Polytechnics can get even better
WHEN the Singapore Polytechnic was set up in 1954, the Government had a specific role in mind for the pioneering institution.
As the late senior minister of state for education Tay Eng Soon put it in an interview in 1993: "Polytechnics fill a very important middle section - sub-degrees but producing competent and confident people who can do their jobs immediately upon graduation."
But today, when they graduate with a diploma after three years, polytechnic graduates are no longer content with their "sub-degrees". At the first opportunity, many head to universities here and abroad, notably Britain and Australia.
Five years ago, the estimate was that more than half of all polytechnic graduates go on to secure a university degree within five years. These days, polytechnic officials estimate that the figure is probably closer to 80 per cent.
Several thousand also head out into the job market, where their skills are valued.
But there is also a growing recognition that polytechnic education has to evolve with the times, to match the growing aspirations of young Singaporeans, as well as to continue to support the Singapore economy.
I have always admired how the polytechnics are able to cater to a big cohort of students and yet provide courses that suit their individual talents. One suggestion, then, is to build on this.
The polytechnics should consider offering a route combining work and study, similar to the cooperative education provided in some American universities.
In many ways, this approach is also similar to the highly prized apprenticeship scheme in countries such as Germany and Switzerland, which turn out master tradesmen and certified professionals in different areas.
But instead of calling it an apprenticeship scheme, a better term to use would be "professional certification".
If students on these routes are going to alternate between work and study, then the course has to be longer - maybe extended to four or five years.
On top of earning a diploma, in the course of the five years they can also earn various professional certifications, recognising the holder as a specialist in a particular field. This is already done in some areas. There are licensed aircraft-maintenance engineers, for example, who take courses and acquire a series of certifications.
But the idea need not apply to the science or technology-related fields alone. It can also be done in a range of other areas, including nursing, psychology, physiotherapy and computer programming.
But, of course, this would require companies coming on board to see themselves as training partners.
Mr David Leong of People Worldwide Consulting, who visited Germany recently, says remuneration has to follow. Local companies have to be willing to pay a premium for those with good skills, similar to the high salaries they offer to those with impressive academic qualifications. "At the moment, although they want highly skilled workers, they are not necessarily willing to pay them well. That has to change."
Another way in which polytechnic education can be improved is in the area of communication skills.
The polytechnics run communication modules and require their students to write and present project reports. This goes some way towards nurturing communication skills. But as many employers and universities would argue, more needs to be done to shore up the spoken and written skills of polytechnic graduates.
A general-studies programme that would nurture critical thinking skills, independent thinking and the proficient use of language is worth considering.
A seasoned, polytechnic lecturer at one of Singapore's leading polytechnics said he presents his economics students with a case study of an actual struggling business. He then asks them to act as business consultants to come up with a plan to save the business.
Alternatively, he would ask students to explain why the richest people in Singapore tend to live in the Bukit Timah/Holland Road belt, and why is it that you cannot get a taxi in Singapore when you need one the most.
This way, not only is the learning of economic concepts or world issues made more interesting, but it also becomes more relevant to Singapore and to their lives.
Polytechnics have come a long way. Now is the time for the Government to enlarge their role.
Preparing graduates who understand world affairs, and who have premium skills and knowledge in specialised fields, will ensure that a polytechnic education continues, over time, to produce positive outcomes in terms of pay and opportunities, as well as bolster the Singapore economy.