Considering the increasing rates of youth unemployment in Taiwan (12.7%) and South Korea (9.5%) as of 2015, it would appear that the Singapore government’s long-time policy approach of capping the cohort participation rate (CPR) in universities in the 20%-to-27% range has been validated.
In comparison, Taiwan’s and South Korea’s gross enrolment ratio in universities — the term more commonly used internationally, but really the same as cohort participation rate in Singapore — stood at 85% and 70% respectively, over the same period.
This suggests that a qualification mismatch with the job markets in those countries is the primary explanation for graduate unemployment/youth unemployment.
Nonetheless the Singapore government has, in recent years, decided to raise the cohort participation rate in universities to 40% by the year 2020. What spurred it to shift its long-held stance? And what does it portend for the principle of institutional diversification that the government held on to?
THE CAPPED COHORT PARTICIPATION RATE: GENESIS OF AN UNWRITTEN POLICY
Already since the 1980s, the government had been warning that an oversupply of university places would lead to graduate unemployment and the debilitating social effects that would entail. That was at the point of time that Singapore was making the transition from an industrial economy to a more knowledge-based one.
The Singapore higher education system is not unique, of course. It bears some resemblance to
the California Master Plan for Higher Education of 1960, a higher education architecture where the specific mission, purpose and redundancies for the research university, the state university and the community college are discouraged. The World Bank calls this institutional diversification, in the context of the massification of higher education.
There is a qualification to be made in the Singapore case. While the cohort participation rate in universities stood at around 27%, the rest of the cohort would go to polytechnics and Institutes of Technical Education (ITE) — institutions regarded as some of the best in the world, inspired by the much-admired German and Swiss models of technical education — for their post-secondary education. And these polytechnic and ITE graduates would still have the chance to attend private colleges, if they desired to obtain a degree, and if they were still unable to make admissions into the public universities; the government calls this a “bridges and ladders” system, but they are less likely, however, to obtain a government tuition fee grant, unlike in the public universities.
When one considers the phenomenon of graduate unemployment and under-employment in South Korea and Taiwan, which have been linked to the “over-massified” university systems in those countries, this would appear to have been a blessing in disguise. Yet the vast majority of these diploma holders in Singapore graduating from polytechnics still felt the need to “upgrade” — to use the popular local colloquialism — to degrees. This phenomenon is usually explained by the “Confucian” sociocultural contexts of these East Asian countries that place a premium on educational qualifications.
But the more likely explanation is the asymmetrical competition in the globalised marketplace of jobs, as Singapore is, that Singaporean polytechnic diploma holders had been facing.
A common, if anecdotal, grievance among Singaporean polytechnic diploma holders is that they have to compete for jobs with non-Singaporeans, especially as they progress along in the careers — non-Singaporeans who do not necessarily hold the kinds of bachelor degrees from the National University of Singapore (NUS) or Nanyang Technological University (NTU), for a long time the only choices for Singaporean students.
Rather, some of these degree holders from other countries hail from universities that were themselves converted from polytechnics. Examples that come to mind are the 35 universities in England that were converted from polytechnics, as a result of the British government’s 1992 exercise of ending the “binary divide” between universities and polytechnics. It therefore seemed grossly unfair for Singaporean diploma holders who were competing for jobs.
If unable to secure one of the limited places at the public universities after their polytechnic education, these diploma holders would fork out large sums towards the tuition fees at private degree institutions which, while not being degree mills, vary widely in instructional quality. Some have been outright dubious as a commercial entity, let alone a purveyor of the hallowed university experience. Some of these institutions have been shut down abruptly, to much media sensation, and to the great detriment of their students’ academic progression.
RAISING THE COHORT PARTICIPATION RATE, WITHIN THE SKILLSFUTURE FRAMEWORK
While Singapore has maintained a commitment to skills-training and to fostering a well-resourced polytechnic sector and the technical and vocational education sector, the government announced in 2012 its plans to raise the cohort participation rate in universities to 40% by the year 2020.
Some observers read it as a reaction to the results of the 2011 general election in Singapore, at which the long-ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) took a drubbing at the polls (though still a rather impressive performance by international comparisons). For observers, concerns in the area of education opportunities and job prospects were factors explaining the less-than-stellar PAP results, though the mood of the electorate that year was coloured by a wide range of issues beyond education.
The government expanded university places in existing ones, and two new “public-autonomous” universities were established by Acts of Parliament: Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) and the Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT). The government also stepped in to expand the number of places at SIM University (UniSIM), a private college that subsequently grew into a university with significant state support.
All of these policy changes in the higher education scene in Singapore took place within the framework and language of “SkillsFuture”, a major new cross ministry programme for lifelong learning and skills training for the Singapore economy. In other words, the expansion of university places would be made with the proviso that internships would be central to the curriculum, and that the degrees on offer would be well-tuned to the job shortages in the economy.
Beneath these policy issues lie the fundamental questions on the purpose of universities and of degrees, in a globalised world run on neoliberal, market-oriented principles. Are they merely constructs of prestige in a game of mere credentialisation? Has utilitarianism strengthened within the Singaporean higher education system?
How do these developments shape the university curriculum and course offerings? The Singapore government rightly seeks to prevent the classic diploma disease (or, in the local colloquialism, the “paper chase”). It has, in the meantime, also sought to diversify the higher education landscape, such as with the establishment of the Yale-NUS College, the country’s first liberal arts college. The one thing for certain, though, is that access to a university education — however defined — is an inherently political issue, even in the pristine “policy lab” that is Singapore.
LOKE HOE YEONG
Loke Hoe Yeong is Research Manager at The HEAD Foundation, Singapore.