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Rethinking Singapore's education: from emphasis on grades to constant retraining of workers

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After being left out of opportunities to advance her career, Clare Lim quit her job in the communications industry last year and went back to school in hopes of getting a better-paid opportunity when she graduates.

"A supervisor once hinted that I wasn't given bigger tasks because without a university education, I wasn't capable enough. So, even though they have never explicitly said it, I know bosses favor degree holders, which was probably why I was never promoted," the 24-year-old Singaporean said.

"I was paid S$2,300 ($1,617) when I started. When I left, that's four years and eight months later, I still drew less than a university graduate's starting pay, which I learnt is about S$2,800 ($1,968)," she added.

Lim's experience is not uncommon in Singapore, a country that has long relied on academic grades as a yardstick for ability and potential. Students as young as 12 sit for nationwide examinations that determine the schools they attend and how far they can go in their academic pursuit. Critics have said that streaming students based on their examination performance that early hinders late bloomers from meeting their potential later in life.

But in recent years, the emphasis on examination results and paper qualifications has eased. The government now pushes for a culture of life-long learning, in which a tertiary education is no more important than the continuous upgrade of skills and knowledge.

One key development in that shift is the setting up of the SkillsFuture program in 2014, which subsidizes and pay for courses ranging from IT to languages as a way to encourage people to pick up new skills that can help their careers.

That idea was reinforced when the Committee on the Future Economy (CFE) said, in its report on Feb 9, that the country should move away from "the pursuit of the highest possible academic qualifications early in life" and towards life-long learning and retraining approaches. CFE was established to develop growth strategies for the country.

Recommendations put forth included having universities offer short, modular learning courses so that Singaporeans can gain new capabilities without disrupting their careers or personal commitments.

It also suggested the government nudge firms to hire based on skills and competencies, rather than just the degree.

Singapore's obsession with grades and paper qualifications stems from having to meet demand for skilled labor by multinationals, who played a big part in the city state's early economic success.

The competitive education system has resulted in a lucrative tuition industry. It is common for parents to send children to additional lessons after school and during the weekend to boost their chances at examinations.

"In meritocratic Singapore, academic qualification is the main deciding factor in the outcome of many stages of a Singaporean's life, be it in the progression of studies or work," said Timothy Chan, academic division director at SIM Global Education, a private tertiary education institution in Singapore.

"Therefore, it is not surprising that Singaporeans are obsessed with the pursuit of academic qualifications and grades."

Commuters stand inside a train at the Tanjong Pagar MRT station during rush hour in Singapore.
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Even as the city state's students continue to top various global bench-marking tests, employers face increased difficulty in hiring workers with a mix of soft skills better suited to an economy that has seen mainstays such as electronic manufacturing, shipyard and port work and banking hit by global disruption.

That has altered the nature of many jobs in Singapore. The city state, which passed its golden jubilee in 2015, also risks being overtaken by its larger neighbors such as the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand, whose young populations draw the attention of investors looking to hire for new ventures.

"While education institutions have generally equipped their graduates with a broad foundation, the industry has found these graduates lacking in deep skills. These deep skills may not be easily acquired in an academic environment," said SIM's Chan.

The city state also has to move away from a growth model that is reliant on foreign manpower, whose large inflows into the country led to public backlash against expatriate workers whom many Singaporeans claim squeeze them out of jobs and promotions.

Singapore has since tightened the inflows of foreign manpower and set up the Fair Consideration Framework, which requires employers to consider a Singapore candidate for such openings.

That is why a shift in Singapore's emphasis away from grades to produce a nimble resident workforce, a process that has taken the attention of nations around the world, has become so urgent.

"Life-long learning is crucial in today's fast changing economy. Much of what we learnt in school and university become outdated over a very short time," said Professor Ting Seng Kiong, dean of Nanyang Technological University's College of Professional and Continuing Education.

"Unlike undergraduate students or fresh graduates, working adults are more motivated to study and acquire new skills as they are in a better position to know what is needed by the industry. Better preparedness also brings with it a sense of self confidence for whatever changes the future may bring," Ting added.

But old habits die hard and firms hiring in Singapore also need to open their recruitment to match the push on lifelong learning.

"It is probably the larger local enterprises, the multinationals who have been spoiled for choice over the years and the public sector who will have to reassess their definition of strategic resourcing," said Miranda Lee, director of government advisory at KPMG in Singapore.

"How can we put together a diverse workforce, from the handicapped to an older worker to a less academically qualified person and a multi-talented millennial to achieve the company's goals? It is and will continue to be a challenge for the enterprise of the future," she added.

Lim, who has since enrolled into a degree program at a private university in Singapore, however is not convinced that a change will take place soon in options to advance careers.

"The SkillsFuture movement started before I decided to quit and study. I tried applying for other jobs in both public and private sectors, but all said they can't pay me the equivalent of a degree-holder's salary even though I have almost five years of working experience. I think it's going to take many years for this norm to change," she said.

"If I had the choice to start over now, I would choose to go to university right after getting my diploma so I wouldn't be disadvantaged at work."

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