Saturday, May 18, 2013

Paper Qualifications alone not a ticket to success: Heng

SINGAPORE - Education Minister Heng Swee Keat yesterday became the latest minister - the fourth in two weeks - to weigh in on the debate over the value of academic qualifications.
     A good academic qualification alone "does not guarantee a good career", especially in the current volatile and fast-changing economy where mismatch of skills and expectations for job-seekers could occur, Mr Heng told some 300 graduates and their parents in a speech at Temasek Polytechnic's graduation ceremony.
     "To succeed, our economy must grow, our skills must be relevant and we must engage in lifelong learning," he said. "As an analogy, we must learn to be the ones to invent and programme the robots, not the ones to be displaced, if we are to have fulfilling careers".
     Amid the national discussion, young diploma holders TODAY spoke to felt there was still a glass ceiling in both the private and public sectors - which was why they were bent on getting a degree, even if it was not a sure ticket to success. According to human resource experts, most companies here offer lower salaries for diploma holders compared to their peers with degrees for the same job, and even if professional training via a university education was not a prerequiste.
     HR experts and companies said that, among other things, the difference "acknowledges the value of higher education", as JobsCentral Group Chief Operating Officer Michelle Lim put it, and the gap would be narrowed or even surpassed if a diploma holder outperforms his colleagues. She said:"Generally a degree programme is considered to be more academically advanced then a diploma programme. In addition, degree programmes are typically three or four years ... while diploma programmes are shorter at three years.
     "However, this may only be applicable for entry-level jobs; for more senior positions, experience and track record tend to weigh more than mere academic credentials." Over the last two weeks, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan and Acting Minister of Social and Development Chan Chun Sing had spoken about the topic at various public functions. On May 3, Mr Lee had said polytechnic graduates "need not see a degree as the only avenue forward" as there were "many other good options". A day later, Mr Khaw said Singaporeans do not need to be university graduates to be successful. Most recently, Mr Chan said on Thursday "it's not the degree or the diploma ... that is most important".
     Their comments come amid a rising number of applications over the past five years from poly graduates - in tandem with increased intakes among the five polys here - to pursue a degree in local universities. Figures from the Ministry of Education (MOE) showed that this year, about 27,000 poly graduates applied to the five local universities, compared to over 24,000 in 2008. Each applicant may make multiple applications to different institutions.
     Between 2008 and last year, the number of poly graduates increased from over 19,000 to almost 24,000. MOE said that, currently about one in six poly graduates matriculate into the autonomous universities and the Singapore Institute of Technology, up from one in seven in 2010. The proportion is expected to increase to one in five in 2015. "It will further increase when our Cohort Participation Rate reaches 40 per cent by 2020", it said.
     Ms Angeline Wong, 21, graduated with a Diploma in Communications and Information Design last year. During her internship at a public relations company, she was offered S$1,600 for a full-time position. "I would be given S$1,000 more if I had a degree", said Ms Wong, who is pursuing a communications degree at a private university.
     Mr Marcus Neo, 20, who would be graduating next week with a Diploma in Tourism and Resort Management, would be reading business in Nanyang Technological University in 2015, after National service. He said:"During my six months of internship, I have seen many poly graduates who are stuck ... (because) they are lacking paper qualifications".
     However, Operations Manager Adrain Koo, 36, who works in the insurance field, felt that poly graduates do not face such issues in his industry, for instance. He joined his current employers as a claims manager in 2006 and rose up the ranks. "In my field, it's not necessary to have a degree, it's based on experience and how well you perform in the job", he said.
     The 136,000-strong Public Service is the largest employer here. Ms Ong Poh Chin, Director (Rewards and Recognition) from the Public Service Division in the Prime Minister's Office, said that the starting salaries in the Public Service for degree and diploma holders are different "because these graduates are paid different salaries in the market". "Indeed, entry pay (for) different education disciplines differs because market pay for these differ", she said. But she added: "Once a person is hired, his assessment and progress is based on performance and potential to do more".
     The difference in starting salaries extends to industries including the food and beverage sector. Sakae Holdings Chief Executive Officer Douglas Foo attributed this to percieved "ability". Nevertheless, "the education background becomes quite irrelevant if the person has the right attitude ... and is willing to learn", he said. He added that he has employees who graduated from Institute of Technical Education and are currently heading various divisions in his company.
     In his speech, Mr Heng stressed that "what matters at the end of the day are deep skills and expertise, and excellent performance on the job". Adding that "an education goes beyond jobs", he said:"If we regard education as merely a paper chase, we will be throwing away our books and notes once we get the qualification, and we will stop learning".

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