“Private school officials attribute the drop in local enrolments to the increase in university places, especially at the Singapore Institute of Technology, which caters to polytechnic graduates” (Private School Shake-Up Spells Good News, Sandra Davie).
While the shake-up of private schools – marked by a decline in enrolments from 100,000 in 2012 to 77,000 in 2015 and the prediction that by 2020 there will be “no more than 50 private commercial schools … left standing” (ST, Nov. 12) – has ensured that only those of a higher quality remain, the commentary is right to note that the government should seek to profile the students who attend private universities, as well as their motivations. In fact, with concerns over underemployment of degree-holders, studying the mind-sets of students would be useful.
Information about their backgrounds, especially if these students already possess a diploma or a certificate from the Institute of Technical Education (ITE), can influence policy directions. The desire to enrol into a private school is likely to stem from entrenched mind-sets that the academic pathway – and by extension, a college degree – is necessarily superior, and that better jobs will follow. Individuals also point to structural barriers, such as those in the civil service, which appear to favour those who graduate from universities.
In this vein, these mind-sets are further characterised by pragmatism. While results from the graduate employment survey recently released by the Singapore Institute of Management showed that its graduates “started with slightly lower salaries than those from publicly funded universities”, students remain cognisant that these starting salaries – as well as rates of employability – are higher compared to graduates from the polytechnics. In possession of financial resources, parents would also prefer to see their children through higher education, therefore accelerating the persistent phenomenon of education inflation.
The suggestion for a review to be conducted of the private education industry, to “see how it can be roped into the SkillsFuture movement to encourage Singaporeans to build up job-relevant qualifications and skills”, is well-taken, but the importance of career guidance from a young age cannot be overlooked. Unsurprisingly, strengthening education and career guidance was a key recommendation mooted by the Applied Study in Polytechnics and ITE Review (Aspire) Committee last year, for students to make informed decisions for the future.
Beyond the proposals made by the Aspire Committee, the value of a diploma or certificate from the ITE should be ascertained by the industry, through closer partnerships with companies and the matching of job opportunities. In other words, educational aspirations should be matched by capacities in the economy, with growing comprehension that a degree is not the be-all and end-all resulting in a moderation of enrolment rates into private schools.
A version of this article was published in The Straits Times.