Singaporean Carmen Kok regrets that she never made it to university. She’s not letting her daughter make the same mistake, even if she has to send her abroad to get a place.
“You can’t rise up in Singapore without a degree,” said Kok, 47, who plans to spend three times what she makes in a year as a hairdresser to send her daughter to college in South Korea. “She may be able to get a job if she doesn’t go to university, but she can get a higher salary if she goes.”
Singapore’s Tiger moms are becoming a headache for Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who is trying to persuade the population that they don’t need to go to university to have a good career. After a clampdown on immigration and a slowdown in the economy, he needs fewer graduates and more workers to fill the shipyards, factory floors and hotel desks that keep the country going.
Lee, who graduated from Cambridge University in England with top honors, is leading a campaign that includes speeches and roadshows to persuade more youths to join the workforce under a system modeled on Germany’s apprenticeship system. The “earn and learn” program would place graduates from technical schools into jobs, while giving them the chance to continue part-time education.
Lee is the latest Asian leader with an A-starred education system to try to put the brakes on, as universities turn out more and more graduates who aren’t matched to the jobs available. A few years ago, South Korea said it may close some higher-education institutes amid what then-President Lee Myung Bak called “reckless university enrollment.”
“There is a clear international trend in the developed world to make vocational education a true choice for more young people,” said Pasi Sahlberg, a visiting professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Yet, many still see it as a “secondary choice,” especially in Asia, where parents tend to believe that “higher education would be the only key to prosperity and success.”
Six out of 10 Singaporeans between 25 and 29 years old completed tertiary education, the highest proportion in the world and just ahead of South Korea, according to the latest World Bank figures from 2010.
In a televised address last August, Singapore’s Lee celebrated two employees at Keppel Corp Ltd., the world’s biggest builder of offshore oil rigs, who had risen through the ranks without a graduate diploma.
“They may not have degrees, but they are working hard and trying to improve themselves,” Lee said. “So long as you work hard, you can always hope for a brighter future here in Singapore.”
The Straits Times, Singapore’s most widely-read newspaper, has run profiles of Singaporeans who achieved career success after eschewing or postponing college. An October survey by the paper showed readers equally divided over whether it is possible to succeed in the country without a degree.
“The success of this campaign is crucial for Singapore going forward, as it reshapes its labor market,” said Vishnu Varathan, a Singapore-based economist at Mizuho Bank Ltd. “It’s a hard sell for Singaporeans who see college as the route to a good salary.”
Lifetime earnings for a typical U.S. bachelor’s degree holder is twice that of someone with a high-school diploma, according to a study by the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project released in September. In Singapore, the median starting salary for graduates with a four-year electrical engineering degree was S$3,135 ($2,370) in 2013, compared with S$1,750 for those who studied the same subject at a technical institute, according to data from the Ministry of Manpower.
The Southeast Asian nation’s education system is regularly ranked among the best in the world. Students aged 15 from Singapore and South Korea topped those in 44 countries in problem solving, according to a report last year by the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development.
South Korea is now encouraging companies to hire young people and is pushing for a job-sharing wage system to reduce youth unemployment.
Singapore already has a system that sorts children into different subject-based bands at school after testing starting at age 10. They’re later placed into junior colleges or technical institutes based on exams at 16 or 17. Those going to junior college have a higher chance of entry into a local university.
Under Singapore’s earn-and-learn program, technical school leavers would receive on-the-job training while they study for an industry qualification, according to the government’s budget for this fiscal year. Each Singaporean who is placed in the program will receive a S$5,000 bonus. A pilot plan next year will place some graduates from the technical institutes in apprenticeships in sectors including aerospace, logistics and information technology.
“We can’t become a Germany, but what we can do is adapt some of the very strong points for certain sectors and certain types of skills,” S. Iswaran, second minister for trade, said in an interview on Feb. 24.
Germany’s Dual Vocational Training System allows school-leavers at 18 to apply to a private company for a contract that mixes on-the-job learning with a broader education at a publicly funded vocational school.
Persuading Singaporeans to go down the same route will be an uphill task after decades of extolling the importance of education. Singapore households spent S$1.1 billion on tutors outside school in the year ended September 2013, according to the most-recent survey by the statistics department.
Every member of the cabinet has a degree, and the civil service continues to offer students full scholarships to top colleges overseas as a form of recruitment.
Two of Lee’s sons went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, while his deputies Tharman Shanmugaratnam and Teo Chee Hean have sons who went to Cambridge University in England and Brown University in Rhode Island on government scholarships.
Singapore subsidizes the bulk of tuition fees at local universities for its citizens, making the cost about S$7,950 a year for an arts and social sciences degree at National University of Singapore. That compares with about $45,000 a year at Harvard University without financial aid for a full-time student.
Many Singaporeans who don’t get into a local college go abroad. Four in 10 graduates in the resident labor force last year got their degrees overseas.
“The government shouldn’t tell people not to go to university unless they can promise the same job opportunities as graduates,” said Kenneth Chen, 26, whose parents spent more than S$170,000 on a sports science degree in Brisbane, Australia, after he graduated with a biotechnology diploma in Singapore. “But obviously that’s not going to happen.”