Inequality and Social Mobility
ASPIRE – a collective effort

In August this year, the government accepted the recommendations made by the Applied Study in Polytechnics and Institute of Technical Education Review (ASPIRE) committee. The committee outlined key areas to create more opportunities for Polytechnic and Institute of Technical Education (ITE) students to be adequately equipped and to realise their academic and career aspirations.

Broadly, the recommendations touched on achieving three key outcomes: providing adequate and timely knowledge on academic and career choices; encouraging students to identity and grow relevant skills; and establishing more career progression pathways.

Although the goals set out in ASPIRE are admirable, attaining them can be said to be a Sisyphean task. The goals require engineering necessary mechanisms, public-private partnerships and institutional frameworks; and more dauntingly, facilitating the imperative ideological shifts among key stakeholders — namely, the parents, employers in the private sector and the civil service, current polytechnic and ITE students and previous batches of graduates.

Considerations from two key standpoints

From a policy standpoint, creating “equal and relevant” opportunities is a laborious task and requires inexhaustive policy tweaks and effective implementation to assure stakeholders that equitable outcomes are attainable. The Public Service, as one of the key employers here, must continue to lead by example and make certain that gains as well as risks of the initiative are first realised within the civil service before ‘passing the buck’ to the private sector. In particular, the government is instrumental in reviewing and progressively enabling upward wage adjustments to coincide with the certifications obtained and the actual work undertaken by polytechnic and ITE graduates. Such measures would help boost the overall confidence of graduates from these institutions, allowing them to view themselves as equals to their peers with degrees instead of having the feeling of insufficient status and not being able to make significant contributions to the labour force.

From the student’s point of view, employability and employment are unrivalled concerns. From the outset, students must be encouraged to nurture and identify their roles and responsibilities in the Singapore ecosystem without apprehension, stigma or marginalisation (i.e., in terms of wages or job-types). Parents and educational institutions must impart unto them from an early stage that “empowerment” and “achievement” come from conscientiousness, being cognizant of issues and embracing lifelong learning, instead of being overwhelmed by popular opinions and assuming that successful careers are linked with obtaining a degree. There must also be collective awareness to reduce the perpetuation of job stereotypes and employment myths.

A student must attempt to employ every means necessary to keep up with labour market variations, changing employment demands and education policies. They must feel empowered and engaged to share their ideas, amplify their voices and offer critical feedback that is actionable for policymakers and employers.

Students need to refrain from reaching conclusions based on their instant reactions (regarding policies, career, etc.) to the news or social media. They may also benefit from understanding that the implementation of the changes proposed by ASPIRE are not without trade-offs. These trade-offs can take various forms, such as increases in prices for goods and services when labour costs increase i.e. salaries are increased for Polytechnic and ITE graduates. Students must also understand that skills mastery is a life-long learning journey and they must be open to constant retraining and reskilling especially in an increasingly fast-paced and ever-changing world.

The Ideological Shift

As mentioned earlier, an ideological shift is required for ASPIRE to work from the policy as well as personal standpoints listed above.

Over the years, as parents and students pursued the ‘education-race’, having a degree as a distinction of success has become deeply entrenched in the collective psyche of Singaporeans.

In view of this, during his 2014 National Day rally speech, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced that the government will attempt to merge more graduate and non-graduate employment schemes within the civil service as well as to provide equal employment opportunities regardless of initial academic qualifications and quicker job promotion for polytechnic and ITE graduates.

Broadly, what can be inferred is that employers must proceed in tandem with education policies and provide the assurance to offer more robust placement opportunities for students as part of their academic curriculum; re-examine existing job application evaluation procedures; support on-the-job Continuing Education Training (CET) programmes; and revise human resource management cultures and appraisal systems. In other words, employers must also make these necessary shifts to acknowledge and make room for a diverse pool of talents and skills.

Prime Minister Lee’s speech also made attempts to appeal to parents to detach themselves from past dispositions that their children will end up with inferior jobs and low wages if they do not obtain a university degree. This may be an uphill challenge. Singapore’s education policy has been targeted at producing individuals who can thrive in a fast-paced globalised knowledge-based economy. Accelerating employment and progression opportunities for the most suitable candidates within shorter lead-times has been effective in maintaining socio-economic prosperity and stability. As a result, all educational pathways have seemed to point towards a degree.

The first pathway — attending junior college or pre-university programmes — has expanded to include the Special Assistance Programme and Integrated Programme in secondary schools for the brightest students. Other pathways, such as attending polytechnic or ITE have also led to a university education for the most capable students. Rising household incomes in recent years have also allowed more people more options to pursue a degree whether through private or part-time programmes or at overseas institutions.

Parents need to understand that success in the Singapore context is no longer solely defined by examinations and grades. They must trust that their children will succeed by journeying in an educational pathway of their choice and abilities.

Parents also need to recognise that the onus to discover and nurture the overall (not only academic) strengths of a child begins at home and is not the sole responsibility of the education system and employers. The home environment needs to be enabled to become a space for consultation, contextualisation and application of knowledge and values acquired in school and from elsewhere.


In Singapore’s meritocratic system, while the education system has created equal opportunities for all Singaporeans, it has also generated unequal outcomes. Determining the “potential” of students early in their education journey has enhanced employment outcomes for the highly educated but proved otherwise for the rest. Drawing distinctive “lines” and over-determining the abilities of students has invariably stratified the society at large and normalised the pursuit of a degree.

For ASPIRE’s aspirations to be effective, the current rhetoric on enabling a “mindset shift” may not be sufficient. The government has to assure that the efforts towards levelling-up education pathways is not solely top-down and does more than ‘window dress’ elite circulation – meaning that top positions in both the public and private sectors should be open to individuals not based on academic merits only but also their overall achievements, leadership qualities and contribution to these organisations.

Also, the litmus test to the government’s resolve in nurturing all types of talents will be to reduce the differences in entry-level salaries and remuneration packages for Polytechnic and ITE graduates compared to their peers from the Universities.

Polytechnic and ITE students entering the workforce should be cognisant that the employment opportunities available to them will also remain open and viable to others threading a similar pathway.

The longevity of apprenticeship opportunities and Continuous Education and Training (CET) programmes also depend on the mid to long-term performance of the Polytechnic and ITE graduates. Every graduate should champion and take pride to excel in their chosen field of study – only collective effort can demystify job stereotypes and employment myths hitherto – and normalise non-degree educational pathways.

Progressively, Singaporeans themselves will be convinced that ASPIRE’s intentions can be realised – not because the government has laid out the plans but because education and employment regimes will increasingly consist of men and women who had started from the various pathways and their success stories no longer remain a rare occurrence but a common-collective reality.

Karthigayan Ramakrishnan is a Research Intern with the Society and Identity Cluster at IPS.

Top photo from here

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