Singapore tries to push vocational education over university degrees

Bloomberg has reported that after a clampdown on immigration and a slowdown in the Singaporean economy, the country needs fewer university graduates and more workers to fill the shipyards, factory floors and hotel desks. That has Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong trying to persuade Singaporeans that they don’t need to go to university to have a good career – something that doesn’t necessarily sit well with Singapore’s Tiger moms.

Specifically and under Singapore’s earn-and-learn program (which is modeled on Germany’s apprenticeship system), technical school leavers would receive on-the-job training while they study for an industry qualification. Each Singaporean who is placed in the program will receive a S$5,000 bonus while a pilot plan next year will place some graduates from the technical institutes in apprenticeships in sectors that include aerospace, logistics and information technology.

No doubt as part of the campaign to get Singaporeans on board, the Straits Times has run profiles of Singaporeans who achieved career success after eschewing or postponing college. And yet, an October survey by the paper showed readers equally divided over whether it is possible to succeed in the country without a degree.

Already, many Singaporeans who don’t get into a local university end up studying abroad. Last year, four in 10 graduates in the resident labor force got their university degrees overseas.

Lee is just the latest Asian leader who is trying to put the brakes on university educations as schools continue to churn out more and more graduates who aren’t matched to the jobs available. A few years ago, South Korea said it may close some higher-education institutes amid what then-President Lee Myung Bak called “reckless university enrollment.”

Such plans are an uphill battle when many Asians still see vocational education as a secondary choice with higher education being the only key to prosperity and success.

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