Chua Mui Hoong, Opinion Editor

It's never the last chance to get a degree, says PM. Believe him?

National University of Singapore (NUS) graduates attending their National University of Singapore (NUS) Commencement ceremony on July 7, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG
National University of Singapore (NUS) graduates attending their National University of Singapore (NUS) Commencement ceremony on July 7, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

Is a degree now less useful, or worth less?

That’s a question on some people’s minds, following the onslaught of  news articles and videos and chatter about the Prime Minister’s National Day Rally speech.

He had called for a “cultural change” in values. His message to young people:

“Do not go on a paper chase for qualifications or degrees, especially if they are not relevant, because pathways and opportunities to upgrade and to get better qualifications will remain open throughout your career.

“It is never the last chance.

“You always have the possibility to advance, to improve yourself, to take another step as long as you are working, as long as your mind remains fresh and active and you dare to go.”

His words: It is never the last chance, bear repeating.

Far from downplaying the importance of a degree, I think PM Lee is trying to remind Singaporean students and their parents, not to chase a degree for its own sake.

Don’t rush to get a degree after school. Work first. Find your passion and skill. Master it. Advance. And there will be some qualification or degree that will be relevant, that improves your skill, and your pay, and your life satisfaction.

This of course means that the government, and employers, have to work super hard to make sure these are not empty promises.

What has to happen?

For one thing, employers have to make sure there are such opportunities for people to advance in skills and qualifications. There must be more applied training and education pathways.

That’s one recommendation from the Aspire committee. Aspire stands for Applied Study in Polytechnics and ITE Review, and is tasked to look at “how to strengthen the applied education pathway” in polytechnics and ITEs, to ensure that graduates from these institutes have “good career and academic progression prospects.”

Aspire released its report on Monday. One of its recommendations is to have  “place-and-train” programmes that integrate work and study, so polytechnic and ITE graduates can continue to upgrade their skills after they start work.

How to make this happen?

One way of course is to work with individual employers.

Aspire also suggested appointing “industry leads” among the polys and ITEs  to work with industry partners.

This kind of aggregated structure may be more efficient than expecting individual companies to come up with training curricula and standards. How is a small SME in, say, the spa business, to devise training programmes so the receptionist can train to become a master masseuse and then trainer? An industry approach makes a lot more sense.

This is the German way. An interesting article by a German professor in The Conversation says Germany’s much-praised apprenticeship scheme doesn’t depend on ad hoc partnerships between employers and training institutions, but is based on a cohesive national plan.

At the heart of the system are  corporate intermediaries who are given the power to regulate training, and set and enforce standards. They  could be chambers of commerce, and trade unions.

The article says: “Organisations such as local, self-governing chambers of commerce and industry, act as intermediate organisations between the state and companies, putting training laws and regulations into practice.”

The writer  notes, comparing Germany to the United Kingdom, that such intermediate organisations do not exist in the UK. “At least, there are no organisations with comparable strength in the system. One result is that policies around vocational training in the UK are largely market based. Whereas in Germany, autonomous bodies and committees are often the initiators of vocational policy.

There is an on-going communication between these agencies representing different social groups on the one hand, and government authorities on the other.”

I would have liked to hear more from the Aspire committee of what it learnt from its study trips to Germany, Switzerland, Australia and New Zealand.

But then strengthening the vocational, or applied, path is going to be a long-haul process. To be fair to the Ministry of Education, it has been engaged on this for decades, since the first vocational training institutes were set up, and polytechnics and ITEs improved.

The recent  frenzy of activity represents a new phase of this ongoing journey of making workplaces bustling centres of learning and innovation.

Critical question: Will students take to this approach?

Senior education correspondent Sandra Davie sums it up here: “At the end of the day, Singapore’s young people are practical- minded. Yes, a degree brings status, but what counts are higher-level jobs and good salaries. If the work- and-study scheme allows them to catch up with graduates - or even overtake them in terms of salary - then Aspire’s ideas will take wing.”