Civil servants no longer grouped by education level: Right move but mindset change will take time

SINGAPORE - The move by the civil service to stop grouping its officers by their education levels is a step in the right direction. It builds on previous efforts in the public sector - such as in the police force and the teaching profession - to close the gap between graduates and non-graduates in terms of pay and career advancement.

Starting this year, civil servants will no longer be classified into four divisions: Division I officers were graduates, Division II officers were diploma and A-level certificate holders, Division III officers had secondary education, and those in Division IV had primary education.

The Public Service Division (PSD) told The Straits Times this would address the perception that a civil servant's career progression was determined or limited by his paper qualifications.

Reducing the focus on the paper chase is a topic that Singaporeans clearly care about. The Straits Times' story announcing the change attracted more than 200 comments and was shared more than 1,600 times on Facebook within four hours on Thursday morning (Jan 5).

The move is also in line with broader national policy and direction to emphasise life-long learning. An individual who continues to pick up new skills throughout his working life should be duly recognised and rewarded.


But this should not be misinterpreted as a sign that the civil service will ignore academic qualifications from now on.

Yet judging by comments on Facebook, some have misunderstood that intention behind removing the divisions. For instance, they think that this means the civil service should no longer ask for one's education credentials during job applications.

Such an expectation is not realistic. Indeed, the PSD said paper qualifications can be used to assess job seekers who have no working experience, as surely is the case in the private sector as well.

But the PSD was also clear in stating that promotion prospects are based on job performance and the readiness to take on greater responsibilities.

So although paper qualifications still matter, they should decrease in importance the longer one demonstrates competence on the job and the ability to learn more and do more.

Still, this will require a mindset change on both employers' and employees' parts. Supervisors should not hesitate to promote someone to a role normally performed by a graduate just because he does not have a degree. And non-graduates should not feel like they do not need to put in that extra effort because they will never rise above their lot in life anyway.

The divisions may no longer exist, but it will take time for people to stop sub-consciously falling back on the long-standing practice of mentally pigeon-holing others into categories based on what type of academic certificate they carry.

The test is whether a non-graduate can rise to high ranks in the service over time, as should be the case if promotions are truly based on merit.

If the civil service, as Singapore's largest employer with some 80,000 civil servants, can gradually pull this off, it will go a long way in winning over cynics who believe that the public sector will never outrun the paper chase.