March 08, 2012

FY2012 Committee of Supply Debate: Speech by Mr Lawrence Wong, Minister of State for Education, on Better Pre-Schools, Stronger Tertiary Institutions, More Education Opportunities For All


Mr Chairman, Minister Heng has spoken about the need to equip our students with the right skills and values, and to provide them with ample opportunities to fulfill their promise and succeed in life. In this regard, I would like to speak about two vital sectors – pre-school and tertiary or post-secondary education.

Post-Secondary Education

Let me start with post-secondary education. Our system is flexible and differentiated according to the interests and talents of our people. Students have multiple entry and exit points, as well as various options in their learning journey. Those who prefer a more academic pathway can go to the Junior Colleges, and then articulate to the universities. Those who prefer a more practice-based education can go to the polytechnics or the Institute of Technical Education (ITE).

Polytechnics and ITE

Mr Zainuddin Nordin highlighted the importance of investing in the polytechnics and ITE, “our crown jewels” as he called them. I fully agree with him. Both are attractive options to meet our students’ educational preferences and needs. They open up many possibilities for both personal and career fulfillment and success.

After about 10 years of broad education, some students are keen to experience a mode of learning where they can clearly see the link between theory and application. Not surprisingly, every year, about a third of ‘O’ Level students who qualify for Junior Colleges choose the polytechnic route instead. Temasek Polytechnic’s Ms Teh Zi Yun is one such student. She has a strong interest in the hotel industry, and instead of going to a JC as she could have done, she is now studying Hospitality and Tourism Management at TP, which she finds “more enriching and relevant to [her] work life”.

The polytechnics and ITE also offer students multiple pathways to develop their potential. In the past, attending these institutions meant heading straight into the workforce; today, students have more options. Many ITE graduates continue their education in the polytechnics. Similarly, many polytechnic graduates want to progress to universities. That is why we established the Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT), so that more polytechnic students can get a publicly-funded university degree.

While some continue with their studies, advancing directly into the workforce remains an attractive path for many students. More than 9 in 10 graduates secure employment within 6 months of graduation. They get to apply their knowledge and skills, and gain a clearer sense of where their passions and talents lie. After working a few years, they can still upgrade their skills in their preferred fields.

Our polytechnic and ITE students enjoy these opportunities because of the quality education they receive. An important feature of this education is the close linkages with industry. This ensures that our students have ample opportunity to equip themselves with valuable skills relevant in today’s global economy. For example, ITE partners a wide range of local and international companies, from Cisco to Sembcorp Marine, so that students can pursue recognised industry and professional certifications, undertake jointly-developed courses, or participate in practical attachments and internships. The polytechnics and ITE also regularly introduce new programmes in tandem with changes in the economy; this year’s offerings include diplomas in sports coaching and mobile software development; and ITE certificates in aerospace engineering and info-communications.

Besides being industry-relevant, the polytechnics and ITE are doing more to provide holistic education for their students. This is something Mr Zainuddin mentioned as well. We are getting them to think creatively, work collaboratively, and communicate effectively. We are also giving them more opportunities for overseas exchanges and community projects, so that they are imbued with sound character and values. Last year, for example, 30 students from ITE College East visited the Al Husna Orphanage in Surabaya, Indonesia. The students undertook various tasks like resurfacing roads and plastering toilets to improve the living conditions of the orphanage. In the process, they gained a stronger sense of what it means to contribute to the community, and further developed their character and resilience, as well as leadership and team spirit. As the students later shared, the experience had “opened up [their] minds and views [to] the opportunities to contribute to society as a whole”.

Time and again, our students have proven that there are multiple pathways to success. According to one company, the greatest value that polytechnic graduates offer is their “willingness to learn…they can pick up skills and knowledge rapidly…[and] become an expert in that field.” Many graduates have also successfully started their own enterprises. For example, Mr Sivachandran was previously an ambulance driver in Comfort Ambulance and had gone to ITE for his NITEC in Nursing. After graduating, he started his own ambulance service company. Siva said: “The ITE Certificate is very well-recognised, and has enabled me to pursue my dream. I am thankful for the opportunities and the care the ITE lecturers have given me that has enabled me to become what I am today.”

Sir, we are very proud of the polytechnics and ITE, and the graduates from these institutions – they are self-confident, well-trained, and prepared to work hard to chase their dreams. The polytechnics and ITE are critical pillars in our education system, and MOE has invested heavily in them to give our students solid grounding to pursue their goals. Our spending per ITE and polytechnic student has risen by more than 50% in the last decade to about S$12,000 and S$15,000 respectively. Let me assure members that MOE will continue to invest in these institutions, to keep them on the cutting edge, and to give our young people the best possible vocational and technical education experience they can get, anywhere in the world.

Higher per student spending in ITE and polytechnics

Next, let me touch on the university sector, and address the issues raised by several members, including Ms Low Yen Ling and Mr Ang Wei Neng.

Many young Singaporeans aspire to go to university. I see this in my interactions with students, and their parents. We are therefore expanding publicly-funded university places over the next few years, so that more Singaporeans can obtain a university degree. Last year, 12,000 Singaporeans were admitted into our autonomous universities and SIT. By 2015, we expect to add another 2,000 university places for Singaporeans – equivalent to the size of one additional SMU. We are kick-starting this increase by adding over 1,000 university places for Singaporeans this year.

As we increase the number of university places for Singaporeans, we will continue to monitor and control the intake of international students. Mr Yee Jenn Jong and Mr Baey Yam Keng both spoke about this, and I understand the concerns. It is something we’re watching closely in terms of number and quality; and we’re also doing more to improve integration in the campus. Through the steps we are taking, the international students, including scholars, will form a smaller proportion of our student body over time. But let us manage this carefully, and find the right balance. International students do contribute to our universities, and add to the diversity of student life. These are points many members also acknowledge. Having international students study alongside Singaporean students also helps our students form links to the wider world, opening up new opportunities to the exciting range of life experiences available to them.

Indeed, by connecting to the world and leveraging on external networks, our universities have succeeded in attracting and retaining outstanding researchers and professors from around the world, and in preparing our own students for global careers. Today, NUS, NTU and SMU have built up strong reputations, and are highly regarded by Singaporeans and employers at home and abroad. Our fourth and newest university – the Singapore University of Technology and Design – will welcome its first batch of students next month. SIT, along with its overseas partners, offers yet another option for students, adding 7 new programmes to its existing 17, including in aerospace and early childhood education.

Committee on University Education Pathways Beyond 2015

Even with all of these developments, we believe there is scope to enhance the university sector. I now chair a Committee studying how to provide even more opportunities for university education. Over the past six months, we have consulted widely, and received much public feedback. We also visited several countries to study their systems. I thank those who have given us their suggestions, and would like to take this opportunity to provide an interim update on my Committee’s work, and may I emphasise that these are still preliminary recommendations.

Expand University sector

First, we recommend expanding the university sector to cater to a wider spectrum of students, while maintaining the quality and standards of university education in Singapore. As our economy grows in scale and sophistication, we will need more Singaporeans with high-level skills. We also want to meet the strong aspirations amongst young Singaporeans for a degree education.

How far should we go in expanding the state-funded university sector? One way is to benchmark ourselves against other countries. Currently, about 27% of every cohort goes to our publicly-funded universities and this proportion is expected to increase to 30% by 2015. Our provision for state-funded degrees is already more generous than many of our Asian neighbours, including the most developed amongst them, like Japan, Hong Kong and South Korea.

Publicly-funded participation rates chart 1 Publicly-funded participation rates chart 2

At the other end of the spectrum, state-funded university participation rates tend to be higher in Europe. Naturally, their citizens pay higher taxes to enjoy highly-subsidised and broad access to universities. But there are risks to raising university participation too rapidly. Often, standards are diluted, and degrees are devalued. Then far from graduates acquiring valuable skills, they become under-employed, or worse, unemployed. For example, the New York Times reported last year that in Spain, Portugal and Italy almost 1 out of every 4 graduates cannot find a job after leaving college. Indeed, we have received feedback from many Singaporeans, including from university students and alumni, who worry that we may be going too far in expanding university places. One member of the public wrote in through the MOE websITE to say that we “should be very cautious in expanding university places, and not jeopardize existing opportunities and the interest of individuals”.

Generous provisions for university education are also associated with wastage and inefficiencies. For example, we visited Finland and this is what their officials told us. At the University of Helsinki, we learnt that the average student takes almost 7 years to complete a degree. Because the places in the universities are taken up by what they call “eternal” students, it creates a bottleneck for new students, who have to wait around 1-2 years before they can actually matriculate. Moreover, while around 65% of each cohort enters the Finnish universities, the attrition is high, and only about 40% actually graduate.

These comparisons give us some perspective of where we stand internationally, and how far we want to go. Another indicator is the proportion of high-skilled jobs in our economy. Today, about a third of our resident workforce is employed in Professional, Managerial and Executive (PME)-type jobs, a significant increase from a decade ago. As we restructure our economy over the next decade, the profile of industry and jobs will also change. PMEs will be the fastest growing segment of our workforce, and so we can expect growing demand for graduates with high-level skills. University participation rates will therefore have to increase correspondingly.

Rising proportion of high-skilled jobs

Sir, I have outlined several broad considerations that shape our thinking. The Committee will continue to study the issue and seek public feedback, to work out how far to expand the university sector, while maintaining the quality outcomes for the benefit of our students.

Developing new teaching-focused university pathways

Second, as we expand places, we also need to develop new pathways for entry into university.

We want to add to the diversity and dynamism of the university sector, and provide students with more choices to develop and grow. Today, our publicly-funded universities are largely research-intensive. Other countries, however, have a more balanced mix – they have research universities as well as teaching universities that are practice-oriented, and share close links with industries. Diversifying our mix of universities will increase the routes and options that our students are able to take for entry into them.

In Finland, for example, I visited Metropolia, the largest University of Applied Sciences (UAS) there. The Finnish Universities of Applied Sciences offer mainly Bachelor degree programmes, mostly in areas with clear industry demand and focus, such as engineering, healthcare and social services. The entire curriculum is designed with close industry inputs. Students go through a practice-oriented learning pedagogy, and most professors have strong industry backgrounds. They focus on applied research and collaborate with industry partners to commercialize technologies. Students thus graduate with valuable, industry-relevant skills, and are better able to apply their knowledge in a practical way. Other countries like America and Germany also have teaching universities with such characteristics and features.

The Committee believes there is scope to develop a new university model in Singapore – one that is teaching-focused and practice-oriented, with close industry ties. While these elements already exist in our current universities, we want to integrate them and take them further, to offer something distinctive and valuable for our students. The mix of disciplines offered should have a strong industry focus, including niche programmes not offered by the existing universities, as well as areas where we need more skilled manpower, for example, in hospitality and tourism, social services and allied healthcare. Such a university model can also include elements of co-operative education, where academic studies are fully integrated with practical, hands-on work experience, and where students alternate between semesters of full-time study and relevant paid work. For students, the university experience should be challenging, interactive and meaningful, combining theory with real-world industry experiences that help them achieve their full potential.

We will study how best to implement these ideas. One possibility is to leverage on SIT, which is already pioneering some elements of such a model. Together with its overseas partners, SIT offers a number of applied degree pathways in disciplines with strong practice-orientation, such as occupational therapy and digital animation. It has also built close links with industry, and received strong endorsement from industry partners. Building on these foundations, we can develop an innovative model of teaching-focused, industry-linked and practice-based university education for Singapore.

Leveraging on the Private Sector

Third, in expanding the university sector, the Committee believes there is some scope to leverage on the private education institutions.

Many Singaporeans obtain their degrees through this route, and the private education sector has grown into a diverse industry, comprising many different players, with different business models, catering to different needs. This diversity, however, makes tapping on the sector a complex issue, as quality and standards are not uniform across the board. Today, the government subsidises students at selected private institutions, namely: UniSIM, the only local private institution with degree awarding powers; and NAFA and Lasalle, specialized arts institutions offering degree programmes in partnership with top overseas institutions like Royal College of Music and Goldsmith College.

Mr Ang Wei Neng has suggested extending subsidies further to students in other private institutions. Mr Zainal Sapari also raised this previously in this House. The Committee is studying this matter carefully. We recognize that there is a role for private providers to meet the demand for university education. But this has to be managed carefully, to preserve the value of university education for our students.

We are not alone in grappling with how best to leverage on the private sector. Worldwide, there is a growing debate about the role of the private sector in providing higher education. In the UK, the rapid growth of private universities has sparked concerns that the interests of private providers may not be aligned with national interests, that the private providers are “cherry-picking” the more profitable courses and students, and that standards are being compromised. In the US, the Department of Education is increasingly dissatisfied with the value offered by for-profit private education institutions and is clamping down with new rules to block government aid to such institutions.

In Singapore, we have taken steps to raise the quality of our private education institutions. We established the Council for Private Education (CPE) which sets out mandatory baseline standards for institutional quality. CPE also offers a voluntary EduTrust Certification scheme, for higher-quality private institutions to differentiate themselves. But this is just the first step in distinguishing quality from baseline requirements. EduTrust provides prospective students with a measure of confidence that processes are in place to run a sound organization and student interests are well looked after. We will have to do more to encourage private institutions to focus on quality outcomes. This is a challenge that regulatory agencies around the world face. If the same quality benchmarks for public universities institutions are applied to private institutions, there may not be a viable business case for many of the programmes offered in such institutions. We should therefore study the experience of other countries very carefully, including learning from them what is feasible and what not to do.

Developing CET as a degree pathway

Fourth, we should continue to expand the routes for working adults to continue their education and training by enhancing the pathways for them to obtain a degree.

Last year, the government subsidised over 4,000 part-time degree places at NUS, NTU and UniSIM. This was on top of the 12,000 publicly-funded full-time university places for Singaporeans. We believe that more adult learners can benefit from such part-time degree programmes. In a constantly changing and increasingly sophisticated economy, continuing education and training (or CET) is a critical avenue for Singaporeans to continuously upgrade their skill sets.

I understand that it is not easy for adult workers to pursue a part-time degree. They have to make personal sacrifices, to juggle work and family commitments, and study at the same time. To make CET more attractive, we must address the challenges that part-time students face. This includes diversifying the range of offerings to better cater to individual needs and preferences, and enhancing flexibility in course structures and programmes. More fundamentally, we will require closer cooperation amongst the various stakeholders – education providers, employers and the government – to provide a more conducive and supportive environment for CET. The Committee is studying how best to tackle these issues, so as to create many more opportunities for adult workers to get a degree, while continuing in their jobs.

Ensuring affordability of university education

Fifth, as we build new university pathways, we must ensure these opportunities remain open to all Singaporeans, and that university education remains affordable, especially to those from lower-income families.

Education is a vital enabler of social mobility; no Singaporean student admitted to our universities should be deterred from pursuing a degree education due to financial difficulties. Today, the government subsidises a large proportion of university education through grants, and supplements this with a full range of financial assistance schemes, including loans and bursaries.

MOE regularly reviews and enhances these schemes, and will continue to do so, to ensure that they meet the needs of students, especially those from lower-income families. For example, we recently enhanced the bursary scheme by broadening its coverage to two-thirds of all families (based on household income) and increased the quantum provided.

The universities and broader community have also stepped forward to provide support. But some of these schemes may not be as well-publicised. MOE will work with the universities, and other post-secondary institutions, to reach out more to the students; and ensure that those in need are aware of the support available, and are not unduly burdened by the financing of their education.

One area of financing where there may be scope to do more is the loan schemes extended to students. In some countries like America, Canada and the UK, university education is financed largely through student loans. To reduce the financial burden on students, many such loans are subsidized by their respective governments, whether in the form of lower interest rates, or extended interest-free repayment periods. The Committee is studying these ideas, to see if we can adapt and apply them in the Singaporean context, to make loan schemes more attractive as an additional source of financing for university education, on top of the direct grants and bursaries provided by the government.

Wrap-up on CUEP update and Higher Education

Mr Chairman, over the next few years, the Committee envisions a more diversified university landscape with multiple “best-in-class” institutions, including top notch research- and teaching-oriented universities, as well as a good mix of full-time, part-time and work-study degree programmes, to meet the wide spectrum of Singaporean needs and preferences. At the same time, we must maintain the quality and affordability of university education, and ensure good employment outcomes for all our graduates. I have outlined the preliminary findings of the Committee. The increase in university participation and enhancements to this sector will require a corresponding increase in funding for the higher education sector, not immediately but this will come, and I hope members will all support this in due course. There is much more to be done, before we finalise our recommendations in the second half of the year. In the meantime, we will continue with our consultations, and welcome further suggestions and views.

Preschool Education

Sir, higher education, whether ITE, polytechnic or university, serves as a launching pad into the world beyond. But the value of higher education is built on the foundations of the student’s earlier educational journey.

The formative years before Primary education are critical for the holistic development of a child. Several members – Mr Edwin Tong and Mr Yee Jenn Jong – have asked about the quality of the pre-school sector. MOE too recognizes the importance for our children to get a good early foundation, and has invested in pre-school opportunities for all Singaporeans.

We have made good progress in recent years. Today, access to pre-school is almost universal – more than 99% of P1-going children attended pre-school. We are now making a greater push to enhance quality. Recently, MOE launched the Singapore Pre-School Accreditation Framework (SPARK), a structured approach to assess the quality of their teaching and learning, administration and management processes in our pre-school centres, and identify their strengths and areas for improvement. Today, 69 pre-schools are SPARK-certified. An example is Ascension Kindergarten. The principal tells us that the SPARK assessment has helped them review their learning environment and teaching strategies, and thus improved their ability to meet the learning needs of every child. I am glad to note that 53 more pre-schools have applied for certification in this year’s first application window, and I encourage more to do so in the coming months.

Raising Quality of Pre-Schools

MOE pro-actively helps all pre-school centres to enhance their quality. First, by raising programme standards. MOE had earlier developed the Kindergarten Curriculum Framework and Guide as a reference for quality teaching and teacher-pupil interactions in pre-school settings. It emphasizes the holistic development of children, including character building. In this regard, I fully agree with Mr Edwin Tong that pre-school education should not be an extension of formalised schooling for our young children. Rather, it should be about creating an environment for them to explore, inquire, play and discover; it should be about instilling in them a sense of curiosity and creativity – abilities that are even more important for learning in the long run.

With this in mind, MOE is now in the process of updating our Curriculum Framework, with further inputs from early childhood professionals, practitioners and other stakeholders. It will be ready and distributed to all pre-schools in the second half of 2012.

Second, we are also doing more to invest in teacher quality. In January 2009, we raised the minimum academic and professional qualifications of pre-school teachers. Today, around 90% of teachers in our pre-schools teaching nursery and kindergarten ages possess a diploma in Early Childhood Care and Education, or are undergoing training to obtain one.

MOE also invests in the professional development of our kindergarten educators, through various bursaries, scholarships and teaching awards. For example, we will be offering awards for teachers to take up the newly launched Wheelock-SIT Early Childhood Education degree programme, and the new certificate course in music and movement by Republic Polytechnic. Let me assure Mr Yee that this is open to teachers from all non-profit kindergartens. Recently, we also developed a guide as a reference for pre-school educators on career progression opportunities, including the different options for them to upgrade their skills. Through this guide, pre-school educators can learn more about the education and career pathways available to them, based on their varying areas of interest, strengths and aspirations.

MOE will continue to strive to improve the quality of pre-school education in Singapore. We provide a broad range of support to all kindergarten operators, and in particular to the not-for-profit kindergartens, which cater to all races and religions, and especially to children from the lower- and middle-income groups. Through these investments, we will build solid foundations on which our children can fully develop their potential, and achieve success in life.


Mr Chairman, higher education and pre-school education may lie at the opposite ends of a student’s educational life cycle. But they both aim to achieve the same thing – to equip the students with valuable skills to maximise their potential, and thrive in a changing world. MOE will continue to invest heavily in both sectors, to develop better pre-schools, and to build stronger tertiary institutions – at the ITE, polytechnic and university levels. In so doing, we aim to create even more education opportunities for young Singaporeans to pursue their dreams, and fulfill their promise.