Affordable uni education for poly grads

I am glad to learn from the President’s speech in Parliament on Monday that Singapore is opening up a new government-subsidised tertiary institute designed for more polytechnic graduates to be able to obtain their university degrees locally.

I think this is long overdue. I know of so many poly graduates who, because they were not in the top 10% of their class, did not qualify for local universities. Their parents had to fork out thousands for them to study overseas, usually in Australia. Apart from the drain on finances for individual families, on a national level this money could have been spent locally, contributing to the Singapore economy, instead of the Australian economy. And for the many families who couldn’t afford an Australian education, it is unfortunate that their sons and daughters were denied a quality university education because of financial constraints, and had to join the ranks of middle rung workers working for imported foreign talent.

It is something I alluded to in two articles I wrote in 2007 — Education is the best social welfare and Increasing access to higher education imperative for Singapore. I had argued that in a knowledge based economy, a university degree is not an option but a necessity. I wrote:

To prepare our workforce for the knowledge-based economy, the Government must give as many students as possible the opportunity to study in polytechnics and universities. It doesn’t make sense for the Government to constantly carp at the lack of local knowledge workers and import wave after wave of foreign talent, when it should be putting in place a more long-term solution by providing more opportunities for Singaporeans to complete their tertiary education. Human capital development is the best form of social welfare, and an investment with an almost guaranteed return.

I also made the case for greater funding for Singaporeans’ education, particularly those from lower income families, to ensure that none of them misses out on obtaining a degree or diploma because of financial constraints.

While the setting up of the Singapore Institute of Applied Technology — as the new institute will be named — does not address all the issues I brought up, it is a good start.

I think there is more that can be done to help hardworking and bright students from working class and middle class families get a university degree. As I argued in my previous article, even for local degrees, the cost is often prohibitive for working class families, who have to factor in the opportunity cost of studying full-time when they could be out working and contributing to the family income.

It is time for the government to consider developing a new educational funding structure to fully fund the university education of all students from families with incomes in the bottom 30th percentile. The payable fees could be slowly increased from the 31st percentile until the 90th percentile, with the latter paying full tuition fees.

Also, I feel that the 30% target of each cohort receiving a degree is too low. In many major cities — and we should compare ourselves with cities, not countries — the percentage of degree holders is much higher. We should give all our citizens a chance to obtain a degree, provided they meet the necessary standards. This will feed into our knowledge based economy and will make Singapore much more attractive to foreign investors, especially those in high tech, high value-added industries.

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