Lee Kwok Cheong of SIM Holdings: Opening more doors for students

Mr Lee Kwok Cheong, chief executive officer of SIM Holdings, believes that most companies promote staff based on performance, even if employers still hire based on qualifications.
Mr Lee Kwok Cheong, chief executive officer of SIM Holdings, believes that most companies promote staff based on performance, even if employers still hire based on qualifications.ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

In the third of a four-part series, SIM Holdings chief Lee Kwok Cheong talks about how private schools must adapt and evolve in the face of disruption

Graduate employment surveys of students who took the private school route have shown that they lose out in job rates and starting salaries to those graduating from public universities.

But do they continue to lag behind or do they eventually catch up with their peers from the six public universities?

To answer this, Singapore's leading private school, the Singapore Institute of Management (SIM), is soon launching a study to track the job prospects of their alumni five years after graduation - its class of 2013 .

Besides looking at the type of jobs they hold, earnings and how their careers have advanced, participants will also be asked if they have gone for further education.

Mr Lee Kwok Cheong, chief executive officer of SIM Holdings, which runs degree programmes with 13 university partners, told The Straits Times the results will be used to benchmark its graduates against their peers in Singapore.

He added: "Among other things, we intend to use the results to enhance our ongoing measures to prepare our students to thrive in their careers and participate in continuing education."

The graduate employment survey conducted by the Committee for Private Education (CPE) and SkillsFuture Singapore was released last November and showed that six in 10 private school graduates found full-time jobs within six months after completing their studies, drawing an average starting monthly pay of $2,550.

  • About Lee Kwok Cheong

  • A late bloomer in school, the chief executive officer of SIM Holdings, Mr Lee Kwok Cheong, 63, has made it his mission to open doors in life through education.

    He came to Singapore from Hong Kong after being headhunted by the then National Computer Board, and has been credited with transforming Singapore's IT sector since the 80s.

    He received the Public Service Medal in 2010 for dedicating more than two decades to the advancement of technical education in Singapore.

    He was also conferred the IT Person of the Year award in 2000, Honorary Fellow in 2008 and Hall of Fame award in 2011 by the Singapore Computer Society; and the Special Recognition Award given by the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts in 2006.

    Today, his focus is on ensuring accessibility to high-quality private education here.

    He spearheaded the establishment of the Singapore Association for Private Education and was the founding president.

    He currently sits on the board of Nera Telecommunications and is also a member of the Future Economy Council's Essential Domestic Services Sub-Committee which oversees industry transformation in healthcare, early childhood and adult education.

    Previously, Mr Lee sat on the steering committee of the Infocomm Media Masterplan and chaired one of its working committees - Manpower and Talent Development.

    He has also served on the boards of Singapore Polytechnic, Nanyang Polytechnic, the Institute of Technical Education (ITE), ITE Holdings and the Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore.

    Mr Lee was also a member of the Committee to Review Upgrading Opportunities at Degree Level, set up in 2001 to look into degree pathways for polytechnic graduates.

    Born in Hong Kong, he went on to study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California, Berkeley.

The proportion was lower than statistics from the autonomous universities, where 80 per cent of their graduates found jobs within six months after getting their degrees, with the average monthly starting pay of $3,325.

SIM's yearly survey showed better outcomes for its own graduates - 82.7 per cent of its graduates in 2016 found jobs within six months of completing degree studies, but of the total, 18.8 per cent were freelancing or had taken on jobs on a part-time or contract basis, something the school termed "flexible work". The average starting salary was $2,700.

SIM is seen as the go-to school by Singaporeans who fail to get into local universities or their choice of degree programme. Out of 19,000 enrolled in its degree programmes, 15,800 are Singaporeans.

The plain-speaking Mr Lee admits that there is a lag in job rates and salaries, but attributes it partly to employers' bias against those who took the private school route. "We accept that there's certain amount of discrimination against our students.

"Despite all the talk about skills, most employers still hire based on qualifications. They equate general academic ability to skills. And our students are seen to be not as good as those from the public universities because many come via the polytechnic route and did not make the cut for university."

But as an employer himself, he believes most companies promote their staff based on performance.

"After a few years, most bosses don't even remember which university an employee comes from. It's performance that counts.

"So it is important for us to find out, if after a few years, our students catch up with the public university graduates."

But he adds that with the rising number of graduates seeking flexible work, institutions need to reassess how they measure employment outcomes.

SIM surveyed its graduates who took up flexible work and about 14.4 per cent said it was by choice and another 19 per cent said they took on such work to try out the job and industry.

He says: "So, should we be looking at just full-time jobs and starting salaries? Or should we be asking the more relevant questions - whether they are doing what they really want to do?"

Q & A

1 Private schools have been in the news lately because of an employment survey showing that the job prospects of those who get their degrees via the private education route lag those who graduate from the autonomous universities (AUs). What is your response?

There are six universities and they are all different. And so are the private schools. We are not research institutions, like some of the AUs. It's like comparing fish and fowl.

SIM has a mission and we do what we believe in - providing good education and training pathways which will open doors in life for our students.

Recently, the Government's line of argument may give the impression that students and parents who come to SIM are stupid. That's the discussion going on out there after the release of the graduate employment survey. By all means provide all the information - it is important to look at job outcomes. By the way, SIM has been providing all this information for many years now and we don't point a gun at anyone to say they should join us. They willingly come to us.

Perhaps, we should take a step back and accept that people have choices.

We survey prospective students regularly and it shows that some of our students come to us despite being able to get into the local universities, because they prefer a particular course or one of our overseas university partners.

2 But surely it is important to look at job prospects?

It's important, but with all the disruption happening, should we just be focusing on starting salaries and jobs? Should those be the only criteria?


Are we measuring the output right? Young people have different ideas about what they want to do in life and it's a new economy. They set up blog shops. Quite a few don't even have a permanent job, but they don't feel shortchanged. They like freelance work because it gives them flexibility

Besides, degrees, money and high positions don't necessarily equate to happiness.

Many of my peers who are retired - those who are happy were not the high fliers. They find contentment and meaning in so many things, being grandparents, doing community service. Those who were in high positions often are less happy as they miss the status and power.

3 What do you attribute the poorer job prospects to? Especially the salaries?

For one, the measurement is based on starting salaries and it could well be that the civil service generally pays higher starting salaries and it generally does not hire private school graduates.

We also accept that there's a certain amount of market discrimination against our students.

Unfortunately, many employers still hire based on qualifications, not skills, and they equate general academic ability to skills.

Our students are seen to be not as good as those from the public universities because many took the polytechnic route and did not make the cut for university.

The job surveys also don't look at the fact that the difference is not necessarily the quality of education, but input. So, to be fair, we should be looking at how much value private educational institutes add.

After all, when MOE was ranking schools, it had value-added ranking.

And employers should change their hiring policies and look at skills and pay according to performance on the job.

I have been very encouraged that most employers, public or private sector, look at only your job performance once you are in. So our graduates might start at a lower pay, but those who do well will catch up and some will do better than public university graduates.

It's about the individual's ability, drive and motivation. So it's important for us to accept that right now, on average, graduates from private institutions are paid a lower starting pay and focus on helping them perform well at work and be able to move up.

4 The private education industry is being disrupted because of the expansion of places in local universities and with the Government now measuring job outcomes and publishing them. How is SIM going to respond?

SIM was a disruptor more than 30 years ago - we brought in foreign universities to offer different degree pathways, starting with the University of London.

We are not out to disrupt, but in the education space, you have to be able to adapt and evolve to remain relevant.

So we will continue to expand and extend our degree programmes in partnership with overseas university partners.

We are looking into setting up an education and training platform - a sort of a marketplace - where we will bring together education and training providers and learners. They will be just in time, bite-sized courses. SIM will curate the offerings on this platform to ensure quality and that the courses are aligned with the needs of learners.

SIM is always looking at trends, such as the emerging industries, so that we can offer the appropriate courses.

And that's why we have grown to 19,000 students now.

We have 13 university partners and have a portfolio of offerings - some are more academic and some are more practice-oriented. We also offer a full-range of co-curricular activities and programmes, including internships.

5 How else does SIM try and improve job prospects for its students?

I am also an employer, so I understand why companies use qualifications to sift the applicants.

It's hard to change that practice but we try and tackle one employer at a time.

We reach out to them to tell them about our students and how we are preparing them to be job-ready. We ask them to hire one or two, "taste the apple first, and then if they like it, they will hopefully come back to buy a box". That's what has been happening with some of the companies.

We have an annual job fair on campus where employers can set up booths to pitch their companies and the types of jobs they offer. Last year, 129 employers took part, double the number in 2016. And they included public agencies such as the National Parks Board and private firms like Accenture.

6 Young people have their own minds and seek to further their education in certain areas, be it coding or culinary sciences. How does SIM cater to the diverse interests of millennials?

We are only limited by whether we can find the right partners.

Coding courses - we can offer them through our new digital platform.

Last year, we started an events management course on digital innovation and sports business management. This year, we are going to offer one on big data and a master's programme in cyber-security management.

So, as an education institution, we are constantly looking at trends and emerging fields.

It helps that our Government offers courses in ITE and polytechnics that are forward-looking. And three years down the road, these students will be looking at furthering their education in the field.

The challenge for SIM is that because we have no government funding, certain courses are not viable - such as those that require expensive facilities and equipment.

Of course, there are many degrees that retain the same name, but their content and modules are continuously being updated.

7 You once referred to SIM as a second-chance university. Do you still see SIM as that?

Yes, people should always have second, third chances in education. Education is all about discovering yourself, how you learn best and where your talent and interests lie, and that takes time.

Among our students, there are many late bloomers. That's why SIM produces many first-class honours graduates. Last year, we had 225 first-class honours graduates from the University of London programme - that is one of the highest success rates globally for the UOL external degree programme.

I myself was a late bloomer.

My father's friend, who was more educated than my parents, gave them some advice after my Primary 6 results - that I should repeat my exams. So I repeated my Primary 6 at a Catholic school and that was where I started doing well. I did so well that after Secondary 1, I was able to transfer to one of the top secondary schools in Hong Kong.

After that, I was curious about the world and took the SAT and applied for all the top American universities and I got into MIT. I'm sure I was not top, academically speaking, but probably my involvement in badminton, the astronomers club, and all those extracurricular activities, helped.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 29, 2018, with the headline 'Opening more doors for students'. Print Edition | Subscribe