When the Singapore Polytechnic was set up in 1954, the Government had a specific role in mind for the pioneering institution.
As the late Senior Minister of State for Education Tay Eng Soon put it in an interview in 1993: "Polytechnics fill a very important middle section - sub-degrees but producing competent and confident people who can do their jobs immediately upon graduation."
The reality today is that the lot and aspirations of polytechnic students have changed.
Those who take the polytechnic route are not necessarily junior college rejects. In fact, Education Ministry figures show that a third of the 25,000 students who enter the five polytechnics qualify for a junior college. The latter have a higher cut-off entry score than the polytechnics in terms of O-level results.
When they graduate with a diploma after three years, polytechnic graduates are no longer content with their "sub-degrees" and filling the "middle section" in industry. At the first opportunity, many head to universities here and abroad, notably Britain and Australia.
The top students usually aim for the local universities. In recent years, increasing numbers have been applying for the more competitive courses such as business, law and medicine, and have successfully gained entry.
Those who cannot afford the cost will look to private schools such as the Singapore Institute of Management.
Those whose financial circumstances require them to work will turn to SIM University to study part-time.
Five years ago, the estimate was that more than half of all polytechnic graduates go on to secure a university degree within five years. These days, polytechnic officials estimate that the figure is probably closer to 80 per cent.
Several thousand also head out into the job market, where their skills are valued.
Employers appreciate those who have come through the polytechnic route, saying they tend to be job-ready, practical-minded and willing to roll up their sleeves to get the job done.
But there is also a growing recognition that polytechnic education has to evolve with the times, to match the growing aspirations of young Singaporeans as well as to continue to support the Singapore economy.
It is timely then that the Government is undertaking a review of polytechnic education along with the Institutes of Technical Education (ITEs). The Education Ministry has been short on details, only saying that the review committee led by Senior Minister of State for Education Indranee Rajah will look at how studies at the ITEs and polytechnics can better connect classroom lessons to the working world.
I have always admired how the polytechnics are able to cater to a big cohort of students and yet provide courses that suit their individual talents. One suggestion, then, is to build on this.
Combine work and study
THE polytechnics should consider offering a route combining work and study, similar to the cooperative education provided in some American universities.
In many ways, this approach is also similar to the highly-prized apprenticeship scheme in countries such as Germany and Switzerland, which turn out master tradesmen and certified professionals in different areas,
But as Republic Polytechnic principal Yeo Li Pheow cautions, it would not do to call the proposal an "apprenticeship scheme" because of the negative associations the term has locally. Apprenticeship schemes are seen to be for students who are weak academically.
A better term to use would be "professional certification". If students on these routes are going to alternate between work and study, then the course has to be longer - maybe extended to four or five years.
On top of earning a diploma, in the course of the five years they can also earn various professional certifications. These would be professional qualifications, recognising the holder as a specialist in a particular field. This is already done in some areas. There are licensed aircraft maintenance engineers, for example, who take courses and acquire a series of certifications.
But the idea need not apply to the science or technology-related fields alone. It can also be done in a range of other areas, including nursing, psychology, physiotherapy and computer programming.
But of course this would require companies coming on board to see themselves as training partners. This is because the kind of jobs that a student is tasked with while on work stints would have to build on what they were learning in the polytechnics. Similarly the polytechnics would have to ensure that what was taught in their courses was industry-relevant.
Social economists such as Phillip Brown, Hugh Lauder and David Ashton, who wrote the book, The Global Auction: The Broken Promises Of Education, Jobs And Incomes, have argued that class distinctions among graduate workers are emerging. At the top, there will be a cadre of thinkers and decision-makers - perhaps 10 per cent or 15 per cent of the total. The remainder will perform routine functions for modest wages.
Mr David Leong of People Worldwide Consulting, who recently visited Germany, says remuneration has to follow. Local companies have to be willing to pay a premium for those with good skills, similar to the high salaries they offer to those with impressive academic qualifications. "At the moment, although they want highly skilled workers, they are not necessarily willing to pay them well. That has to change."
New teaching approach
ANOTHER way in which polytechnic education can be improved is in the area of communication skills.
The polytechnics run communication modules and require their students to write and present project reports. This goes some way towards nurturing communication skills. But as many employers and universities would argue, more needs to be done to shore up the spoken and written skills of polytechnic graduates.
A general studies programme that would nurture critical thinking skills, independent thinking and the proficient use of language is worth considering.
It should cover world affairs and the pressing issues of today, such as poverty and pollution, to give students a better understanding of the world they live in and Singapore's place in it.
They should also be given an understanding of how knowledge is attained in the various disciplines and taught to see an inter- relationship of ideas across disciplines.
A SEASONED polytechnic lecturer at one of Singapore's leading polytechnics said he presents his economics students with a case study of an actual struggling business. He then asks them to act as business consultants to come up with a plan to save the business.
Alternatively, he would ask students to explain why the richest people in Singapore tend to live in the Bukit Timah/Holland Road belt, and why is it that you cannot get a taxi in Singapore when you need one the most.
This way, not only is the learning of economic concepts or world issues made more interesting, but it also becomes more relevant to Singapore and to their lives.
Polytechnics have come a long way since the first one was set up in the 1950s. And their graduates are making their mark both in further education and the job market.
Now is the time for the Government to enlarge the role of polytechnics. It should build on their known strengths for nurturing hands-on workers, attuned to the practical needs of industry and business.
Preparing graduates who understand world affairs, and who have premium skills and knowledge in specialised fields, will ensure that a polytechnic education continues, over time, to produce positive outcomes in terms of pay and opportunities as well as bolster the Singapore economy.
This story was first published in The Straits Times on Dec 19, 2013
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