Equity, Education and the Economy

Dec 21, 2015 at 8:00 am | Hits: 2226

By Andrew Yeo

There are, in my opinion, three issues the education system will increasingly face in coming decades: Issues of perceived differences and equitable outcomes; escaping the credentialist economy trap; and more broadly, the fear of making too many tweaks to an already internationally recognised system.

Imagined differences and real outcomes

In 2002, I had a pale, gaunt, friend who went by the nickname of Haizi (孩子). His name at birth, Charles, never really caught on with the rest of us, and Haizi means “child” in Mandarin, which sounded similar to “Charles”. Despite Haizi’s underprivileged family background, he was astute, enterprising and resourceful, and stood out from the rest of his peers. By 15, he had a small but thriving business, and was adept at the economics of profitability and scale, as he peddled his goods from place to place. Apart from the fact that Haizi was dealing with contraband, his would have been a story of entrepreneurialism and the unbending will of the human spirit — no matter the odds. Haizi subsequently dropped out of school, and I have not seen him since.

Haizi’s story is an extreme example of how laudable qualities lend themselves to negative interpretations when channelled inappropriately. One’s station in life can determine life outcomes, perhaps more so than innate ability.

In Singapore, we see evidence of this in how primary schools which are popular with parents, because they produce students who score well in the Primary School Leaving Examination, are disproportionately populated by students staying in private housing. A parliamentary reply in 2012 by the Education Minister revealed that only four in 10 children in the six most popular primary schools live in HDB flats. This is similarly the case for the majority of Public Service Commission (PSC) scholarship holders, who come from one of two schools — Hwa Chong or Raffles Institution. It was further revealed in 2008 that 53% of such scholarship holders live in private housing. More than half the students in the top secondary schools have fathers who are university graduates, while this is only the case for about 10% of those in neighbourhood schools. In the same vein, a 2008 longitudinal study by the Ministry of Education showed that students staying in 5-room flats and private properties are more likely to enter university.

Some have suggested that it is not the role of the education and scholarship system to correct the inequities of society. Instead, issues of income inequality, which affect social mobility and unequal outcomes in the education system, should be addressed by other state mechanisms. The role of the scholarship system, these people say, is to promote the best and select the brightest. This is true to the extent that one discounts the positive effects of interacting with others of diverse backgrounds. Yet, research by academics at the University of North Carolina point to how a diverse body of students across socioeconomic, race and ethnic differences is likelier to perform better than less diverse counterparts.

Most recently, a national table tennis player from a polytechnic made the news for landing the prestigious Public Service Commission scholarship. This is encouraging and bodes well for aspiring students who did not go through the conventional junior college route. I look forward to the day this becomes the norm, so much so that it does not make the headlines.

Transcending the limits of one’s prior institutions
Layla was a classmate at a degree course I enrolled in at the Singapore Institute of Management (SIM), a private education institution (PEI) in 2011. Her A-level results did not gain her entry into a Singapore university. She did well at SIM and landed a scholarship to the University College London for her master’s degree, where she gained a distinction in her course. She was keen on a public sector job in Singapore but did not receive any response to her applications. She has since sought employment overseas and shuttles between the Netherlands, China, and Switzerland as a business development executive in a multinational corporation.

There may be various reasons why Layla was not called up, but her story could be an example of how graduates from PEIs are discriminated against in the Singapore job application process compared to those from the local universities. A report on rising graduate numbers and underemployment in the TODAY newspaper in August 2015 pointed out that not all degrees are viewed equally. The Manpower Ministry, noting the spike in degree holders in the Singapore labour force, acknowledged the “increasing access to private educational institutions or alternative routes that offer degrees of varying quality”.

Singapore society’s belief in the necessity of credentials for career success has propelled the growth of the private education industry. In 2013, the Council for Private Education (CPE) reported that 227,090 students were enrolled in private degree and diploma programmes in Singapore, of which six in 10 were citizens or permanent residents. It has also pushed up the percentage of degree holders in the labour force. According to the Manpower Ministry, the figure was 21.6% in 2004 and 32% in 2014. Today, degree holders make up more than half of local workers aged 25 to 39. Parts of Asia are experiencing an oversupply of graduates and while Singapore still has full employment, anecdotal evidence suggests that graduates are not finding it as easy as before to secure jobs. In December 2014, degree holders made up 34% of the unemployed residents.

There are two worrying issues at play here. First, the trend of viewing credentials as a proxy for job eligibility and competency, which has also manifested itself in other parts of the education system — for instance, being in the Normal Technical Stream in secondary school or Institutes of Technical Education carries a social stigma for students. Second, elitism in our demand for credentialism.

We need more viable alternatives to credentialism when assessing the economic potential of workers. As a resource scarce country — with human capital our only resource — we have to maximise the economic potential of everyone. Why then rely solely or largely on credentials, when many other factors matter in determining an employee’s competency and productivity?

The SkillsFuture scheme, a national movement geared towards skills mastery by the workforce, represents the government’s recognition that we should move towards a meritocracy of skills, and not grades. But to decouple the qualified from the educated will take more than governmental effort. There has to be an attitudinal shift among employers, parents, and potential job seekers themselves.


Photo from SkillsFuture Facebook Page

In a parliamentary reply last November, then-Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin said the young should be encouraged “to pursue their interests, and go for substance when considering their education and career paths.” Companies can take the lead by ensuring that human resource professionals use the most progressive hiring methods to select candidates whose skills most correlate with the job at hand. Practical changes to hiring practices include placing a higher weightage on prior work or internship experience, past testimonials by employers, and entry tests that directly assess the attribute required to succeed in the job.

Already, the professional services firm EY, one of the biggest recruiters in the United Kingdom, have announced that they will remove degree classifications from their entry criteria. Internal research on over 400 graduates, said an EY press release, found “no evidence to conclude that previous success in higher education correlated with future success in subsequent professional qualifications undertaken.” Instead, the firm will use online tests to assess future job applicants.

Second, where one received one’s credentials is not necessarily any indication of one’s talent or suitability for a job. My friend, Haizi, due to his underprivileged upbringing, may not have set down the conventional path to a government scholarship at a world-renowned university. But he may have made it to a mainstream institution, ultimately bringing more than his qualifications — think of his initiative, entrepreneurial savvy and spirit — to his employer. As brand-conscious Singaporeans, it has become common for us to ask: “Where was he/she from?” But this is really an inadequate question, for it probes at circumstance and institution, and not potential of character. This question cannot sieve a slacker who ended up at an Ivy League university from the hard worker who has fulfilled all he can at an institution of lesser repute.

Fear of change

Singapore’s audacious leap against all odds to become a first-world nation has made us inclined to stay with what is tried and tested. Our universities stand amongst the best in the world and our 15-year-olds are also world leaders in problem-solving skills, according to Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests. Is there a need for change? Yes, because today’s dynamic times indicate a volatile future. Immutable attitudes and a perpetual tending to the default is a slow but sure decline into insignificance — that is, after all, the story behind the rise and fall of big corporations.

Singapore’s situation is not unique. In 2015, Professor Lee Ju-Ho, South Korea’s former Minister of Education, Science and Technology spoke of how South Korea’s reputation for its academic rigour hampered, rather than aided, its continued progress. “I was in the middle of pushing for a reform — we really think we need to make a change. But PISA somehow is telling (people) that Korea is the best, like Singapore. This is kind of hiding our problems,” he said.

Finland, also much admired for its education system, is introducing a new National Curriculum Framework, which will come into effect in August 2016. Despite slipping down PISA rankings in recent years, they have mandated an extended period of multidisciplinary learning for students, which has been described as phenomenon-based learning. This is because “educators in Finland think, quite correctly, that schools should teach what young people need in their lives rather than try to bring national test scores back to where they were”, Pasi Sahlberg, a visiting Professor of Practice at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, says.

I think that this tradition of never resting on one’s laurels and being open to questioning fundamentals is a laudable one; indeed, the attribute of boldness is most fitting for a nation we so proudly recall as being founded on audacious choices.

My wishes

On August 9, 2015, I turned 27 as Singapore turned 50, the coincidence of our matching birthdates only slightly giving away my more deliberate fondness for the country. In the decades to come, my generation — consisting of others just like me — will raise another generation, all bright and eagerly anticipating the adventure of school. Deep down, we will wish that they do not fall through the cracks of the education system, that the reputations of the schools they go to do not matter because it is their aptitude that counts, and that the resolution with which our policymakers rely on to overcome future challenges will only be matched by their creativity and prescience in anticipating future ones.

And yet, beyond our best wishes lie a familiar foundation. After all, the Singapore Story is merely every parent’s dreams for their children writ large — the pinnacle of any mountain endeavoured, no matter the circumstances.

Andrew Yeo is a Research Assistant at the Institute of Policy Studies. He studied at Mayflower Secondary School, Ngee Ann Polytechnic, SIM, and the London School of Economics and Political Science for his postgraduate degree.

Andrew is also featured on The Future of Us Ideas Bank Page (Dreamers)

Top Photo from Ministry of Education, Singapore Facebook page


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