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Downplaying S'pore's varsity degrees

Publication Date : 09-12-2013

 

With thousands of unemployed graduates, the Singapore government plans to cap campus enrolment.

It is clearer now why the government had been discouraging Singaporeans from depending too much on university degrees.

The reason is that the pool of unemployed graduates is expanding in this wealthy city, despite a general shortage of workers.

Almost by the week, new cases are being reported about well-educated professionals struggling to find jobs or being retrenched.

The latest example: A 29-year-old accountancy and finance graduate wrote of his failed job hunt for two years, saying: “I am deeply worried.”

Posted on a website, www.transitioning.org, which helps unemployed professionals, his is one of many such tales, including the following:

> A 51-year-old jobless graduate who earned S$4,000 (US$3,197) per month said he might have to become a security guard. “On some nights, I would wake up breaking out in cold sweat and worrying about my future.”

> A 28-year-old arts graduate has been jobless for one year, surviving on her savings.

> A 35-year-old Malay graduate ex-teacher and single mum is jobless and going homeless soon.

> A jobless 47-year-old graduate had only one offer in seven months – for a S$6 (US$4.80)-an-hour temp position.

> A 35-year-old jobless graduate and mum of two kids surviving on her security guard husband’s salary and with less than S$10 (US$7.99) in the bank.

There are others, all of which make sad reading, pointing to a deterioration of life quality for many middle-class Singaporeans as bosses prefer to hire “cheap” foreign workers.

The situation could worsen in the near future with nearly 10,000 graduates coming on-stream from seven local universities every year, seeking work.

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) recently, a further 18,000 Singaporeans were studying in foreign universities – half of them in Australia.

Unemployment among the highly educated has risen from 3.3 per cent to 3.6 per cent in the first half of 2013, worse than the national average of 2.1 per cent.

Actually, Singapore is not unique. Countries in the developed West, too, suffer from rising graduate unemployment – with one exception.

Unlike these countries, densely populated Singapore openly promotes immigration. Last year it admitted another 27,000 “foreign talents”.

Unable to create enough meaningful jobs, the government is doing the next best thing – downsizing the Singaporean ambition for higher education.

Several Cabinet ministers recently began to talk down the importance of a university degree.

Education Minister Heng Swee Keat said that paper qualification is not the only route to success.

And National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan sparked controversy when he said: “You own a degree, but so what? You can’t eat it. If that cannot give you a good life, a good job, it is meaningless.”

Earlier, a Wikileaks document revealed a government decision to keep the local university population from increasing too much.

It quoted a senior education ministry official as saying that the government had no plan to encourage more students to go for university studies.

The campus enrolment rate would be capped at the current 20-25 per cent of total Singapore students. The labour market, she added, did not need more graduates.

That report came as a shock to Singaporeans who worship higher education as a god of success.

It led to speculation that the government is doing it to bring in foreign graduates en masse, since it is cheaper and faster than to produce them at home.

Given past records, this is unlikely to be the whole truth. The government has always given priority to developing Singaporeans to play an economic role.

To economists, however, there are wider fundamental reasons for it. The demise of the manufacturing era has significantly altered the job market.

Many of the newly created jobs today are in services that do not require formal four-year university training.

“A degree is nice to have, but we need something else,” is a regular employer comment.

For example, the opening of the two resorts required some graduates to be retrained as casino dealers and roulette operators.

Getting Singaporean parents to cut back on their children’s education is Mission Impossible. Many have suffered sacrifices to get them into a top university.

Social commentator Lucky Tan said any cutback would work against lower-income Singaporeans because the rich could easily send their kids abroad.

Not all are against the government being cautious.

“It is important to maintain a balanced, orderly labour market for the sake of social order,” said one writer.

Years ago former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew spoke of the dangers of educating hordes of graduates and being unable to provide them jobs.

He noticed that many tended to end up roaming the streets and making violent revolution.

And later Lee remarked that Singaporeans were not getting smarter, only better educated.

From many indications, the economy may intervene in the debate.

A research expert said: “I expect employment, including of graduates, to start to slow over the next few years.”

As quality jobs decline, it may further reduce the arrival of foreign professionals, even if the government were to do nothing.

 

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