Sunday, November 28, 2021

How's your paper thosai private degree doing ?


This is a good time to revisit one of my harshest critiques of private degrees in Singapore. You can read this old classic here

The article came out in 2015 and was so harsh, tuition agency blogs wanted to reproduce it (probably to scare parents). Over the years, I think there have been some positive changes that warrant a revisit of the contents of this classic. 

First, I think we should think about what has not changed. The gap between a private degree and a local degree continues to be wide - as high as 33% in some cases. In fact, the situation has become much worse.

The rule of thumb we should apply is that a diploma will get you a salary of around $2,000. Upgrading a private degree will add $400 every month, but this is a far cry from a local degree that pays around $3,600. 

To make everything sound politically correct, some bloggers have been trying to appease readers by suggesting that the pay gap between private degree holders and local degree holders is discrimination which I have always argued to be ridiculous because SME bosses would love nothing more than paying 33% less for good headcount. 

Then why do local degree holders not just command a 33% higher pay but still enjoy a higher employment rate?

Maybe some readers will be butthurt, but in Terence Ho's book Refreshing the Singapore System, on page 224, he actually suggests that it is actually the $400 private degree premium above a diploma that is illusory because these polytechnic graduates have been trying to take generic management degrees that add very little value to their polytechnic diplomas. 

The final outcome is like eating a paper thosai - gives a nice feeling but hardly satiate your hunger. The question is whether we should even allow Singaporeans to waste years of their youth over a signalling exercise that does not signal very much after fees have been paid and lives wasted.

But I have good news. Private degree paper thosais may become an artefact of the past.

SUTD and Ecole 42 is setting up a degree program that has no instructors. This is important because there are no A-levels exams to take and no diplomas to complete. There is one online test, and then students will be whittled down by a one month programme that's like being thrown into a swimming pool and those who sink will be let go. 

For folks with real talent and who claim to have a bad start in life, this is a life-saver, allowing someone to get the hottest coding skills with no tuition fee. I don't expect 42 graduates to be as proficient as the CS Master Race of NUS who are the smartest in their generation, but it should produce a kind of scrappy autodidact who can possibly cope much better with industry changes, rejection and failure. It's also good that we can tell those overworked academics "You don't be CB !", some folks can graduate even without your guidance, at least a small portion of them can actually support our startup ecosystem. 

I think the 42 system is the real solution to the private degree problem. 

It's probably easier to start with a software engineering program instructor-free, but I think once it works, we should really be reforming humanities education along the same lines. The liberal arts should be a system of self-inquiry and we can prevent left-leaning academics from polluting our pool of humanities graduates. And we should come up with an MBA that is done 42-style as well. 

I will be closer to my 50s when 42 launches, and I'm feeling the effects of my loss of crystallised intelligence, it's taken me ages to stake my UST for 19.5% returns even though I ought to do this months ago. Financial independence has also sapped my motivation. 

But 42 is an education revolution that I really must be part of if only they would take me in.

I'll try out the online test, even though I may not be accepted. I'm up against folks who are fresh from A-levels and poly diploma programs, not to mention guys will full-fledged degrees who want to pick up coding.

If I'm lucky to get through, I'll see you guys at the Piscine.

Small chance there may be a space for a fourth-degree after all!


  1. I think almost all private education outfits are zombie companies these days, with no S'porean having IQ above 90 going within 10 feet of them.

    A small number exists to cater for niche areas like Nursing, as vast majority of our local staff nurses are Poly grads. Others cater to flavour of the month postgrad Dip like Big Data & data analytics previously, AI, robotics, cybersecurity etc which are aimed at working adults.

    Very, very few still focus on targeting A & O level school leavers with degree distance programmes.

    With 6 govt-supported Uni's now and declining cohort sizes, those who can cope with some semblance of proper Uni education will have already gotten into those 6 Uni's.

    This includes late bloomers in their late-20s or early-30s, as well as fresh Poly grads.

    In fact I would think that some of these 6 local Uni's may have difficulty in finding enough locals to meet all their course headcounts.

    They need to do extensive recruiting of foreign students.

    1. Depends on the course. Med,Law, Com Science & Data Analytics still very very hot. Don't have 4As no need to apply

    2. For medicine, you need cadavers, so the 42 model will not work. I think it's safer to only admit the smartest kids into Medicine. But for the rest, there's no reason why am instructor-free system cannot be attempted.