WhyItMatters

Planning for fewer students

Declining birth rates have had a knock-on effect on school enrolments - first on primary schools, then secondary schools and, now, junior colleges.

Last Thursday, the Ministry of Education (MOE) announced that shrinking school cohorts require it to merge 28 schools in 2019, including, for the first time, junior colleges.

Serangoon, Tampines, Innova and Jurong junior colleges will be absorbed into Anderson, Meridian, Yishun and Pioneer respectively, cutting the current number of junior colleges from 23 to 19. Seven pairs of secondary schools and three pairs of primary schools will also be merged.

Between 1993 and 2002, births each year fell about 20 per cent, from about 49,000 to 39,000. As a result, the junior college intake is now expected to drop by a fifth, going from 16,000 in 2010 to 12,800 in 2019.

But falling enrolments do not seem to be an issue for universities just yet. Today, universities are expanding because more Singaporeans are aspiring to degree education and qualifying for their courses.

The Government has also pledged to raise the cohort participation rate by 2020, to allow 40 per cent of an age group to study for a degree at the local universities.

But when the MOE made the pledge to raise the participation rate, it did say that, even if it did not expand the number of places, the cohort participation rate would rise by a few percentage points because of the shrinking school cohorts.

For now, tertiary institutions may also be buffered by the SkillsFuture movement, which encourages Singaporeans to head back to universities and polytechnics to upgrade their skills and knowledge.

But there will come a time when universities will feel the effect of falling birth rates - in the same way that they will eventually affect other sectors, including healthcare, defence and the economy.

Policymakers have to think hard and plan ahead for the implications that the declining birth rate will have in areas beyond education.

SEE FORUM

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 24, 2017, with the headline 'Planning for fewer students'. Print Edition | Subscribe