askST: What are the benefits of taking up a work-study degree?

Mr Kam Ming Feng took up a work-study degree programme in software engineering at SIT. PHOTO: GOVTECH SINGAPORE

SINGAPORE - In the third of a five-week askST series on university education, The Straits Times addresses questions on work-study degrees.

Q: I notice that the universities here have started offering work-study degrees, especially the Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT). What are the benefits of taking up such degrees? Why not just complete the degree and then head out to work to build a career?

A: I feel that a work-study degree is a pathway that students should consider, especially those who prefer applied, hands-on learning.

Students enrolled in the SkillsFuture Work-Study Degrees (WSDeg), as they are officially called, alternate between days or semesters of work and campus studies.

So, students may alternate between spending one to two terms in university and at the workplace; or between working a few days of the week in the partner company and studying for the remaining days of the week.

SIT said acceptance into the WSDeg is an effective career jump-start for students, as they stand to gain at least 10 to 20 months of accumulated relevant work experience during the course of their undergraduate programme.

The degrees are aimed at allowing students to acquire deep, work-relevant skills and to help them better transit to the workplace upon graduation.

This is done by closely integrating classroom learning with structured on-the-job training. Companies and universities co-design and co-deliver the curricula.

The programme is open to A-level or polytechnic diploma holders who apply for a position in the university's partner companies. WSDeg is also an option for working adults.

The company and university are involved in the selection of students for the scheme.

Over the years, I have had the opportunity to study the benefits and outcomes of such programmes around the world as well as interview employers partnering universities on work-study degrees.

Inspired by the German and Swiss tradition of apprenticeships, these degrees are offered by many well-known universities around the world, including Drexel University in Philadelphia and the Canadian University of Waterloo.

Employers say they support the programme because students gain a strong grounding in applicable theory in a real work environment, which enhances their job-readiness.

Students can also learn more about the sponsoring company's work culture and they stand a good chance to be offered career opportunities with their sponsoring company upon graduation.

The partner companies offer sponsorships covering the full tuition fees or part of it, and even a stipend that will help with students' other expenses.

Software company Inspire-Tech, an SME partner of SIT, said it appreciates the mutual learning as well as the opportunity to mentor students and cultivate long-term relationships with students as part of its talent acquisition strategy.

For academic year 2021, SIT offers 15 WSDeg programmes and has 187 students taking up these courses.

Partner companies in this programme include the Land Transport Authority, Inspire-Tech, GovTech Singapore, Accenture, Singtel, Samwoh Corporation and Ingredion, Highway International.

Of the 108 WSDeg graduates to date, 107 were employed before or within six months upon graduation, while the remaining student is currently pursuing a master's programme.

Ten out of the 108 graduates were already working when they took up the degrees and they have since returned to their workplaces upon graduation; 75 were employed by the companies that they were attached to; while 22 joined other companies, with 11 of them securing jobs even before graduation.

SIT graduate Kam Ming Feng, 27, did his work-study degree with GovTech while studying for his software engineering degree.

GovTech, the government agency in charge of the digital transformation of Singapore's public sector, selected Mr Kam to join as an apprentice in 2017.

He alternated between eight months of study and four months of work in the first three years. He spent the whole of the final year at work.

He said he took up the work-study degree partly because he did not want to rely on his parents for his tuition fees and other expenses while in university.

But more importantly, he prefers hands-on learning as he feels that it is a powerful way to learn. He got to try his hand at various technology fields, including blockchain development and machine learning.

"It was meaningful to see what I learnt from my professors being applied in the workplace at GovTech. In some cases, such as with 'agile project management' used in software development projects, I got to practise it in GovTech before they taught it at SIT. This allowed me to bridge knowledge to application faster," said Mr Kam, who is in GovTech's leadership development Technology Associate Programme.

"I saw first-hand how technology can be used for public good to improve the lives of Singaporeans. So, I was very happy to be offered a job there when I completed my degree."

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