The promise made by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his National Day Rally speech earlier this month, that the public service could and would do more to support the aspirations of non-graduates, is taking shape. The Public Service Division (PSD) has announced that management support officers - most non-graduates in the civil service are hired under the management support scheme - who perform well and are able to take on larger responsibilities could expect faster career progression.
This is not only equitable but reflects also the need to give better career opportunities to a segment of the population that does not possess a degree but is equipped with the right aptitude, skills and attitude to contribute to an efficient and motivated civil service. It is the end product that matters. So long as high standards are maintained, the educational starting points of civil servants should count less than the contributions that they make at work. This consideration enjoys particular weight in the case of teachers, whose academic proficiency, whether they are graduates or not, must be complemented by a genuine desire to nurture the next generation. That non-graduate teachers who perform well can now be placed on the graduate salary scale recognises their role in a profession that is second to none in moulding the future.
Particularly important is the decision by the Education Ministry and the PSD to study ways to merge their graduate and non-graduate schemes. This will be the true test of the current exercise. Graduates will have to justify the higher expectations that society generally has of them; non-graduates will be spurred into proving that they deserve no less. In the process, the best performers in either group will shine, and be rewarded correspondingly. The sense of a gulf between the two groups should narrow.
The Applied Study in Polytechnics and ITE Review (Aspire) committee's report displays a robust awareness of the need to walk a fine line. No one is saying that degrees are no longer valuable or worth pursuing. Rather, it is the headlong paper chase for degrees, regardless of its relevance to the worker or his job, that needs checking. Big changes in mindsets will be called for if the shift is to work in practice. Parents, anxious about their children's future, will watch to see if indeed bosses look beyond qualifications in rewarding workers. There is apprehension over whether conservative employers in small businesses would be willing to give non-graduates more of a chance. The Aspire committee's call for a structured apprenticeship model should help convince employers that polytechnic and ITE students who have demonstrated their ability to combine academic and work skills are the kind of workers the new economy needs.