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‘Skills, not degrees, at a premium now’

SINGAPORE — Urging the public not to be “overly fixated” with the university cohort participation rate, Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung stressed on Monday (May 8) that skills would be sought after by employers in the new economy, and not paper qualifications.

Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung. TODAY file photo

Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung. TODAY file photo

Singapore

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SINGAPORE — Urging the public not to be “overly fixated” with the university cohort participation rate, Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung stressed on Monday (May 8) that skills would be sought after by employers in the new economy, and not paper qualifications. 

“Skills are what carry a premium now, and skills need to be honed throughout our lifetimes ... All of us need to keep learning and deepening our skills throughout our lives,” he said. 

Speaking in Parliament during the debate on the Bill to set up the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS) as the Republic’s sixth autonomous university, Mr Ong said degrees can become obsolete in a world where information and knowledge can be found online easily. Degrees do not enable people to earn a living, he pointed out. Instead, “our ability to keep pace with changing needs of the economy is what helps us earn our keep”, he said. 

Mr Ong’s comments on Monday came after his remarks at the 47th St Gallen Symposium last week sparked a spirited public debate among some, including former GIC chief economist Yeoh Lam Keong. 

During the event held in Switzerland, Mr Ong spoke about the need for Singapore’s education system to be aligned with the structure of the economy, and this means that the proportion of graduates in a cohort has to be capped at about 30 per cent to 40 per cent. In a Facebook post, Mr Yeoh said Mr Ong had trotted out the “same old unimaginative line”, and argued that “the history of education policy is full of examples of existing policy makers underestimating the skill and education needs of the modern economy and overestimating their ability to forecast them”.

Towards the end of his speech in Parliament, Mr Ong alluded to the discussion that arose from his earlier comments. He reiterated that given the diverse needs of the economy requiring more talent from wider fields of expertise, there should be “diverse and multitudinous” paths for people to enhance their skills. Among other things, these could be academic upgrades, apprenticeships, industry certifications, overseas exposures, or simply gaining work experience and making a name for oneself in one’s respective field, he said. 

“It would truly be ‘unimaginative’ to confine ourselves to university education as the only way to develop to our full potential,” Mr Ong said. “Degrees do not define us, individually, or as a society ... Our society needs to evolve, such that all occupations, crafts and trades, whether the skills are acquired through a degree education or not, are respected and recognised.”

Singapore’s university cohort participation rate has increased progressively from 20 per cent in 2000, to 30 per cent by 2015. The number is expected to grow, increasing from 35 per cent this year, and 40 per cent by 2020.

The majority of graduates — about 90 per cent hail from the autonomous universities — are able to find jobs within six months after graduation, Mr Ong noted. This is not the case in many countries experiencing severe graduate unemployment due to an oversupply of graduates, and Singapore has to “guard against” suffering from the same fate, he reiterated. 

The Government had earlier announced that it would be renaming and restructuring SIM University into an autonomous university. To expand its offering for adult learners, it will further improve the structure and delivery of its programmes for working students, and work with SkillsFuture Singapore Agency and sector agencies to develop industry-relevant courses. 

SUSS will also deliver programmes with a “strong social focus”, such as championing disciplines that bring a positive impact to society, said Mr Ong. This could include building a strong niche in the social sciences, such as social work, early childhood education and human resource management. The university will also “infuse the mission of social development into other disciplines”, such as having a compulsory service learning component which requires students to initiate, conceptualise and execute a social project and champion a cause under SUSS’ full-time programmes.

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