More university places for working adults can help fill future economy jobs: Experts

Opportunities for more working adults to get subsidised places at universities here are now on the cards. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Increasing places for adult learners would help shift mindsets about education and create a pathway for Singaporeans to upgrade their skills for new jobs and fill existing roles, experts said.

Take, for instance, Ms Nadia Daeng, 39.

After 18 years in the workforce, she is looking to go back to school to get a degree.

She graduated from Ngee Ann Polytechnic with a Diploma in Mass Communications in 2004 and has been working in communications and advocacy for caregivers since then.

She told The Straits Times: "A university degree was on my list of things to do when I was growing up.

"Now I'm interested in psychology-related degree courses to help me understand my strengths better and identify personality traits in others so I'll know how to contribute to a more productive and healthy work environment for future jobs in the next stage of my career."

Opportunities for more working adults like her to get subsidised places at universities here are now on the cards.

On March 7, Education Minister Chan Chun Sing announced that the Ministry of Education (MOE) would study the possibility of a higher lifetime cohort participation rate in education.

This means MOE is considering allowing more working adults to get places in government-funded degree programmes, Mr Chan said while presenting his ministry's budget in Parliament.

Singapore Human Resources Institute president Low Peck Kem told ST that MOE's shift to a lifetime cohort participation rate is a step in the right direction to encouraging lifelong learning.

She said increasing subsidised places for adult learners will create a structured way for workers to upgrade, alongside other avenues like trade certification.

Dr Kelvin Seah from the Department of Economics at National University of Singapore (NUS) said while the policy will result in more graduates, an increase in the supply of graduates in the labour market may not result in lower salaries for them.

He said: "It is possible that there will also be an increase in the demand for skilled labour if international companies looking to hire high-skilled labour are attracted to Singapore as a result of the increased supply of graduates.

"The end result on Singapore's labour market is therefore ambiguous at this point, since there would be both an increase in the supply of graduates as well as a possible increase in the demand for them."

Associate Professor Terence Ho from the NUS Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy said there are many professional, managerial, and executive (PME) roles in the labour market which Singaporeans can take up if they have the relevant skills.

He added that what is more important than the absolute number of degree holders is how well they are prepared for the needs of companies and the future economy.

He said: "Increasing the number of subsidised places for adult learners could increase the supply of graduates with an appropriate skills match for existing and newly created jobs in growth sectors, particularly as the economy transforms."

In its labour market report for 2021, released on Monday (March 14), the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) said 117,100 job vacancies were available last December.

But in order for working adults to be able to go back to school, arrangements must be made for their tight schedules and other commitments, said baby product company owner Lin Daoyang, 42.

Mr Lin told ST that while he got an engineering degree from NUS in 2005, he would like to go back for short, modular courses in either engineering or an unrelated field like astrophysics to keep up with the latest technology and for his personal interests.

Mr Lin, who has three schoolgoing children, said: "Working adults have a lot to juggle with kids and work commitments.

"Right now, the system is you either get a degree or nothing at all from a university. There should be another way where you can stack modules and maybe get a certificate."

Mr Ben Breen, managing director for Asia Pacific and global head of construction at US non-profit Project Management Institute (PMI), said that courses must be designed differently for working adults and full-time students.

PMI has conducted project management courses and awarded professional certificates since 1984.

Mr Breen added: "There are many factors that go into creation of the course materials based on the audience type.

"Adult education should allow for some flexibility as they juggle between many roles, making online, on-demand courses a preferred option."

Work is in progress to bring these changes to Singapore's education system.

In Parliament, Mr Chan also said Singapore's institutes of higher learning - which include the six autonomous universities, five polytechnics and the Institute of Technical Education - must review their programmes with adult learners in mind.

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