June 28, 2017


by Sharanya Pillai

THE country’s youngest public university hopes that age will be no limit for learning how to create social impact.

The Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS), which became the sixth autonomous university here yesterday (Mar 8), wants to weave in social sciences into fields beyond the humanities, such as business and engineering, while also catering to older students.

SUSS was formerly a private institution, the Singapore Institute of Management University,  and also known as the go-to place for a part-time degree. The university currently offers 60 part-time courses to about 13,200 students.

And even as it increases its intake of full-time students from 580 to 1,000 over the next few years, SUSS hopes to keep catering to adult learners, through collaborations with the SkillsFuture Singapore Agency to develop more applied degrees.

According to Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung, SUSS will differentiate itself by adopting a social focus, The Straits Times reported. All full-time students will be required to take on social projects and advocate for a cause – although specifics have yet to be released.

With more goods in the marketplace, will potential undergraduates have to confront the tyranny of choice? We look at how the six institutions are setting themselves apart:

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1. More niche courses on offer

National University of Singapore (NUS): The country’s oldest university, NUS, offers over 50 full-time degrees, including exclusive courses such as dentistry and music. It also offers graduate medicine at Duke-NUS Medical School, and a liberal arts education at Yale-NUS College. Last year, NUS launched a new data science and analytics degree, amid the growing popularity of computing courses.

Nanyang Technological University (NTU): Offering over 50 full-time degrees as well, NTU last year rolled out a new integrated programme allowing business and accountancy students to earn both an honours degree and a Masters in Financial Engineering, among other engineering and biomedical degrees. It also offers a specialised degree in sport science and management.

Singapore Management University (SMU): The university has seven undergraduate programmes, in accountancy, business management, law, economics, information systems and social science, as well as a new SUTD-SMU dual degree programme in technology and management. Last year it launched two new majors: entrepreneurship, and politics, law and economics (PLE), for those pursuing degrees in business management and social science respectively.

Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD): Established in 2009, SUTD offers four undergraduate programmes: architecture and sustainable design, engineering product development, engineering systems and design, and information systems technology and design. This year, it announced a new 4.5 year integrated Bachelor and Master Programme in Technology Entrepreneurship under the SUTD Technology Entrepreneurship Programme (STEP).

Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT): The university has over 40 degree programmes across five specialisations: engineering, chemical engineering and food technology, infocomm technology, health and social science, and design and specialised business. Last year, it introduced seven new applied degrees, such as those in telematics and food technology.

SUSS: The newly-minted autonomous university currently offers full-time programmes in fields including law, early childhood education and supply chain management. Under the SUSS-Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) programme, non-graduate SAF staff can also enrol in a SUSS degree with a minor in military studies. The SAF also has existing partnerships with SMU and NTU.


2. Zhng your education: Special programmes

NUS: The University Scholars Programme and University Town College Programme promote interdisciplinary and residential learning. The NUS Overseas College (NOC) gives entrepreneurial students exposure to start-up ecosystems abroad.

NTU: Like its NUS counterpart, the NTU-University Scholars Programme is based on an interdisciplinary curriculum. The Renaissance Engineering Programme encompasses business, engineering and the liberal arts, while the CN Yang Scholars Programme delves into mathematics, science and engineering.

SMU: The SMU LifeLessons programme emphasises on a “values-based” system providing students community service, internship and student exchange opportunities.

SUTD: The SUTD-MIT International Design Centre conducts programmes such as Design Odyssey and Design Innovation @ Singapore to encourage students to innovate.

SIT: Value-added programmes on engineering software, as well as foreign cultures and languages, are provided to students free of charge.

SUSS: Service-learning is mandatory for full-time undergraduates, who will have to work on a project over at least two years with a community partner. There is also a compulsory overseas exposure programme – in the form of a study mission, service-learning project, summer school programme or work attachment.


3. Upgrade U: Focus on lifelong learning

NUS: The School of Continuing and Lifelong Education (SCALE), the newest faculty of NUS, offers Bachelor of Technology programmes and certified courses for working adults. In its most recent initiative, the university is also offering some free modules for alumni.

NTU: The Centre for Continuing Education (CCE) offers short courses in fields including accountancy, education and engineering, as well as a two-week summer programme teaching soft skills and communication.

SMU: The newly-established SMU Academy offers modules that can lead up towards obtaining graduate degrees, diplomas or certificates from the university. Each module can be completed in three sessions.

SUTD: The Lifelong Initiative for Education (LIFE) provides SUTD graduates $500 to enrol in further education courses, such as in cyber security, design innovation and advanced manufacturing.

SIT: The SITLEARN Professional Development provides further upgrading courses in fields including allied health, hospitality and engineering.

SUSS: Lifelong learning is front and centre of SUSS’ rebranding, and something that will set the university apart from the others, said Minister Ong. Among its initiatives are an Overseas Study Mission that comes with a SkillsFuture study award, as well as Continuing Education and Training courses fields such as construction and financial services.

At first glance, the six universities may seem similar in the range of courses offered – it takes some research to fully appreciate the differences in curriculum and course structure. Going inter-disciplinary definitely seems to be the trend now, with more universities offering uncommon combinations of disciplines. NTU, which has long been known for its strength in engineering, has jazzed up degrees in materials engineering with second majors including food science and medical biology. Meanwhile, SMU has added a smart city management major to its Information Systems programme, which marries information technology (IT) with business, social and environmental issues. It also carries the same buzzwords as the G’s Smart Nation initiative.

While moving forward with the new and shiny, the universities also seem mindful of their evolving role – as not just a place to earn a degree, but also an institution of higher learning for alumni and adults. We are already seeing more 50 to 60-year-olds pursuing diplomas. Perhaps more will embark on degree programmes in the coming years.


Featured image by Flickr user Alex.ch. CC BY 2.0

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by Suhaile Md

This is the final article on More Than Just, a closed-door series of three dinner conversations on race and racism in Singapore. Over 20 participants attended all three sessions and were chosen to reflect the diversity of Singapore. Names are withheld for confidentiality, to provide a safe, open space, for honest conversations. Read the first article here, and second one here.

AFTER the many stories shared in the past two sessions, it’s clear not everything’s hunky dory in Singapore when it comes to race. So what can we do about it? That’s what the final dinner on April 21 was all about.

The evening started with participants suggesting an issue they wished to tackle, after reflecting on the problems raised in previous sessions. Responses were then organised thematically and participants grouped themselves according to the themes that resonated with them the most.

The search for solutions ensued. Most ideas were not fully formed: You can’t solve decades long issues over dinner, can you? Still, the various groups presented their thoughts to everyone after. But by the end of the night, it was clear there were two ideas participants were excited about.

1. Get em young! 

Issue: Often the majority fails to realise racism exists because they are not at the receiving end of it. As a result they don’t see the disadvantages minorities face.

Solution: Organise an inter-school camp for secondary two student leaders. The core activity would be the privilege walk, followed by moderated discussions on race.

The walk starts off with participants standing abreast. They take a step forward or backward in response to questions on whether their race affected them positively or negatively. The aim is to visually represent the gap between the racial experiences of participants. Of how people of different backgrounds get different advantages regardless of merit.

The privilege walk was also done in the Channel News Asia documentary on race last year. Minister of State Janil Puthucheary was the host. Here’s the video.

The participants chose to work with Secondary two students because the 14 year olds would have had a year to settle into their schools. And should the student leaders want to, they will have a few years before their O-levels to work on creating impact within their schools.

Interestingly, four out of the five dinner participants who discussed this issue and thought of the solution were Chinese. It was also a Chinese participant who raised the issue of the dominant race not realising racism exists in Singapore. This solution was also the overwhelming favourite amongst dinner participants.

2. Attack racism with the funnies 

Issue: People tiptoe around the racial issues far too much. While sensitivity can be good, it should not get in the way of honest conversations. How do you tackle the issue if you’re too scared to talk about it?

Solution: Eh you racist ah? card game. The idea is that if you could lighten the mood around taboo topics, people would be more willing to talk about it.

It’s similar to the popular Cards Against Humanity (CAH) game. CAH has two decks of cards: One question deck, one answer deck. Every round, someone plays a question card and everyone else provides the funniest answer card from their hand. Except that the humour works because it violates social norms – most answer cards are highly inappropriate, taboo even. It’s funny because it’s transgressive.

Cards Against Humanity. Image by Flickr user Tom Bullock. CC BY 2.0.

Eh you racist ah? decks will be filled with statements that range from the blatantly racist like “X race is _____” to the subtly racist like “you are pretty for a X race”. The “winner” of each round will wear the cone of shame. This will be followed by a discussion on why the answer is racist. Essentially, said a participant, “the game is an icebreaker to talk about these taboo issues”.

The trick is that all the cards have racist answers. As players engage in the game, they will let their guard down and in choosing answer cards, they will have to tap into their existing racial biases. But because players can only use cards they are dealt with and not invent their own answers, no one can point an accusatory finger. It accords people a safe space to realise the racist stereotypes they have.

This of course assumes that reflective people will play the game and that they are generally ignorant, not consciously racist. It’s hard to say what, for lack of a better term, hard core racists would take away from this game.

3. The best of the rest

Most of the remaining ideas centred around raising awareness at the individual or society-wide level.

At the personal level, one group suggested creating safe spaces for victims to have a frank discussion with the person who made the racist remark. The group also pooled various suggestions on how to react during a racist encounter. For example, if the perpetrator is aggressive, just leave or it may escalate the matter. If someone holds on to racist or ignorant views, engage the person another time instead of vilifying. The aim is to change mindsets, not demonise.

At a broader level, one group thought of media campaigns. Another group decided to zoom in on educating the public on how to critically assess the online content they come across. For example, being able to distinguish fact from opinion, or being able to see issues beyond a racial lens, or being equipped to recognise and deal with their own biases.

Interestingly, throughout the night, there was only a brief mention of removing the Chinese, Malay, Indian, Others (CMIO) classification. Neither was there any chatter on affirmative action for greater representation at leadership levels nor was there talk on the Presidential Elections later this year, which is reserved for a qualified Malay candidate (read more here).

Instead it seemed there was an almost unconscious decision to work on solutions the individual could act on. Maybe it had to do with the question posed at the start of the dinner: “How would you tackle the issue?”

Not the G, not schools, not community leaders, but YOU. Maybe that’s a question we should all think about.


Featured image from TMG file.

Missed the dinner conversations on race and racism? Join the public sharing session on 20 May, 1pm. You will get to hear the stories from participants who attended the dinner series and explore race issues. Sign up here.

Also, join the facebook group to be a part of the online conversation. Click here.

TMG is the official media for More Than Just, a series of dinner talks to explore what Race and Racism mean in Singapore, and what we (as individuals, communities and society) can do to bring us to our common ideal state.

by Suhaile Md

PRIVATE Educational Institutes are, well, privately funded. No G subsidies in other words. Which means it can ill-afford to continue with programmes that are irrelevant to students. Otherwise it would die off.

“We really look at what the market is looking for, what students are actually also looking for in terms of academic programmes, said Dr Michael Cope, Director of Studies at the London School of Business and Finance (LSBF). So it’s a balance really between the kind of knowledge expected by the job market as well as what students expect to learn. So far, it has aligned well.

LSBF offers 55 different courses in fields like law, hospitality, banking and finance, logistics, and business among others. Qualifications range from preparatory courses to highly ranked post-graduate and masters courses like the MSc Finance degree from the Grenoble Graduate School of Business. But most are diploma and advanced diploma courses.

Which is why there’s another factor that’s taken into consideration when developing the curriculum. Added Dr Cope: “To a certain extent you’re looking at progression as well… if students want to continue and eventually want to end up towards a degree you’ve also got to look at the content.” In other words, the diploma courses LSBF designs also fulfil university entrance requirements of LSBF’s university partners.

There’s a limit to how responsive curriculums should be to current trends however. Not because schools don’t want to, but because “you’re talking about underpinning knowledge”, said Dr Cope.

For example, “there’s new areas in marketing but, I still got a third edition of Kotler at home which I used donkey years back… except for the newer sections (on digital marketing), it’s more or less the same.” Dr Cope was referring to the widely-used Principles of Marketing textbook by Dr Philip Kotler. The 16th edition of the book was published in 2015.

The issue of “what should be in a programme and what shouldn’t be”, is really a balance of keeping fundamental knowledge and adding updated relevant information.

Which is why marketing students across the board take similar core modules. At the National University of Singapore (NUS) and the Singapore Management University (SMU) for example, undergraduates learn market research, consumer behaviour, and so on. Digital marketing is an elective at both Universities – not compulsory.

That’s what Dr Cope means by balancing fundamentals with new trends.

There are basically three categories of students at LSBF: part-time, full-time, and executives. Public universities tend to cater to full-timers, while a large proportion of part-time students are enrolled in private institutions. A drive by the G to get polytechnic and ITE students to sign up for the Earn and Learn programme is starting a small shift towards what is effectively an apprenticeship model.

Courses for executives tend to be short, modular courses, and it changes quite frequently according to market demands. These are usually a few days long. It deals with specific skills like performance management and appraisals or effective communication for accounting professionals.

Most of the part-time and full-time students are engaged in diploma courses. Whether part-time or full-time however, these students have the same learning outcomes, sit for the same exams, and are awarded the same certificates. What differs is the learning approach, to cater to their different needs.

The part-time student

Said Dr Cope: “Generally 90 odd per cent of our part-time students I would say… are studying because they want to maybe change their career or want to improve their job prospects.”

Like ACCA student Ms Anastasia Pauline for example. The 28-year old is an audit assistant at an accounting and audit firm. Her company encouraged – with some sponsorship even – her to study accounting soon after they offered her a permanent job there. Prior to that she was working for them part-time and only had basic knowledge of accounting.

She chose LSBF because the “class notes are very useful, and the lecturers are structured”, she said. Furthermore, lecturers “go beyond the call of duty” by staying past 10.15pm when part-time classes end just to answer students’ queries.

They understand the demands of the working student and work around it. For example, lessons for shorter topics are uploaded online, in video format, to free up space for classroom teaching on harder, longer topics. Even these lessons are recorded in audio and uploaded just in case students miss class due to work commitments.

But that’s also possible, said Dr Cope, because “part-time students, they are generally quite motivated, they’ve got a specific goal, they’re quite clear in terms of why they’re doing it (studies).” In fact, although top scorers tend to come from full-time classes, the passing rate amongst part-time students is higher than full-time students, he added.

The full-time student 

“Our full-time students are a bit of a different target market,” said Dr Cope. “They are typically students coming out of high school so they really don’t know what they want… they generally don’t have the learning skills.”

Additionally, “employers will tell you that constantly they get students who come out of the Universities and pretty much they’re useless when they walk into the office…they don’t know how to interact in the office, they can’t produce reports, they can’t do basic research, their writing skills are horrible… they are actually like fish out of water.

“So we end up having to pump in quite a lot of effort to develop independent learning skills to our full-time students which we generally don’t have to do with our part-time students.”

But do the students actually pick up such skills in the end? Ms Cho Yebeen at least, agrees. The 22-year old is a full-time student enrolled in the English language course.

Her classwork is intense. She has tests every week. Ms Cho’s tested on the 60 new words she’s supposed learn weekly, then there’s the grammar test and reading test as well. But that’s what you would expect in most English language courses.

At LSBF though, she has to do research, write argumentative essays, and make presentations on various topics throughout her two month term. Topics like globalisation, childhood education, and environmental issues, among others, are discussed.

It was challenging but the results are undeniable. “In two months,” said Ms Cho, she went “from not speaking a single sentence of English to being fluent now”. But “still a little unconfident”, she added sheepishly. The Korean student wishes to go for undergraduate studies in business overseas but she felt she needed to improve her English language skills before embarking on it.

LSBF it seems is not alone in observing the need to develop basic skills like writing and research. NUS revised its Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) curriculum last year. All freshmen must now take two writing courses – academic writing and public writing – to develop critical thinking, and clear communication skills.

Students from other NUS faculties learn writing and critical thinking through general education modules. Engineering student Mr Naowed Abeer for example took the module“Public Persona and Self-Presentation”. The 22-year old freshman said he had to submit three essays which are graded. Research and analysis was required every time he wrote an essay.  Before the final submission, his lecturer would critic his drafts and guide him on how to organise his words for clarity of argument and expression.

When asked if he thought such modules better prepared him for the working world, Mr Abeer said it helps to a certain point. But there’s no substitute for actual work experience.

During his National Service (NS) stint in the Civil Defence Force for example, he was put in charge of projects with minimal guidance, and no prior experience. The hardest part was identifying blind spots he was not even aware he had. It was like trying to imagine a colour he had never seen. Learning to deal with such situations is something that “cannot be taught in the classroom”, said Mr Abeer.


This article is the second of a three-part series in collaboration with LSBF. Read the first article here.


Featured image by LSBF

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by Erin Chua 

LOOK at this chart. It seems that there is a more accurate predictor of junior college enrolment than birth rates, which was the reason cited for the need to merge (or is it close?) some less-popular JCs.

The G recently announced the merging of eight JCs to form four JCs – in response to the fall in demand of around 3,200 JC places between 2010 and 2019, with the sharpest year-on-year drop expected in 2018 and 2019. As reported by The Straits Times, JC intake is now expected to drop by a fifth, going from 16,000 in 2010 to 12,800 in 2019.

Singapore’s birth rates, as the G says, are indeed declining. According to the Department of Statistics Singapore, resident birth rates fell from 18.2 in 1990 to 9.4 in 2016. Yes, there is also a fall in pre-university enrolment – from 30,726 in 2006 to 29,559 in 2015.

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Singapore-born residents alone do not account for all the students who enrol in our pre-university institutions. When we solely look at resident birth rates, we are missing out on the numbers of residents (citizens and PRs) born abroad but who have moved to Singapore, naturalised Singaporeans matriculating in our local education institutions and even international students. A closer predictor of JC enrolment trends is the change in our resident population of 15-19 years olds which include all students of JC-going age.

From 2006 to 2015, the fluctuations in our pre-university enrolment numbers are more congruent with the changes in our resident population of 15-19 year olds. The resident population and pre-university enrolment numbers thus appear to be co-related. On the other hand, the Resident Live Births (15 years ago) do not seem to share as consistent a relationship with pre-university enrolment numbers.

Resident Population Data taken from Population Trends 2016 Report by Department of Statistics Singapore, Resident Live Births taken from Department of Statistics Singapore and Pre-university Enrolment taken from Education Statistics Digest 2016 by Ministry of Education (Singapore)

So, where are all of these students going?

The fall in enrolment rates faced by some of the JCs could also be attributed to the increased availability of pre-university options. In the mid 2000s, against the backdrop of the increasing resident population of 15-19 year olds, there was a surge in pre-university programmes and institutions introduced into the local education market – possibly to meet the rise in demand for pre-university education then. Some of these developments in the local education landscape include the opening of new JCs such as Meridian JC and Innova JC, the launching of the Integrated Programme (IP) which is an integrated secondary and JC education where secondary school pupils can proceed to JC level without taking the GCE ‘O’ Level Examinations, and the introduction of the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Programme as an alternative to the GCE ‘A’ Levels.

Resident Population taken from Population Trends 2016 Report by Department of Statistics Singapore and Pre-university Enrolment taken from Education Statistics Digest 2016 by Ministry of Education (Singapore)

Note: Pre-university Enrolment numbers from 1991 to 1999 and 2001 to 2005 are not available

The decrease in demand due to the recent fall in resident population, compounded by the high supply of pre-university options arising from the mid 2000s could possibly explain the falling enrolment rates in JC.

As to why certain schools were closed and not others – it was cited as a question of demand and popularity, but we’ll leave it to someone else to say whether it’s popularity that makes a school hard to get in to (high demand, low cut-off points), or whether low cut-off points are what makes a school a popular choice.


Featured image by Wikimedia Commons user Sengkang at English Wikipedia. CC BY-SA 2.5. Picture taken in 2007.

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By Bertha Henson

WHY are people getting so upset with the news of school mergers, especially at the junior college (JC) level? It’s a no-brainer right? If junior colleges are emptying out, then might as well close them now or merge. It’s such a rational, efficient thing to do. Reading the reactions, the unhappiness boils down to these nine questions.

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1. How is it that our so-efficient G can misjudge birth rates?

Well, the G keeps saying that it is based on information available at that time – and probably thought that its pro-baby policies will work. The last two JCs built were Innova which was founded in 2005 and Eunoia which opened its doors this year. So maybe if you look at the birth rate of the cohort that would enter Innova in its first year, it still looks like it can be filled. Except that later on, Singapore couples didn’t cooperate. Tsk. Tsk.

2. But that doesn’t explain Eunoia, does it?

Ah. But that’s a special JC that caters to the cohort studying in Catholic High School, Singapore Chinese Girls’ School, and CHIJ St Nicholas Girls’ School. They will move to the JC as part of the Integrated Programme (IP).

Okay, Eunoia could have waited until next year and moved into one of the JCs’ vacated premises. Could have saved money. But it could be location as well. Eunoia is in Mount Sinai, and will move to its Bishan premises in 2019. Oh wait. Maybe it could still move into an empty campus before money is spent on yet another set of buildings…

3. So, the JCs that will be merged all don’t have IP feeder schools? What does this mean? I have to make sure my kid gets into a secondary school with IP so that they can progress right through to JC and university?

Oooh. Looks like that’s the best bet. Because JC is usually seen as the next step into university, unless your kid is a very bright polytechnic student. Through-train you know… even if this means less choice…

4. How did MOE pick the eight JCs anyway? Just because no IP?

Hmm. It says “geographical’’ distribution. So it’s about spreading them out equally. Like Meridian JC, which is in Pasir Ris, and Tampines JC. So they’re getting stuck together at the newer Meridian campus. Don’t forget that Temasek and Victoria JC are also in the east.

Then there’s Innova JC and Yishun JC merging to be on Yishun grounds. MOE said Yishun was picked because it’s more “accessible’’ than Innova, although Innova is newer. Maybe it also has to do with cut-off points. Innova is at the bottom of all 19 JCs, as reported by The Straits Times. MOE isn’t saying anything about it.

5. Wait a minute, why should cut-off points have anything to do with whether a JC disappears?

Hmmm. Guess MOE thinks there’s no point in having such poor performing JCs. Seven of the eight JCs that are merging are actually clustered at the bottom of the ladder, which means that their students aren’t, ah, as good as the rest. Elitist, but perfectly rational. Okay, there’s something to be said about preserving the school’s heritage and making alumni happy but you know what is said about “scarce’’ resources and so forth.

6. But if it is a matter of geography, Hwa Chong Institution and National JC are right across the road…

They’re IP and good performers and probably with strong alumnus that will kpkb . Just disregard what MOE said about geography, it doesn’t know how to spin doctor.

7. Why so sudden anyway? Some of the kids are already looking forward to entering JCs of their choice, especially those near their homes. Quite demoralising isn’t it?

The G will probably say that there’s never a good time to make such an announcement. If the mergers are delayed, then what are the chances that parents will allow their kids to apply for a JC that’s going to be closed? Rather than sound the death knell, just kill it off quickly.

8. That’s heartless when you think about the people who have been to the schools and have fond memories.

True. But hard truths.. hard truths.

9. Has it got to do with the G changing its mind about having more people going into university?

Well, it said it’s aiming for 40 per cent of the cohort by 2020, but it’s a declining cohort so the absolute numbers will probably remain about the same as now. Although it’s likely that when it came up with that figure, it didn’t think about the birth rate then. Or maybe it figured that the polytechnic route would also yield more university graduates. Then again, polytechnics are facing declining enrollments too. Are you thinking that this will have a knock-on effect on the capacity of our universities? That something will be done about polytechnics too?


Featured image by Sean Chong.

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by Suhaile Md

CALL it a foot in the door of her career. Ms Allina Loke is chalking up work experience and building industry relationships while pursuing her education. While in the past it was taxing, and sometimes impossible to juggle a full-time job and study, balancing the demands of the workplace and the pursuit of formal qualifications has become a lot easier after SkillsFuture Singapore introduced the SkillsFuture Earn and Learn Programme (ELP).

So it’s a good thing that SkillsFuture expanded its ELP offerings from 40 to 60 last month (Mar 29). It’s a work-learn programme for Institute of Technical Education (ITE) and polytechnic graduates that leads to both full-time employment and higher qualifications. Participants draw a salary – not a stipend – and undergo a “structured training programme” between 12 and 18 months. Basically, you acquire experience while studying.

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The aim is to give fresh graduates more post-graduation opportunities as well as to “support their transition to the workforce”, said Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say soon after its launch in early 2015. Which is why the programmes are designed in consultation with industry and education partners like the local polytechnics.

The ELPs support the Industry Transformation Maps (ITMs) announced by Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat in March last year. As the name suggests, the ITMs are all about making selected industries more competitive. The 23 industries chosen, make up 80 per cent of Singapore’s economy. Industries include precision engineering, retail, and hospitality, among many others.

In short, ELP participants will be getting a head start in industries earmarked for growth – better jobs and higher pay anyone?

But what is it like to earn and learn? “It’s intense,” said Ms Allina Loke.

She works four days a week at Grand Hyatt Singapore as a Management Trainee. Wednesdays are a fixed day-off for her to attend classes scheduled from 9am to 7pm at Republic Polytechnic. Fortunately for her, classes end at 5.30pm most of the time, and the remaining lessons are delivered through e-learning, which she completes in her own time.

“What we learn is exactly the same as the other poly students”, said the 20-year-old. What other students cover in a week’s worth of classes, she covers in a day. It “can be stressful” balancing work and study. So, interest is important. Otherwise, it’s hard to stay motivated. That was something a handful of her peers realised. They dropped out of the programme a few months in because it is “something they were not interested in”.

Ms Loke, though, is determined “to finish” the 18-month-long ELP in Hospitality Management because she recognises certain advantages. Her schoolmates, most of whom are not enrolled in ELP, will graduate with little to no work experience. “What they are only doing, is study.”

On the other hand, she is being groomed to be on “captain duty” in five months. This means she will be in-charge of smaller events at the hotel with staff to manage. She started in October last year. Basically, she’s picking up industry-relevant skills and work experience while studying – unlike her peers.

That said, at the end of 18 months, she will be awarded with modular certificates, not the full diploma. For that, she needs to study for another year, in her own time. In total, two and a half years. Which is shorter than the three year diploma, including a six month industrial attachment, her peers need to complete.

More importantly, she’s gaining valuable experience while her peers are not. For the hospitality industry, “a lot of it is hands-on experience and job skills,” said Ms Peh Ai Pheng, Learning Manager at Grand Hyatt Singapore.

Diploma graduates with no experience would make $1,500 a month. Someone with 18 months experience in the industry will command “competitive salaries” ranging from $1,800 to $2,500 depending on the role and depth of work experience.

When asked to choose between an ELP graduate from another hotel – but no diploma – and a fresh diploma graduate for the same entry level job, Ms Peh said she would go with the candidate who completed the ELP. That’s “assuming same attitude, same personality… ultimately, you need experience dealing with guests, and hotel systems”.

Which is why participants “go through a structured on-the-job-training programme” designed to develop “relevant work skills and provide an edge over those not on the ELP.”

This point was raised last year when the first batch of hospitality ELP participants signed up, reported ST. “They are very focused, enthusiastic and forthcoming in their suggestions and pick things up faster as they’ve done it before,” said Ms Isis Ong, director of learning at the Singapore Marriott Tang Plaza Hotel.

Financially, Ms Loke is better off too. Her course fees are covered, bond free, by the G and Grand Hyatt during the ELP. All participants also get a $5,000 sign-on bonus when they join the ELP.

Plus, she’s earning $1,800 a month now. This does not include overtime pay, incentives, and other staff perks like health and insurance benefits. “The company takes care of us,” she said. Both Human Resources and her manager also check up on her to ensure she’s learning and progressing well.

Grand Hyatt Singapore, said Ms Peh, decided to participate in ELP because it “helps in attracting Singaporeans to the industry”.  It’s also “to support the national movement in” developing and providing opportunities for Singaporeans.

Currently, the company has five ELP participants, with five more expected to join in May. All are management trainees.

Ms Loke was part of the first batch to join the ELP. She graduated with a Higher Nitec in events management last April. Her 3.0 grade point average (GPA) had easily surpassed the 2.0 GPA requirement to be part of the ELP.

Along with her, 47 other participants joined the hospitality ELP. Over 50 hotels participated last year, including Intercontinental Singapore, Marina Bay Sands and Shangri-La Hotel Singapore amongst others.

There are ELPs in other sectors too, like the infocomm technology and logistics industries. Last year, over 500 graduates joined the ELP, said Parliamentary Secretary for Education Faishal Ibrahim in Parliament earlier this year (Feb 28).


This article is part of a series on SkillsFuture, in collaboration with MOE and SSG. Read the other pieces here:

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by Ong Lip Hua
THE trends are clear: We’re headed for a future where full-time employment is going to be a smaller slice of the pie, and where skills, both hard and soft, will bear more fruit over a career than the qualification you graduate with.
A recent JobsDB report on how more than 10,000 respondents from seven Asian countries think that promotions are based mostly on your “supervisor liking you” and “leadership ability” tells of the need for soft skills in all types of employment. Job performance was also high up on the list from both employee and employer perspectives, especially in Singapore.
Most Singaporean parents see studying and academics as their children’s job specialisation and invest heavily to this end. In some families, other childhood experiences, even basic life-skills like housekeeping, cooking and carrying your own bag, are subcontracted to a maid, grandparent or parent, who picks up after the kids. In exchange, the children are expected to deliver stellar academic results in school.
And while good grades might set you up for a good start in a career, at what point does sacrificing other areas of development in favour of better grades begin to hurt a person? Would it make sense then to gear our children’s education so specifically towards grades?
This approach has been hotly debated for the last few years, even as the G has begun to call for change through initiatives like Skillsfuture.

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It reminds me of how Major Motoko Kusanagi, in the 1995 Ghost in the Shell movie, described the diversity of her team in a high-tech future: “If we all reacted the same way, we’d be predictable, and there’s always more than one way to view a situation. What’s true for the group is also true for the individual. It’s simple: Over-specialise, and you breed in weakness. It’s slow death.”
But what future are we preparing our children for? Would stellar but narrow academic performances be sufficient, or even give a competitive edge as we think it would? Would it be good for the individual and for society, or do we court Kusanagi’s “slow death”?
HRinasia cited a February 2016 Willis Towers Watson 2016 Global Talent Management and Rewards Study that measured employers in Singapore expecting a three per cent drop in full time employment over the next three years, and a 59 per cent increase in contingent workers in Singapore, compared to 25 per cent globally, over the same three year period. NTUC expects the 200,000-strong freelancer pool to grow in the years to come. These reports seem to say that our children have to be prepared for periods of non-full time employment.
This points to the need to have a trade skill to participate in the contingent economy. The need to “bid” and “win” contracts would also require large doses of communication and inter-personal skills for effective networking. Yet these skills are not properly taught in the classroom, and perhaps they can never be.
When Australia, one of the world’s education powerhouses, finds that skills are insufficient in its education system and that collaboration is increasingly more important than competition, we need to take heed.
While tuition centres are abundant in Singapore, information on non-academic training, both in schools and by private trainers, is scarce. It is perhaps due to the lack of awareness and hence demand (and budget) that such services remain either a peripheral or the domain of the more well-off.
But the real solution is simpler – help our kids balance their in-school learning with real-life application: temporary and part-time jobs, apprenticeships and internships, non-curricular activities and engagements and hands-on work at home. Make more holistic university choices and take in basic lessons from the army like making your bed in the morning.
Ong Lip Hua was in University Admissions for a decade and being passionate about the career of students he admits, decided to pursue a career in HR Recruitment. He was a minor partner in a recruitment firm before going in-house. He is still crazy about providing education and career advice.

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by Daniel Yap

I CAN feel the massive ship turning ever so slightly. A raft of changes to the education system signals a shift in the balance, and even a cynic cannot help but wonder how far it will go.

The Polytechnics’ Early Admissions Exercise (EAE), which weighs student interest and aptitude in addition to grades, will now admit up to 15 per cent of the cohort, up from 12.5 per cent last year and 2.5 per cent the year before. The Institutes of Technical Education will also be admitting 15 per cent of the next cohort on these terms.

And then NUS, NTU and SMU will increase the proportion of discretionary admissions from 10 to 15 per cent. It’s the G’s realisation that the best lawyers and engineers aren’t only the ones with straight As. It’s an awakening to the fact that some have been “gaming” the system with academic hothousing, and that students with a headful of knowledge may be pursuing courses of study and careers that fail to light a fire in their hearts.

And then there’s the Skillsfuture Earn and Learn programme, which is as close a programme to an apprenticeship that Singapore has right now. It covers 23 sectors, and the number of takers this year is expected to double to 1,000 which is still only a fraction of the student cohort. But its key takeaway is that the best way to learn a job is by doing it – something that the tertiary education system in Singapore has previously tried to do too much of from within the classroom.

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The civil service has done away with the division system that puts a false ceiling on those without academic qualifications. Teachers and those in the uniformed services now have unified career paths for polytechnic and university graduates.

What more is to come? The Straits Times recently published an op-ed calling for 100 per cent aptitude-based admissions to universities – will Singapore go the distance? Will we be able to push deeper “apprenticeships”, whatever form they may take? Can we break down the walls between work and training into one seamless system of organic but structured self-improvement?

Can we do away with the current “scholarship” system that all but guarantees career paths (and sometimes goes out of the way to ensure the paths are followed) and find another way to develop and attract top talent?

But even in the midst of change, there are fears that the tide is against us. The greatest risk is that parents, employers, students and even workers themselves have ingrained mindsets that will not change. But a ship is made to cut through the waves and push against the forces of nature whereas our port of call will not come to us by itself.

There is hope for this skills-and-aptitude-favouring trend to accelerate if Singaporeans get on board. For one, there has been very little public pushback against these changes. Criticisms about this trend are often a product of a lack of faith in the ability to change rather than unhappiness with the proposed changes.

The majority of Singaporeans seem to, jadedly, acknowledge that all these are good changes, but they think like passengers rather than sailors – unsure of what their role is in helping to move the ship towards their too-distant destination.

When we shrug and keep our heads down, we miss out on the changing view. Parents miss out on their key role in helping their children navigate their education and career options based on their strengths and interests so that their children will be able to make informed choices. If you’ve already decided from the day of his or her birth that your child shall be a doctor/lawyer/banker, then you will be neglecting the most precious parts of your child’s personality.

Pushing your child to get the best grades they can is important, but so is helping them to discover their strengths, make a positive impact in society and find heartfelt satisfaction in life.

Students must be going to school with the long-term view that one day, all these studying will end and the transition to working life is going to be a question of skills and applied knowledge – rather than a test of grades. They need to learn to chart their own career path and understand how to continuously work on walking down that path.

Parents, as today’s workers, need to show their children that they too are constantly learning on the job and outside of it, and that learning is fulfilling and is part of a deliberate plan to better oneself.

The ship of education, of work, of learning, is turning, and everyone on board will inevitably turn too. But how fast we turn and how quickly we move depends on how many of us are sailors, and how many of us are merely passengers.


This article is part of a series on SkillsFuture, in collaboration with MOE and SSG. Read the other pieces here:


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by Lee Chin Wee

CAN you imagine a Singapore where students aren’t defined wholly by their grades?

ST ran a thought-provoking piece on Mar 16, calling on the G to be bold and take in all students through aptitude-based university admissions. The proposal runs completely against the grain of our grades-centred university admissions model, but that’s the entire point. If we are to be serious about transforming education and skills acquisition in Singapore, it’s time for some sacred cows to be slaughtered.

Many of the world’s top universities have already implemented a holistic, aptitude-based admissions model. Among employers, there is also a growing recognition that academic performance is an insufficient and inaccurate barometer for professional success – Google, for instance, has moved away from hiring based solely on GPAs and IQ tests.  As Senior Education Correspondent Sandra Davie points out in the ST article, “(Imagine) choosing our doctors based on grades alone. Considering how expensive medical training is in terms of taxpayers’ money, wouldn’t society want future doctors to be compassionate and caring?”

As the G seeks to prepare young Singaporeans to face the varied challenges of our future economy, it makes sense to distribute talent to where it can be best developed rather than sort students to universities based on test scores. Why, then, am I not optimistic about change?

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“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”

Our political and civil service leadership are the least likely to take issue with the current model. Why would they, if they have been (and will continue to be) the largest beneficiaries of a highly-intense, elite-tracked, grades-centred education system?

There exists a cognitive effect known as Survivorship Bias. It simply means that, when we are evaluating the success of a policy, there is a tendency to concentrate on the people or things that “survived” the process and inadvertently discount those who did not due to their lack of visibility. Mr Michael Shermer explains this effect in an article written for the Scientific American, where he discussed the public interest in Walter Isaacson’s 2011 best-selling biography of Steve Jobs:

Want to be the next Steve Jobs and create the next Apple Computer? Drop out of college and start a business with your buddies in the garage of your parents’ home. How many people have followed the Jobs model and failed? Who knows? No one writes books about them and their unsuccessful companies.

.Similarly, no one listens to someone who failed to enter university under a grades-only system. The people who are heard are the survivors: the 21-year-old Public Service Commission scholars who scored perfect grades in their youth and went on to be Deputy Secretaries, Permanent Secretaries, and Ministers.

The simple fact is that there is a lack of educational and academic diversity within the ranks of our top leadership. How many of them studied in polytechnics, or barely made the cut for university? The homogeneity of their experiences may blind them to the harms of a grades-only admissions policy.


Parents, social attitudes and the politics of education

Miss Davie admits that she “can already hear the howls of protest from parents paying thousands of dollars to top tutors to ensure that their kids ace the A levels.” And she’s right – Singapore is not called the “Tuition Nation” for nothing. It is estimated that over S$1 billion is spent on tuition each year, with the figure steadily increasing.

Many parents have bought into the Confucian ethos that hard work and good grades will lead to a well-paying job. It is a mantra that the G has reinforced over the years, from aggressive academic streaming that began as early as in primary school (remember the now-discontinued EM1/2/3?) to public sector scholarships awarded to top exam performers at ages 18 and 19.

Particularly for the older generation of Singaporean parents, grades are a non-negotiable aspect of school life. Co-curricular training can be missed, enrichment activities can be skipped, but exams must be passed, if not aced.

It’s more than just the idea of shifting values. Many parents and families have been financially and personally investing into a future-by-the-grades for their children. If they realise that a grades-based future is no longer as good as it used to be, you can expect some outcry.

For the G to overturn this deeply-ingrained orthodoxy is to invite backlash and scepticism – parents want less stress for their children, but they also want a fair and meritocratic university admissions process. It is easy to see how an aptitude-based system, with its numerous interviews, focus on interviews and portfolios, and discretionary admissions policies could be seen as subjective and opaque, even though it need not be.


The irritating, but simple, cost argument

A final consideration is that of cost. A 100 per cent aptitude-based admissions system is not going to come cheap – it means expanding the university admissions office, more time spent interviewing prospective candidates, longer hours reviewing each application.

MOE statistics indicate that in 2015 alone, the six autonomous universities in Singapore received a combined 70,000 applications from A-level and polytechnic diploma holders. Assuming that an aptitude-based admissions system increases the time taken to assess each student by 15 minutes (a conservative estimate), that is 17,500 hours of additional work in total.

This subsequently gets priced into university application costs. American colleges, which recruit students on a holistic and broad-based set of criteria, are an example. As someone who applied to a number of American colleges in 2014, I know first-hand how expensive these costs can be – even as a domestic US student, applying for one college costs around US$60 (S$85). Imagine if you applied to six colleges! That’s S$510 down the drain before you even go for any interviews.

Application fees in Singapore are, on the comparative, very cheap. A local student applying to NUS, for example, only need to pay $10. It is entirely possible to apply for all six autonomous universities in Singapore for the price of applying to one or two US colleges.


Change is still worthwhile

Such considerations, however, should not prevent us from seeking real change to the university admissions process. While it may mean that change progresses at a slower rate – the quota for discretionary admissions could be gradually increased over a period of 10 years – it should not detract from the key points made by Miss Davie. The world will not wait for Singapore to change. If we continue to drag our heels instead of trying to find new ways to maximise our human capital, then prepare to be left behind.


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Photo by Shawn Danker. Shared Copyright.
A corridor at the campus of NUS Yale.

by Ong Lip Hua

UNIVERSITY admissions season looms again, and as a university admissions professional with over a decade of work experience (in NUS and SIT), I get plied with questions from would-be students and their parents.

What I’ve come to realise is that the questions that potential students ask are usually off the mark. Perhaps it has to do with the media’s fascination with rankings (which reflect research, not teaching quality), graduate pay, and employment numbers.

While these may form a part of the answer to the question “why should I choose this university”, most of us go to the university to pave the way for a future career and the career prospects of a graduate are not sufficiently represented by these metrics.

A successful career is sustained more through a university’s “after sales” service, which most applicants are not aware of. This “after sales” service is performed by several offices in the university that often go overlooked.

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Here’s what else you might want to ask about at the next admissions talk:

The Placement Office: This is the department that organises career fairs, gives you job advice, and teaches you how to write your resume. They are known by many other names. How strong is the University’s Placement Office? Which sector do they have hiring partners in? What type and amount of assistance does the Placement Office provide?

Internship programmes: The Faculty Office or Placement Office typically handles internship placements. There is only so much you can learn about the working world and an industry from the safe confines of a lecture hall or tutorial room. Before we graduate, we need to be “inserted” into the industry network. An early foray into the environment where you’ll be spending the next 40 years of your life can pay off more than an impressive Grade Point Average.

Internships get you into the network and industry lingo so you can better know what and why is that thing on page 1905 of the reference source number AI76. Great internships put you in the same office as industry leaders and key personalities: distinguish yourself there and you’ll have the makings of a priceless industry network.

The Alumni Office: Getting our first job is only the first step in what we hope will be a long career. Good pay prospects and employment ratios are good to have, but the more important question is: where do I go from there?

Strong Alumni Offices are also good after-sales service centers. They provide you with the network to get into higher level positions, make business connections for you to start or expand your businesses, and can give you access to ideas, funds and links for your project or research break-through.

How active or strong are the university’s Alumni Offices? What events or activities are held? How committed is the alumni community? What are this office’s beliefs and objectives?

One more question: What is your student profile? This is a question especially for universities abroad, or for locally-awarded degrees from overseas institutions. This tells you who you get to network with while you are in school. If you can’t get a straight answer, spend some time roaming the campus talking to, or observing current students.

At some point in life, co-operation becomes much more valuable than competition. The friends and frenemies you have made during your school years can translate into doors that are open or shut to you later in life.

These “after sales” functions of universities will become increasingly important as the world churns out even more graduates, as work/jobs become more transnational, as technology, mergers and acquisitions reduce number of jobs and increase competition.

So at your next university admissions talk or open house, don’t just ask about cut-off points, or why this course is better than another. Ask questions that span 40 years into your future, because that’s probably what you are getting an education for.

Ong Lip Hua was in University Admissions for a decade and being passionate about the career of students he admits, decided to pursue a career in HR Recruitment. He was a minor partner in a recruitment firm before going in-house. He is still crazy about providing education and career advice.


This article is part of a series on SkillsFuture, in collaboration with MOE and SSG. Read the other pieces here:

Featured image by Shawn Danker.

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