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Lower pay, discrimination: Some of the hurdles facing private university grads

SINGAPORE — Unemployed for seven months after graduating from SIM Global Education (SIM GE) in 2015, Francis (not his real name), 28, found himself grappling with the fear that he had “chosen the wrong degree”.

Lower pay, discrimination: Some of the hurdles facing private university grads
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SINGAPORE — Unemployed for seven months after graduating from SIM Global Education (SIM GE) in 2015, Francis (not his real name), 28, found himself grappling with the fear that he had “chosen the wrong degree”.

The business and management student, who earned a lower second-class honours degree from SIM GE’s University of London (UOL) programme, sent in resumes “almost every week”, but only received a handful of offers for temporary contract jobs.

Attributing his bad luck to the poor economic situation, Francis took on temporary contract jobs in administrative roles, where he worked alongside several private university graduates. With the hourly pay of S$10, or S$1,800 monthly — even less than a diploma holder — the work was boring and menial.

Francis’ job situation is an example of the challenges that private university graduates here face in their job hunts. These include having to battle perceptions that their degrees are not as prestigious, as well as discrimination from prospective employers.

The issue was thrown into the spotlight again last week, when the latest Private Education Institute (PEI) Graduate Employment Survey found that only one in two (47.4 per cent) private school fresh graduates secured full-time jobs six months after graduation. This was a sharp decline from the six in 10 figure (60.1 per cent) for the previous batch. They also earned less, drawing a median gross monthly salary of S$2,650, while graduates from local autonomous universities (AU) raked in S$3,400.

Some private university graduates, like Esther (not her real name), found the going tough right after graduation. The 23-year-old, who earned her business and management degree from SIM GE last year, received a “rude shock” when one prospective employer told her “outright” in an interview that the firm was only interested in hiring a local university graduate.

Instead of looking at her university transcripts, the employer was “only concerned” about her GCE ‘O’ and ‘A’ Level results, which “further led me to assume that only a university’s reputation, be it mainstream or top-tier, matters to even be considered (for the job),” said Esther, now a legal secretary at a local law firm.

Others like James, 31, an accounting and finance SIM GE graduate, faced a major “stumbling block” when trying to break into the government sector. The salesman, who had worked as a hedge fund administrator and insurance underwriter for about three years, said he sent about 30 applications last August with “an asking pay of $3,500 for an entry-level position”. But he was met with dead silence from government hirers.

The bleak prospects for private university students come amid changes within Singapore’s private school system, whose image has taken a beating in recent years after a number of PEIs shut their doors due to poor financial health and weak demand. In 2016, The Committee for Private Education announced new measures to better protect students and make information more transparent. These included making it compulsory for PEIs that offered degrees to participate in an annual graduate employment survey, and minimum financial standards.

The reboot for the PEI sector comes amid mixed results from the Economic Development Board’s (EDB) Global Schoolhouse initiative, which was launched in 2002 to attract investment to Singapore and capture a larger slice of the world education market. The aim was to build the higher education sector to about 5 per cent of Singapore’s GDP and attract 150,000 foreign students by 2015.

 

LOWER IN THE PECKING ORDER

The playing field for PEI graduates is skewed from the start, said business management SIM GE student Eva*, 23, who was among the 15 PEI graduates TODAY spoke to.

Compared to AU graduates who have the luxury of time to do internships during the school curriculum, there is a less emphasis for PEI students, so “we lose out on our resume by default due to a lack of relevant working experience”, said Eva, who graduates next month.

She added that companies tend to hire interns from local AUs, and having seniors recommend their younger schoolmates creates “exclusive” circles, which severely limits the chances for a PEI student.

PEI students also tend to be “less well-travelled”, as compared to AU graduates who get more opportunities and school funding to go on overseas university exchanges, which add another achievement to their resume.

 

WHAT HR EXPERTS AND EMPLOYERS SAY

Inevitably, PEIs may find it “hard to catch up” with state-supported AUs due to less well-established university branding, and fewer resources to invest in the quality of programmes, said Singapore Human Resources Institute (SHRI) president Erman Tan. As a result, AU graduates gain the “first mover advantage”.

The “conservative” HR mentality, especially among the larger multi-national corporations (MNCs) which also spell a preference for AU graduates in their criteria, is to “play it safe” so they can “pick and choose” from the best, he added.

PEI graduates cannot be “unrealistic” and expect the same level of pay as their AU peers, said Mr David Ang, director of corporate services at Human Capital Singapore.

But he said that PEI graduates still stand a good chance at small-and-medium-sized enterprises, which offer many on-the-job learning opportunities and reward staff if they perform well. They also offer a different path from the “formal and rigid career advancement progression” at bigger MNCs.

Mr Lawrence Chai, managing director of 3E Accounting, told TODAY that his firm, which provides accounting, tax, immigration and compliance services, does not discriminate between AU or PEI graduates. It all boils down to the right attitude, soft skills, and the rest “can be trained” from scratch. Of his 20-member team, there is an equal proportion of PEI graduates and diploma holders (25 per cent), five per cent are from local universities, and nearly half hold professional certificates.

Bigger firms like Procter & Gamble Asia and OCBC Bank also said they are open to hiring applicants from different educational backgrounds, regardless of which institute they graduate from.

The public sector is also “becoming more open-minded” to hiring PEI graduates, said SHRI’s Mr Tan.

Responding to TODAY’s queries, a Public Service Division (PSD) spokesperson said academic qualifications are among the factors considered as a “useful proxy for knowledge and skills”, especially for candidates with no prior work experience.

“The academic standing of the certificate-issuing institutions” is considered, and the PSD said it has advised agencies to check if PEI degrees are accredited by the home governments where the degrees originate. However, for mid-career candidates, relevant work experience is more important than academic qualifications.

Certain niche skills are also more in demand than others, said Mr Ang, so a PEI graduate with cybersecurity knowledge may get hired more quickly, as compared to others with marketing or law degrees.

 

SCHOOLS, STUDENTS NEED TO UP THEIR GAME

In an increasingly competitive job market, PEI graduates have to be quick-witted and “strategic” to gain an upper hand over their AU peers, said Mr Ang.

Francis, for instance, saw his job situation improving shortly after enrolling in a part-time IT-related course at a local university in August last year.

He landed a job as a systems analyst at an IT firm which paid S$4,000, and he was also shortlisted for the Cyber Security Associates and Technologists Programme run by CSA and Info-communications Media Development Authority of Singapore, despite not having any IT qualifications.

“I kept questioning, did they really choose me, this Year 1 student? But it does show that with the name of a local AU…. (the opportunities come knocking),” he said.

Agreeing, Eva, who made it a “priority” to secure two internships at public relations firms on her own, said this helped “set her apart” from her peers who received fewer replies from employers.

To boost graduates’ prospects, PEIs also need to step up their game in establishing industry links, push their students to secure internships or work attachments, and organise workshops to equip students with soft skills, said SHRI’s Mr Tan.

Ms Eunice Heng, 25, an assistant communications manager and SIM GE graduate, suggested more “applied learning, hands on” projects. For instance, PEIs shld task students to come up with business proposals to pitch to actual clients, which is similar to what polytechnics do.

Associate Professor Rhys Johnson, Kaplan Singapore’s chief operating officer and provost, said it constantly reviews programme offerings to ensure they are industry-relevant, and that there are training courses, career fairs, and career advisory support services. Their career fair in March drew 70 employers offering 500 vacancies across the aviation, banking and finance, IT, healthcare, and engineering industries.

Noting that AUs and PEIs offer a complete “ecosystem” catering to students’ needs and aspirations, Mr Tan said it will take time for the community to overcome “perception issues”, and PEI graduates should not be demoralised as they too, have “bright prospects”.

If they have soft skills such as problem-solving abilities, networking, communication, teamwork and leadership skills, they can “stand out in the longer run”, he said.

“They have to be prepared to work harder, and continue to improve themselves to compensate for the so-called bias from employers.”

*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the interviewees

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