University places: To cap or not to cap

By 2020, four in 10 people in each cohort will have a place at a local university, but some question if that is high enough.


Soon after Education Minister Ong Ye Kung touched on capping university places, an interesting question was floated online: Should all Singaporeans who aspire to become university graduates be offered a place in the local universities - assuming, of course, that they can benefit from degree studies?

Mr Ong, who was speaking at the St Gallen Symposium in Switzerland, had said a country's education system needs to be aligned with the needs of the economy.

The minister in charge of higher education and skills added that in Singapore, this would require capping the proportion of graduates.

The 40 per cent cohort participation rate, that he went on to mention, is the target that the Government had pledged for 2020.

By that year, the Ministry of Education aims to provide enough places - over 16,000 places a year - so that four in 10 from each age group can study for a degree in the local universities.

MOE also pledged to support another 10 per cent of each cohort through part-time degree studies.

And the Government has kept its promise.


Four years ago when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced the expansion, the university participation rate was 30 per cent. This August, it will reach 35 per cent. This translates to 15,900 places at the six universities.

A 40 per cent cohort participation rate is comparable to what many developed countries around the world offer. But should we aim higher? Should we even have a cap?

It is worth raising these questions as, at a time when the Government is pushing for Singaporeans to keep on reskilling and upgrading so that they can reach their fullest potential, a cap seems counter-intuitive.

Many netizens also asked if capping university places is elitist. They felt it would favour junior college students over polytechnic students because it is a fact that more JC students gain places in the local universities than their peers from the polytechnics.

Last year, for example, two-thirds of the university places went to A-level holders, while one-third went to diploma holders.

But to be fair to the Government, the expansion of university places in the last five years has benefited polytechnic graduates more than their junior college peers.

One in five poly graduates won a place on a degree course last year. Just four years before that, only 15 per cent - about one in seven - did.

That is because the bulk of the new places has been offered by SIM University, now called the Singapore University of Social Sciences, and the Singapore Institute of Technology, which were set up especially to offer niche degrees to polytechnic graduates.

A polytechnic graduate with a diploma in game design had to previously head overseas to study for a degree in the same field, often at high costs.

Now the DigiPen Institute of Technology, considered the Harvard for game design and animation, offers its programmes with SIT and students pay a fraction of the costs.

Same for physiotherapy, occupational therapy and culinary science. Polytechnic graduates had to head to Australian or British universities to top up their diploma with a degree. Now they have the likes of Trinity College Dublin and the famous Culinary Institute of America offering their niche degrees here.


I don't believe the 40 per cent university participation rate is cast in stone; not if you go by how the participation rate has risen over the years. It was 20 per cent in 2000.

As Singapore's economy matures and becomes more sophisticated, there would be a need for workers with deep skills, in diverse fields. And if more Singaporeans are keen and can benefit from a degree education, then the Government should look at raising the participation rate further.

But although I would argue for no cap, I agree with Minister Ong's point that the university pathway may not be the best route for everyone. As the minister said: In this age when information can be "Googled", skills are what carry a premium, not degrees.

Big multinational giants, like Google, know this and put it into practice when hiring people.

Google has used data analytics for years to figure out how to hire people with the right fit. It found that there is no correlation between its good hires and the universities that they come from or their grades.

As the technology giant's vice-president for staffing and operations Sunil Chandra said in an interview earlier this year with this newspaper: "What counts for Google is not your degree, but what you can do with what you know."

As a result, Google has many employees without degrees.

Singaporeans, though, have yet to be convinced of this. Which is why there is the concern that they may seek degrees out of vanity, not necessity.

Let's take a young chef who wants to go on to work in the top restaurants of the world. Does he need a business degree?

This was a discussion I had with a parent who was convinced that her young chef son will still be better off heading to university to take up a general business degree. "At least he will have a piece of paper," the mother argued.

He did not get into the local universities and was trying for a place in a private school.

My advice was that he should notch up some work experience and hone his skills as a chef. A business degree can come later, if and when he decides to run a food-related business. Or he can go and take up a culinary science or food technology degree at SIT.

Like many parents, she didn't buy my argument that it is skills that will give her son the edge, not necessarily a degree.

She brought up the fact that diploma holders earn less than degree holders, a fact I couldn't quibble with.

A diploma holder's average starting salary is $2,100, while that of a degree holder is higher than $3,300. So the difference is $1,200 at the starting line.

The gap widens further over their working life.

It is also a fact that employers here, including government agencies, have different (and higher) pay scales for graduates, and vary pay according to applicants' degree class.

Singapore employers, including the Government, need to change the way they recruit, recognise and reward workers.

Only then can one reasonably ask Singaporeans to pursue the qualifications they really need, instead of chasing degrees that may be superfluous to their careers.

Except for professional jobs requiring specific qualifications (like doctors, lawyers or architects), many other jobs these days can be performed equally well by graduates and non-graduates. Take, for example, jobs in sales and marketing, tourism and event management: Surely skills, drive and aptitude are more vital to success than examination grades?

Employers should also re-examine the practice of paying non-graduates less, if they are performing the same job as graduates.

They should pay and promote based on job scope and performance.

Mr Ong had said Singaporeans "need to evolve, such that all occupations, crafts and trades - whether the skills are acquired through a degree education or not - are respected and recognised".

I agree. But if Singaporeans are expected to stop holding on to narrow definitions of success and broaden, even redefine them, then the Government and employers must lead the way.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 18, 2017, with the headline University places: To cap or not to cap. Subscribe