Inequality and Social Mobility
Private Education: No private matter

In 2013, the Council for Private Education (CPE) reported that 227,090 students were enrolled in private degree and diploma programmes in Singapore. This is a significant number, and graduates from private institutions make up a good proportion of fresh hires in the workplace each year.

Despite this, students from private universities tend to be viewed in a lesser light compared to their public university counterparts. This extends beyond social perceptions — it has practical relevance too. Employers, for example, are required to make CPF contributions to interns studying in private education institutions (PEIs); the case is not the same for interns studying at the public universities. Policies like these disincentivise companies from hiring PEI interns, indirectly creating barriers for PEI students attempting to gain industry-relevant experience.

So why the inequality? And are such societal attitudes and state policies sustainable?


Two prevailing views on tertiary education

The recent discourse on university education has centred around two views. The first is that higher education has diminished in value as a result of the rising proportion of graduates and — perhaps less so — grade inflation. PEIs contribute to this, with their more inclusive admissions criteria and wide range of assessment standards. The second maintains that university education remains essential given Singapore’s reliance on human capital, as well as her need to remain internationally competitive.

While both views have their merits, neither affords due attention to the core issue at hand: that paper qualifications, whether awarded by public or private institutions, are merely proxies to (and a means of developing) workplace competency and productivity. A university degree, whether it takes four years or two years to complete, is only as meaningful as the extent to which it effectively prepares students for the workplace and for their role in broader society.

The first view conflates exclusivity with practical value. It assumes that state-accredited admissions and assessment standards, being essentially exclusive, serve as a satisfactory benchmark for how competent and productive one is likely to be in the future. In other words, the more exclusive it is, the higher its standard, and therefore the more competent and productive the finished product. While it is good to set our sights high, higher does not necessarily mean better and more effective. We need to ask ourselves whose standards we are really employing when it comes to workplace relevance.

The second view treats the attainment of university degrees as an end in itself, and singles out the degree route as the definitive way of maintaining international competitiveness. Such a view discounts the utility of alternative experiences not accumulated in the classroom or through a state-accredited mechanism that could be just as economically relevant.

Stigmatisation of the private degree can be seen as a manifestation of such views, where private degree holders are seen as contributing to the problem of an unsustainable pool of graduates without the supposed intellectual pedigree to be part of such a pool. More important than the stigma of a private degree, however, are the implications of this perception for Singapore as an economy.


The public-private dichotomy and its implications

Before we can discuss reform, let’s understand the key implications of the existing public-private education framework.

The first implication of the public-private distinction is the fostering of a competitive spirit to do well at the pre-university stage. There is the perception that it represents one’s last real chance to perform academically, and often coalesces with the view that it is better to do less well in a prestigious, state-accredited university than brilliantly in an obscure one. The outcome is a disproportionate emphasis on immediate achievement, rather than a more progressive and iterative conception of education.

The second implication of the public-private separation is its effect on ‘late bloomers’ who have already entered the workforce. As most part-time programmes are offered by PEIs, workers looking to upgrade their skills to stay economically relevant are disincentivised from doing so.

Consequently, both implications give rise to elitism. The notion that those in privileged positions are where they are by their own merit implicitly suggests that those who fare less well lack merit. We know this to be untrue. In fact, not doing well at the pre-university stage can have various reasons ranging from pressing family issues to youthful immaturity; such factors should not result in what becomes the proverbial albatross around their necks that carries on indefinitely into adulthood.

There has, nonetheless, been some merit to the public-private distinction. Separating both entities has allowed an exclusive focus by the state on the quality of national educational institutions (in this case, of our public universities). However, the establishment of the CPE five years ago to oversee PEIs represents a parallel state intervention to bridge between this divide. This private-versus-public debate, as such, merely diverts attention from the far more substantive query: How do we make tertiary education more productive?


Workplace competency and productivity

The public-private divide is a misplaced one and its effects extend beyond the walls of our university campuses. Not only has it imbued in Singaporeans widespread cognitive rigidity concerning tertiary education, it has also created an environment that structurally neglects or even diminishes the productive potential of certain groups of students.

At this year’s National Day Rally, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong discussed the need for various education pathways to give every Singaporean the opportunity to realise their fullest potential, no matter their starting point. He particularly emphasised how the ASPIRE committee was set up to enhance career and academic progression prospects for Polytechnic and ITE graduates.

This move towards recognising graduates with qualifications other than a university degree is a welcome one. However, as a genuine signal of shifting attitudes, it remains weak. Rather than recognising and addressing the structural inequalities that persist between public and private degree holders, the attention has shifted towards a validation of those with qualifications other than a university degree, almost as if it were supposed to serve as a panacea for the economic problems we face, namely, productivity and the school-job market mismatch.

The solution is neither to merely increase the number of places in public universities, nor to establish more public universities and introduce a broader suite of course offerings. Rather, our aim should be to reduce the very structural inequalities that reinforce the public-private divide, such that all tertiary students, whether public or private, are able to transition to a competitive workforce effectively without being held back by societal baggage.


Competition and choice

A rethinking of the current education system and what it means to be educated is needed. We need to integrate the element of a more compassionate meritocracy without compromising on the competitiveness that has so driven our students to excel academically. One step in the right direction is liberalising tertiary education to more broadly encompass people from different tertiary backgrounds, be it private or public, diploma or technical. This shifts the focus from mere reputation associated with where one received his or her education, towards workplace competencies accumulated over one’s course of learning.

The CPE is fundamental to bridging the perceived gap between PEIs and public universities. It has served PEIs well, dutifully ensuring the accountability of overseas degrees and the education administered to private students. But its role must now expand to include active measures to grow in public trust and acceptance as a high-quality accreditation body. This is to legitimise its endorsement of PEIs under its purview, in much the way the Ministry of Education has done with public education institutions.

Rethinking education should be coupled with a deconstruction of the public-private dichotomy. This will help introduce two key market mechanisms currently lacking in Singapore’s education system: competition and choice.

Letting PEIs compete on more equal grounds relinquishes the monopoly public institutions have on what it means to be qualified or educated, and compels administrators of such institutions to constantly innovate in view of heightened local competition. If managed well, this can mean better educational outcomes for students, and graduates who are more economy-ready. Similarly, the removal of barriers that once separated PEIs from their public counterparts should motivate private providers to strive for improvements they once felt were out of their reach.

Such changes do not merely instigate enhancements at the structural level. If students function as microcosms of the education system, the increased competition should spur them towards gaining more industry-relevant experience to differentiate themselves from others in their cohort, leading to a better-attuned workforce.

Next, healthy competition in its various forms gives rise to greater choice. Local employers are able to select from a pool of graduates better equipped for their careers, and who can transition to the workplace more quickly and from a higher launch point. Students themselves benefit from having a wider range of quality institutions to choose from, without having to worry about significant disparities in the quality of provision between private and public education providers.

More choice is especially useful for students because it encourages risk-taking and pushes them to recognise the trade-offs of their decisions while taking responsibility for the choices they make. One way is to allow those who opt to pursue the private route, in the absence of government subsidies, to utilise the funds previously accumulated in their Edusave accounts to offset some of their tuition and extra-curricular activity costs.


A new way forward?

The right combination of competition and choice that undergirds these proposed improvements to the education system requires a fundamental recognition that the status quo, while having served its purpose, is no longer sustainable. To survive amidst the challenging global landscape, Singapore must not only aim to build a competent and skilled workforce, but also one that is resilient and adaptable in the face of growing uncertainty and systemic volatility. A fundamental rethinking of the system is imperative to ensuring equitable outcomes for as many students as possible while retaining the competitive element in Singapore.

In the course of this debate, let us not forget that private students, too, can be important drivers for success. Our country and our economy need them to be.


Andrew Yeo Zhi Jian is a graduate student from the London School of Economics and Political Science and Daniel Ho Sheng recently graduated from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University. Both are alumni of the University at Buffalo programme offered at the Singapore Institute of Management.

An edited version of this essay first appeared in TODAY on 26 September 2014

Photo credit: Singapore Institute of Management

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