School’s Out: How Singapore Keeps University Reserved for the Elites

The meritocracy fallacy

The Singapore government likes to champion its model of “meritocracy.” Prime Minister Lee said in 2015: “we celebrate “Opportunities for all” which underscores our belief in a fair and inclusive meritocracy. For students in school and adults at work, we strive to create varied pathways for individuals to pursue their passions and fulfill aspirations.” But Lee’s rhetoric of a “fair and inclusive” society is contrary to what the statistics have shown.

And actually, are elitism and meritocracy two sides of the same coin?

To Cheng’s credit, on the disclosure that the government is restricting Singaporeans’ access to higher learning at public universities, he wrote on The Straits Times Facebook page: “The only way for this to work, and not cause resentment [among] people, is to close the income gap between degree-type jobs and other jobs. So [for] example, a master craftsman in Germany makes more than most degree holders.”

Indeed, a university degree is important not only because it enables Singaporean students to procure more knowledge, it is also the difference between being able to earn enough, and not being able to.

In 2015, the median gross monthly starting salary of university graduates in full-time employment in Singapore was S$3,300. For polytechnic diploma graduates, the median starting salary was a much lower S$2,100, or a difference of more than S$1,000. For Institute of Education (ITE) graduates, their median starting salary was only S$1,700.

According to Associate Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy Hui Weng Tat, who defined “relative poverty line to be set at 60 percent of the national median equalized income,” Singapore’s estimated poverty rate, which at 60 percent of the median wage of S$3,467 in 2015, would thus be S$2,080. With 25 percent of each cohort of students going to ITEs and 45 percent going to polytechnics, and where half of polytechnic graduates earn less than S$2,100, this would mean that as much as half of all graduates in Singapore are earning poverty wages.

Not only that, for the 60 to 70 percent of Singaporean students who are not able to qualify for public local universities, many would aim to secure a place at private local universities. However, first, private universities are more expensive than public universities. Tuition fees at public universities start at S$8,150 for most courses at NUS and NTU, and S$11,400 at SMU (Singapore Management University). Fees for private universities, however, can be anywhere from three to four times more expensive. The Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS), for example, charge fees of S$31,240 for most courses. (SUSS became Singapore’s sixth publicly-funded university earlier this week but strangely charge high tuition fees equivalent to private universities) Second, after students graduate from private universities, the Private Education Institutions’ Graduate Employment Survey conducted by the Council for Private Education found out that whereas, “graduates from Singapore’s state-owned institutions NTU, NUS, and SMU earn a median gross monthly salary of $3,200, […] graduates from the nation’s private education institutions (PEIs) earn a median gross monthly salary of $2,700. As such, students who enter private universities not only have to pay higher fees – three to four times higher – they also have to settle for lower salaries – 16 percent lower, which puts them in a double whammy. And if these students come from lower-income families, the debt they would entrap themselves in would take longer for them to clear, as opposed to students who graduate from public universities.

Indeed, Ambassador-At-Large at Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Tommy Koh writing in the New Year of 2015, had said that, “many of our children are growing up in poverty. About a third of our students go to school with no pocket money to buy lunch.”

“I was shocked when the president of one of our universities told us recently that 60 percent of his students need financial assistance,” he added. However, the Press Secretary to Minister for Education Ho Hwei Ling refuted what Koh said: “We know of no study that substantiates this, nor do our teachers’ experience bear out this alarming picture.” Ho, however, did not provide any figures.

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