Private degrees: data needs to tell a fuller skills story
by Daniel Yap
DEGREES from private education institutions (PEIs) are inferior to those conferred by “local” universities. At least that’s what a recent Graduate Employability Survey commissioned by the Council for Private Education (CPE) seemed to suggest: PEI grads had lower employment numbers and lower median salaries compared to NTU, NUS and SMU grads.
But the survey has provoked protests and probing questions. What the survey didn’t take into account and didn’t mention is as important as what it headlined.
For example, no other figures were announced, meaning that there was very little context. CPE said that it did have a breakdown of figures for the nine schools it surveyed, but would leave it up to the schools to announce them. Will they ever see the light of day?
Even if those numbers eventually get published, what remains missing is the very simple question of how prospective students should approach the decision to further their studies.
Is it just for the attraction of a higher salary? Is it to simply have that cert on the wall so that you don’t lose face? Or did you really want to learn something and challenge yourself? Or embark on a career that contributes to society?
Then maybe median graduate salary is not the best measure (it is certainly not the only one). Not all PEI students are holding a fresh A-level certificate or diploma, and not everyone is doing it for a fatter pay package. About half of the students at PSB Academy, for example, are studying part-time while working. CPE’s survey only covered full-time students.
PSB Academy was not one of the institutions covered by the CPE survey, which was released last week.
Its own graduate and employment survey last year found that about nine in 10 students found employment within six months of graduation, while six in 10 students enjoyed pay increments and/or improved prospects in their careers.
“Students need to be equipped with industry-ready skill-sets to thrive in our future economy,” said Marcus Loh, who is Vice President, Corporate Communications at the PSB Academy. He also said that the reputation of the institution and university, depth and relevance of the course and “practical, not just theoretical experience” that they can transfer to their jobs are key criteria for deciding whether and where to pursue a degree.
Mr Ravi Mehndiratta, who is Assistant Director of Sales & Front Office Operations at the London School of Business and Finance (LSBF) in Singapore, said that industry recognition, robust curriculum, programme management and faculty are the most important factors when considering private education. The school also values industrial attachments for real-world learning.
In other words, if you don’t know exactly what you will be learning, and how it will develop your skills, then there’s a high chance you will not be benefiting fully from your course.
If you have a diploma from a good polytechnic course, then you have to look for further education that really upgrades your skills and knowledge, not one that, at great expense, simply upgrades your “last attained educational level”. You may end up wasting time and money, as two years in your industry may be more relevant and valuable, as long as your employer values your skills (and not merely your paper qualification).
As employers are forced to reckon with productivity challenges, the future seems to lie with skills-based learning, which is an area that PEIs can add value in. One good example is the professional development pathway offered by the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA). Modular, skills-based frameworks like these allow students to get a focused education on industry skills that they can choose depending on their personal development needs (and the needs of their employers).
Prospective students would enrol in an ACCA accredited school such as LSBF in Singapore and take the certificates or papers they need (and are qualified for). These would be recognised by other educational institutions and employers. Could similar frameworks be developed for other professions and be updated frequently enough to match technological change?
Prospective students need more data and they need better data. Judging what CPE’s “better employment outcomes” really means needs deeper metrics than mere salary levels and employment figures, especially in the move towards recognising skills.
Sometimes, employers, the biases they hold and the red tape they have to deal with, are as much a part of the problem to a lack of recognition for skills-based learning as students and educational institutions are, so employment-side metrics will never be sufficient.
But until we can sort out how best to measure how well students have learnt skills, it is ultimately up to the learner to prove that he or she possesses them – industry-specific skills that make a candidate a productive part of a team, as well as soft skills like negotiating with and convincing employers to give you a job or a bigger pay check.
This article is part of a series on SkillsFuture, in collaboration with MOE and SSG. Read the other pieces here:
Featured image courtesy of PSB Academy. PSB’s new city campus at Marina Square will host more than 6,000 students.
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