Sunday, September 24, 2017

Hard Truths about Private Degrees and Second Chances in Singapore

Sam Choon-Yin's book entitled Private Education Singapore : Contemporary Issues and Challenges is a very enlightening read not just for stakeholders in the Private Education Industry but also parents who have serious concerns about their child's education.

This book is not completely unbiased, the author is after all a Dean of PSB Academy. But it is generally speaking the most objective piece of work so far on this industry.

One small bugbear of mine is that the author painstakingly alleges discrimination from the industry as well as poor management practices of the Private Education Institutions (PEIs) for the pay and employment gap faced by private degree holders. But let's be candid lah - An economy cannot run solely on discrimination alone, a $600 pay gap in Singapore between local degree holders and private degree holders cannot be magically hand-waved away by allegations of discrimination because hiring private degree holders would thus mean 20% cost savings in manpower. A degree of responsibility has to be taken by the student himself.

( If we follow the same logic above, then local degree holders like myself should not feel good because when we are also benchmarked against an Ivy League or Oxbridge degree holder. Some amount of credit should be given to graduates from top international universities too. )

A particularly damning study which should be understood by private degree holders who read my blog should be a study by Deming in 2016 in the US, a person with a BA in Business from a private institution was 22% less likely to have its resume answered to, rendering the qualification effectively " a negative signal of applicant quality". This is on all fours in my last talk on funding an education at the Lifelong Learner's Library.

A couple of useful tips stand out for those unfortunately enough to have to look for a second chance with a PEI in Singapore.

a) Don't take the easy way out because local authorities do not regulate academic rigour.

The various bodies that regulate private universities in Singapore are focused on prevent the loss of Singapore's reputation through fraud so they put in place measures to regulate the administrative processes of these institutions. Local regulators, however,  do not have in place a framework to track the academic rigour of these programs.

Making matters worse, a lot of private degree candidates look for a short duration program to get their degree earlier without understanding that a degree's value comes from its academic rigour. If it's just a piece of paper to you, your degree's value would devolve into the same value of the paper its printed on.

Look for a good institution that does not cut corners and report a HIGH FAILURE RATE. Your degree value increases when other people are seen not be able to get it easily.

b) Business administration qualifications have the lowest market value and should be avoided.

Some statistics from the book is heartbreaking and shows why laissez faire cannot really be applied to education in Singapore. Because every Tom, Dick or Harry wants to study business and be the next Jack Welch or Olivia Lum ( But they both have engineering degrees ). In 2015, 48% of private education graduates are graduates in business administration. According my previous article arguing that a degree is a positional good, the private business degree is too common out there in the market to make a big difference to your pay-check.

One of the reasons why Business Administration in a local university has good prospects is that the government knows how to keep their numbers in check. Keeping the faculty small and maintaining standards means that a business program in Singapore is highly competitive. Result is that our banks love local business graduates because they have been "pre-qualified".

Private universities will expand seats in the business faculty upon greater demand. Business courses do not have labs and quite cheap to run. More importantly, compared to Engineering or the Social Sciences course, a business course can be pitched at a relatively easy level.

c) The best private degree courses are Engineering and IT related.

I speak from personal experience that the IT industry is already the least elitist sectors in Singapore. Most of the folks in Block 71 will not care about the quality of your degree if you can get some coding done for them. Some famous software engineers I know don't even have formal degrees.

So logically speaking, our private undergraduates should be learning how to code and build machines. But in 2015, only 5% of private degree holders do engineering and 7% do IT. This makes Engineering and IT the safest bet for private degree undergrads.

Yes, I accept that STEM subjects are relatively hard compared to Business subjects. But that allows software engineers to maintain employment and have a workable salary in this country.

d) You need to supplement your private degree with a challenging industrial qualification or a portfolio of interesting projects to be taken seriously

Once the facts demonstrate that you will not be treated as well as others by the industry, the last thing you should do is to just sit there and let the forces of society roll all over you. If you are not looking at starting your business, there are amazingly difficult industrial qualifications that only require a degree to qualify for the program.

The CFA will accept your private degree to qualify to be a Level 1 candidate. The pass rate has now dipped below 40% and I've seen postgraduate Finance folks fail the program. There is no better second chance qualification than the CFA. The same goes for a difficult CPA qualification as well as some of the harder IT security qualifications like SANS GIAC. Some of the easier qualifications which are highly respected are the PMP qualifications but do combine it with an ISACA or MCSE paper if you wish to be taken seriously.

If you do not want to study, then by all means build up a portfolio of projects. When I did the R program in Coursera, I use Shiny to create a permanent portfolio optimiser which I showed to legal-tech startups to look for coding work. I still have access to my Github account.

What is the underlying theme behind my suggestions on how to do well in spite of a private qualification ?

Do the hard, difficult things that is beyond the reach of your peers. Find a market niche or blue ocean where you can compete with fewer people. Over the short term, you need a a job that pays your bills. Over the long term, you need something to over-compensate for your degree credentials.

In this article I do not support or deny the current of affairs.

I have indeed thrived tremendously under this system but my children may well be the system's next victims if they fail to get into local tertiary institutions. I have to prepare them to live in a positional world where out education system functions as a sorting machine rather than a nurturing one.

If you wish to be inspired by a role-model of a graduate from a private university, I strongly recommend following the ironically named Unintelligent Nerd blog that I read for my personal inspiration. This guy does awesome shit !


  1. Your statement about it being a negative signal of applicant quality is insightful.
    I think a good plan will be to take PE that is super easy to get and cheap, the lesser the rigour and shorter the duration the better.

    Use this to fulfil the requirement to get a professional qualification like the CFA,CPA e.t.c. and use this qualification to get oneself into the door.

  2. That is a very valid strategy which I endorse.

    But if you're smart enough to come up with a strategy like that, why not just go for a local degree that has economic value and skip the Honours year instead ?