The talk about Scholars, University graduates and non-graduates (Pt 1)

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September 14, 2014 by alansoh79

In the past few weeks, there has been much discussion ongoing online and offline among Singaporeans pertaining the recommendation report produced by The Applied Study in Polytechnic and Institute of Technical Education Review (ASPIRE) committee which is chaired by Ms Indranee Rajah, Senior Minister of State for Education & Law.

This report focuses on the value of getting the right qualification, be it a vocational certificate, a diploma or a university degree. It stresses the importance of obtaining the right skillsets and knowledge that would enhance the value of an individual as a worker in our Singaporean society, for now and the future.

For full details on the report, do logon to this Ministry of Education (MOE) webpage on ASPIRE ->

I would like to share this ST Sunday Times editorial commentary written by its deputy editor, Ms Zuraidah Ibrahim on “shattering myths about scholars, smarts and respect”. Dated Sunday 14 September 2014, page 39.

Which I agree wholeheartedly after reading it.

Last week in Parliament, MPs spent hours dissecting what it means to become a society that is less obsessed with the paper chase and more concerned with lifelong learning.

MOE Minister Heng Swee Keat tried valiantly to disabuse us of what he described as 3 “limiting beliefs” that could prevent people from fulfilling their potential.

One was the assumption that paper qualifications are the be-all and end-all. All the university degrees in the world might not get you a job, he said, if there are no jobs to be had. And, most jobs actually require a variety of skills, not just that one piece of paper.

Another limiting belief, perhaps in overreaction to the old obsession with educational credentials, is that qualifications do not matter at all.

The third is when people believe that they will lose out when others earn qualifications, overlooking the fact that the whole team can benefit when its diverse members develop better skills.

With regards to the ASPIRE report, nobody would disagree that this would be a proper and productive conclusion. However, people doubt whether our society has already arrived at this better place.

And until they are confident that the environment around them has changed, they cannot be blamed for continuing in the old mode. Afterall, where jobs are concerned, it is not a great idea to be too far ahead of the curve – you want to be valued by today’s employers, not those in some hypothetical future.

To make that leap of faith, one can see at least 3 mindsets in our society at large that needs to be broken:

Mindset no. 1 – Scholars equals smart (i.e talents)

It may be less pronounced than when my peers and I started out in the working world, but it remains an awkward truth. The divide between overseas scholarship holders and those who obtained local degrees persist. Defenders of the scholarship system insist that if scholars fly, it is because their GCE A-Level results and the hoops they went through to win scholarships turn out to be accurate predictors of their workplace contributions; non-scholars’ allegations of unfairness are just masking the fact that they are genuinely not as able.

Certainly, some of the strengths that won them their scholarships, combined with the exposure and confidence imbued by a good overseas education, do translate into superior workplace performance. But it would be disingenuous to ignore systemic reasons why scholars are unfairly favoured when they start work.

It is only human for bosses to fall prey to a confirmation bias. Having decided to invest hundred thousands of dollars in an individual and committed to a firm contract of 4 to 6 years, it is natural for employers to give the returning scholar more opportunities. It would take an extremely honest organisation to admit, actually he is no better than the guy who just showed up from a local university.

Of course, employers have tried to make the system more open and less determined by examination results. The Administrative Service (Singapore Civil Service), for example, is no longer the monopoly of returning overseas scholars that it once was.

Employers could do more to accomodate those who did not get scholarships but developed themselves in the course of higher education.

The reality, though, is that there is a limit to how much opportunities can be equalised as long as organisations use the scholarship system to compete with one another for the same bright young talents.

If they get too ruthless with their returning scholars, it will affect their ability to recruit the next batch of scholars. The top A-Level students have no shortage of opportunities and, often, multiple scholarship offers. They can afford to be fussy and to scrutinise what exactly are they getting into when they sign that 6-year bond.

An organisation where most returning scholars are being treated like the ELITE that their schools have taught them to believe they are will obviously be more attractive than one where scholars are routinely overtaken by local graduates.

Thus, just as with employees, it is unlikely that individual organisations’ mindsets will change as long as wider employment practices (in Singapore) are hooked on scholarships as a shortcut method to finding talent.

(To be continued……)


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