared with them, the polytechnic graduate is sceptical of these “official” messages, and is insistent that progressing through university is crucial if he or she wishes to secure stable and desirable employment.

Despite its shortcomings (here), a Graduate Employment Survey provides a good idea of how much graduates are paid on average (there is one for the polytechnics, conducted in 2012, here). Comparatively, the figures do not stack up well against the graduates (logically, given the higher level of qualification, this seems like a no-brainer).

Could this suggest a disconnect between the intended policies of the Government, and the aspirations of the polytechnic graduate? Evidently so.

The polytechnic school administration and the Government have been rallying hard, sending the message that the polytechnic students would be able to gain tremendously from work experience before furthering their studies locally at a later stage. Maybe the Government is hoping that the work-ready graduates from these institutions can take up employment as soon as possible (which could imply that there may be shortages in certain industries). Yet, graduates are unlikely to be convinced by the “success stories” of a few notable individuals – or even top performers – who have made this decision (here), because they are hardly representative of the general mind-sets in the polytechnics. Why take the chance when a degree presents a much reliable (less risky) option?

Continued discourse is probably going to exacerbate the dissatisfaction felt by some students in the polytechnics (and I am guessing that the ministerial proclamations have not gone down well with their intended audience). While it has been well-established from the get-go that those from the junior colleges are more likely to advance to the local universities, and that polytechnic students should head out to the workplace upon graduation, it would appear that the latter group is feeling more short-changed, especially when it comes to college admission (and in my opinion, such sentiments will only allow stereotypes to manifest).

The recent announcements of increased university places are unlikely to ease on-the-ground unhappiness, if these questions remain unanswered:

– What is the composition of junior college and polytechnic students in the local universities? Are the figures consistent across the faculties (what about the more “technical” ones, such as engineering and business, where prior vocational pedagogies might be advantageous)?
– Do we have the admission rates for polytechnic students? How does this compare to the applicants from the junior colleges?

Could this suggest a disconnect between the intended policies of the Government, and the aspirations of the polytechnic graduate? Evidently so. And while stories in the media paint a rosy picture of attractive, alternative pathways, the lack of comprehension of a perceived-to-be uneven status quo is sadly unsettling.

About guanyinmiao

A man of knowledge lives by acting, not by thinking about acting. Carlos Castaneda.


7 thoughts on “Polytechnic Graduates: To Work Or Study, That Is The Question

  1. Having been on both sides – did a degree myself and teaching poly students – I think a main root of the issue is the obsession with how society places ‘starting pay’ on the pedestal.

    Because ‘starting pay’ is the only tangible difference having a degree would make.

    Once you are in the workforce, the playing field equals up. Poly graduates tend to be better positioned to receive promotion and a pay increase that matches up with their degree counterparts after a short period of time. And there is always room for a diploma graduate to work and do a part-time degree anyway.

    Perhaps due to the meritocratic education system that poly students grew up with a lower self-esteem and self-efficacy in their ability to contribute. I notice with my students that the desire to get a degree many times stems out a need to ‘prove’ to society that they were not the ‘labels’ put on them previously back in secondary school. But that just defeats the purpose of higher education.

    The lower self-esteem that makes many diploma holders feel inferior at the workplace to their degree counterparts even if they produce better work or to ask for a promotion/pay increase etc. It’s like a mental block that requires overcoming – and subconsciously it’s as though getting an equal academic qualification is the (redundant) solution.

    So I think the discourse should steer towards getting people to think about why is one *really* opting to do a degree. Chances are it’s nothing more than self-fulfilling prophecy. And with a university education comes with a whole set of possible loans and debts as well on top of their poly school fees many have to pay off.

    Of course there are certain specialised fields/industries that require a degree but the reality of the situation is there is more of a disconnect between what is taught at uni and what is needed in the workplace for most industries.

    So that is actually an issue that affects JC graduates more because JC students have ‘no choice’ but to enter uni in order to gain basic qualification for most job – there is no ‘diploma’ to fall back on unlike poly graduates!

    But since the JC route is so over-glorified almost and that while it’s easier to gain entrance to uni through this route, but it is equally seen as there is no choice for the government to make sure that JC students give priority to local unis, otherwise chances are they are headed overseas, and the government would rather avoid a ‘braindrain’.

    In terms of university admission, poly students are actually more well-admitted than people realise, it’s just not in ‘mainstream local unis’. Most of my poly students are now at SIM. Though, many poly students also rather head overseas, as it takes them just 1 year to obtain a full degree at many good universities overseas because of how well-recognised Singapore diplomas are.

    Let’s say a kid wants to be a lawyer. Conventional thinking is to do the JC route. Taking the JC route, he or she will do 2 years JC, then 4 years in Law School. So that’s 6 years.

    Or in an alternative route, a student can do 3 years business diploma in a Singapore poly, then do 1 or 1.5 years of uni overseas to get a Finance degree. And if he/she wants to be a lawyer, just have to do 2 years of Masters in JD. All in all that makes it around 6 years to be a lawyer too.

    However, this poly kid will have a Finance background + a Law qualification in the same period of time. So he or she is actually a lot a lot more marketable, but the financial investment is much heavier than the conventional route though the ROI in the latter may eventually cancel out. But it’s no different from a JC kid who can’t qualify for to do law locally given the quota, and ended up going overseas anyway.

    So, in truth, the poly route is only as “inferior” a status quo as how each person perceives of it. I discovered in my time teaching in poly that poly students with right career counseling and average socio-economic background will reap the tangible benefits and advantages that outweigh a JC education by manifold.

    It’s a loophole in the system put in that way. 😉

    Posted by jn (@fivetwosix) | May 20, 2013, 11:41 am
    • Don’t know if I’m being very simplistic here, but ultimately it is about carving your own path for yourself (there isn’t a distinctive “right” or “wrong”, “more or less successful” in the long run), and finding out what works for you. Insofar as we accept that everyone is going to undertake commitments and responsibilities at different paces, at different times, then our present education system does afford many pathways for students to do their best, to reverse decisions if they think they want something new, and to reap “the tangible benefits and advantages” of the institution they are part of.

      And we all know that education only takes you that far. At the workplace, you have to prove your competence, and after a few months no one is really going to look at your certifications. The degree and how well you do in school is important in getting you “there”, getting you the job, but beyond that you have to let your work shine. Hard work, good communication with your colleagues, and doing your best regardless.

      I feel that the reason why the JC route is “over-glorified” is because of the emphasis we place on academic-scholastic achievements since young. Seems logical though: our economy requires a steady stream of PMETs, and most of them (especially in the public sector) are graduates who – more likely than not – have gone through JC. This is a structural deficiency, but can we fix that? I’m not quite sure. We have offered alternative pathways (students can know focus on sports, arts, music et cetera), but they really are in the minority, it would appear.

      This over-glorification has implications, and besides the lower self-esteem felt, I would venture to posit that it allows stereotypes to manifest (for instance: JC students are all like “…”, polytechnic students are mostly like “…”). Really think it’s important for students to interact more between the institutions.

      And so I guess the Government is really in a pickle at the moment. Pragmatically, while the polytechnic graduates might be cognisant of what you have expounded, their immediate focus would most likely be to get a place in a university, and obtain a degree. This is unlikely to change in the future, and the anecdotal perspectives of how they are disadvantaged vis-a-vis their JC counterparts will worsen the stereotypes (and as you’ve mentioned, if we do expand the places for the polytechnic graduates, then what happens to the JC kids who have nothing to fall back on?)

      This academic inflation is hurting us, which probably implies the significance of out-of-school activities and actual work immersion. Competition is only going to get stiffer, unfortunately.

      Jin Yao

      Posted by guanyinmiao | May 20, 2013, 10:37 pm
  2. Very thoughtful, and no, not simplistic at all. 🙂 Because if we strip it bare, education is simply a means and not an end – and therefore not a one size fits all.

    It will be soon be time for Singapore to look towards what’s happening in China and South Korea – a blind pursuit or obsession of education – to apply caution and brakes.

    And you also hit the nail of its head in the discourse of eradicating “inferiority” or “superiority” complexes in this discussion. I did not realise the lack of interaction until I was teaching in Poly and looked back and realise indeed, I hardly know anyone in Poly – and all that I knew of poly students are built on simply over-generalised stereotypes.

    Coming from the ‘elitist’ school environments into the polytechnics was an breath of fresh air, and took away from my 4 years teaching at poly that JC or poly students are not very different at all, and all the societal stereotypes hardly have any solid grounds to stand on.

    Any “fixing” comes fundamentally from reeducating parents.

    How parents perceive the various pathways will directly affect their kids’ perceptions more than their peers would, actually. Because as kids we are more adaptable than we know of ourselves, but perhaps it’s the Chinese culture, but the fear of ‘disappointing’ our parents or ‘failure’ to live up to their expectations can be damning if parents only equate ‘success’ to a JC education – instead of what fits their child and especially their aspirations best.

    It will probably take a more bottom-up than top-down approach where kids mingle across institutions, and parents gaining awareness through institutions. When I was teaching at Poly, I spent quite a bit of time reaffirming my poly kids and their parents for instance.

    But definitely, more grassroots discussions on education, as what you do with your blog, will be increasingly key. 😉

    Posted by jn (@fivetwosix) | May 20, 2013, 10:58 pm
    • I’m speaking from a very personal perspective, when I talk about the interactions between students (retrospectively, it seems all the more important). Before the blogging, I think I led a very insular life, sheltered by the sanctuary that is Hwa Chong. That is not to say the experience in school wasn’t great (I cannot think of anywhere else to do six years of education); yet, while I used to speak of involving myself in community projects to meet new individuals, the exchanges and conversations were often quite superficial. Yes we worked on activities together, but I never really developed a good comprehension of what my counterparts did in their respective institutions. And so you – and I – made assumptions about their skills and abilities, and I would suppose, vice versa too.

      On grassroots discussions on education, I have been doing some thinking recently. Writing online has been great for engaging people from all walks of life, but is there more? I’ve done quite a fair bit: participated in OSC, talked to policy-makers, sent in letters, and while I understand that change does not emerge that quickly (and not to your personal desire), is there more that can be done?

      Jin Yao

      Posted by guanyinmiao | May 21, 2013, 10:09 pm
  3. Great of PM Lee to address the real problems faced by polytechnic students graduates. I am a parent of two boys who will be doing NS in a few years. My elder son just entered into Nanyang Polytechnic. During the orientation, I brought up an important question. I thought maybe for polytechnic students like my son, it would be better if he can study for the first one and half year in poly, then do NS for two years and then the final one and half year in poly. Reason being that he will be armed with the latest knowledge and IT development once he leave polytechnic. This will allow him to compete in the tight labour market rather being two years behind time in terms of IT knowledge that needs lots of time and effort to catch up.
    Doing the 1.5 yr poly + 2 yr NS + 1.5 yr poly route will also augur well for our economy as other highly competitive countries like Korea and Taiwan had constantly tweaked the conscription system to boost their economy significantly. Our huge cohort of male polytechnic students is liken to the backbone of the economy that must not falter. I trust PM Lee to do the right thing. Only when our polytechnic students are armed with the cutting edge technology and knowledge JUST PRIOR to entering the working world, they will not become a hindrance but rather an asset who can compete on equal grounds with the FT.

    Posted by shananarocks | May 21, 2013, 9:33 pm
    • Did you get a reply on the question from a policy-maker? Does sound like a fair proposition, though the worry is the continuity of the modules (whether one would be able to follow-up on his studies after NS), which might boil down to curriculum or pedagogical design.

      Jin Yao

      Posted by guanyinmiao | May 21, 2013, 10:11 pm


  1. Pingback: Daily SG: 20 May 2013 | The Singapore Daily - May 20, 2013

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