Saturday, December 23, 2017

Brutal truths about Polytechnic graduates.

As a parent of two kids, issues affecting Polytechnic students and graduates are important issues to me because, at this moment, I still lie behind the Rawlsian veil. I am concerned that if my children did not qualify for a seat in a local university and end up studying in a Polytechnic/ITE, they will face an uncertain future with the gig economy.

I think many parents have this fear but they are too ashamed to admit it because it hurts the feelings of 50% of their friends. Also, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with turning out average. It's only wrong in a place like Singapore.

I echoed my fears and shared my deepest concerns with a friend I know, whom in my opinion, is best positioned to address my fears because he is very successful in business, lectured in polytechnics, and are intimately close with the problem at hand. He is a straight-talking fellow.

In summary, the conversation left me more shaken than before.

I asked my friend, why not put two and two together and have Singapore's startup eco-system draw their recruits primarily from Polytechnics, specifically poly graduates who are not going into local universities, instead of waging a price war for local university graduates?

He said that most startups would be, privately, unwilling to hire the 80% of the polytechnics cohort. My friend commented that our education system sorts people out "far too well". I read this as a hint that people's motivations correlates well to their academic positions in the local education system.

The conversation then took an even darker turn...

My friend said that he can teach a polytechnic class and he will know exactly who is on their way towards a local university within one week of interacting with his students. My interpretation of this statement  is that the polytechnic population is now bimodal. 20% of poly graduates are elites from the secondary school cohort who possibly wanted to avoid JC because they hate PE and CL2 lessons. These guys will go to a local university and become leaders of the future industry. The government will then praise the polytechnic system for producing such corporate heroes and declare that we have an egalitarian meritocracy. But that still leaves 80% to be destined to join the gig economy after getting a diploma if they don't sign up for some private degree program.

I then asked what can the 80% be hired to do after we transform into a Smart City ? Are we being blinded to to the needs of the middle class given that the 20% of poly grads are becoming doctors and lawyers and seem to be doing better and better every year?

My friend did not answer the question directly despite being a really smart guy.

After the conversation took a detour into several other areas, he said that perhaps his average students can be hired to do admin work, but cautioned me that such work needs to be documented very carefully, or the work would not be done properly. Perhaps, he did not have confidence that the average poly graduate would have any initiative in the corporate world at all.

We did not come up with any clear solutions that day beyond the flippant idea that unhappy Singaporeans may make a bigger difference if they build a career in a second tier city in China like Chongqing or Australia.

For this Christmas, when we think about compassion and empathy, the general idea is for us to focus on the bottom 5-20%. This is why elites like to focus on charity work. Helping the disabled and homeless makes us feel so good and superior to the other Singaporeans who do less charity. Also, the story behind the struggling single mum who has to raise intellectually disabled children can easily make us cry.

There is no compassion or empathy for the median Singaporean because if you are median, there are an equal number of people who are both better and worse off than you. The story of the Singlish speaking dude who spending weekends LAN gaming at Parklane and nights fapping to anime porn is more likely to make us go "Meh."

But not thinking about giving a decent life for the average Singaporean is what can poison a good society. World events in 2017 have shown that Populism can upstage a great government once hope is lost. Populations can turn against free trade and capitalism even if it better for them over the long term.

Asa result of our apathy, the people who just want to see the world burn will grow stronger.

My friend said that even friending his students can be a negative experience. His students are the ones who spell Singaporeans "Sinkies" or "Sinkaporeans" and find every excuse blame the 70%.

It's very easy every Christmas to brag about the good we do for the unfortunate or the poor.

But it's much harder to admit that we did not spare a thought for the average fellow citizen who is facing the latest round of disruption from our transformation to a Smart City.

For this Christmas, I am admitting it right now.


  1. Hi Christopher, great article, I agree that poly graduates are facing greater difficulty finding jobs.

    Having been through poly myself (2010-2012), part of the problem is because of the academic system/culture in poly.

    In poly, lecturers spoon-feed you, and does not promote self-discovery. Formulas are memorised without understanding the concept behind it.

    When it comes to mid semester test (MST) or finals, exams are way easy to score. Some modules even replace their numbers only. This kind of papers prompts the student to just do past year papers or memorise the steps. This often ends badly when the paper is set otherwise.

    I had great difficulty adapting to university lifestyle. But this kind of no spoon-feed, concept focused culture in uni, helped me grow as a person. It is somewhat true when people say that you need to be thrown into the deep end of the pool, to learn how to swim.

    Just my 2 cents worth. Thank you for the article.

  2. Thank you for sharing !

    Perhaps polytechnic lecturers will be put under more pressure in the future.

  3. Polytechnic lecturers are greatly constrained in what they can teach and do in class, due to MOE's control. Comparatively speaking, university instructors (lecturers and TA) have far greater latitude in planning and conducting their lessons (as well as greater quality variance). This is due to the difference in the origins and aims of polytechnics and universities, and the fact that the local universities have to compete on the world stage.

  4. But that begs the question of why we are not aiming to have world class Polytechnics ?

  5. IMO, first of all, I am think our polytechnic system have no direct comparable system elsewhere. The US does not have an equivalent system; their community colleges (you can say whatever you want about their standards) still award bachelor degrees and allow people to transfer to their respective state university systems. Their associate bachelors are equal to the first 2 years of undergraduate studies. By comparison, the local universities do NOT recognize the polytechnic classes as comparable to the first 2 years of undergraduate studies in their institutions. Based on anecdotal evidence, it is certainly not the case for engineering. I know that many Australian universities do grant advanced standing to graduate from Singapore's polytechnics, but the local schools grant very little of it.

    The UK does not have any polytechnics any more after their decided to emulate their American cousins to win elections by trying to send more and more people into university (of which upgrading their polytechnics to universities). Some other European countries may have similar systems*, but I'm not familiar with them, so I can't make any comparisons.

    So one problem we have here is that we have no clear equivalence to compare our polytechnics with others elsewhere (we Singaporeans sure love to compare ourselves with the rest of the world). Universities on the other hand are largely equivalent, despite differences in course structures). On top of that, people like to measure university rankings by research output anyway.

    The aim of the polytechnics is to train professionls for the local economy ( In that sense, they are not geared intended to compete with the rest of the world. Can they? Should they? There is no theoretical objection to that, except the question, what is the benchmark? What is their place in a world dominated by the concept of a college degree?

    As an aside, local polytechnics are getting into the research game (probably mandated by MOE). I think the rationale is to give students exposure to "cutting-edge"** research, but I personally do not think that it will lead to much enhancement because frankly polytechnic students lack the academic background to truly appreciate much of the research conducted**. Furthermore, it takes away the focus on teaching.

    * Cursory search off the internet reveals that possibly similar programs fall under ISCED4 or ISCED5 category:

    ** I'll let myself stand accused of elitism, but the fact of the matter is that even undergraduate FYP students often do not really appreciate the research conducted. Pippetting and running gels is a layer of manual work on top of the much harder intellectual work that underlie research. One can make the case for undergraduate FYP students performing research projects because they are in the position to apply for graduate research degrees. Polytechnic graduates are not. The era of polytechnic graduates like Shih Choon Fong entering a PhD program in Harvard is long over.

  6. Of course, there is another question: do we need so many college graduates? It has turned into an arms race consuming massive resources. We don't suffer from the student debt crisis that plague the US, but the mentality of college education being the end-all-be-all of employability is also warpping the local market with its associated ill effects.

    So college is actually about signalling and not about learning relevant skills. I won't say that all the academic skills taught in college to be useless, but signalling effect may well be dominant.