Singapore update: Changing post-secondary education to broaden K-16 outcomes

In earlier posts, Paul Chua discussed Singapore’s recent initiatives to create space within the K-12 system to support the development of 21st Century Skills. In this post, he describes related efforts to change the applied education sector of the post-secondary education system. The applied education sector is generally regarded as education in the Institute of Technical (Vocational) Education and the Polytechnics. The mission of the Polytechnics is to train practice-oriented and knowledgeable professionals to support the technological and economic development of Singapore.

To keep the education system relevant for the ever-evolving needs and demands of the economy, the Ministry of Education in Singapore systematically conducts regular reviews of the various sectors of the education system. With the implementation of the recommendation arising from the reviews of the Primary Education and Secondary Education sector of the system well underway, and most recent reviews of the higher education sector completed, the Ministry turned to the applied education component of the education system. To this end, The Ministry of Education released the Applied Study in Polytechnics and ITE Review (ASPIRE) report and the Singapore government established the SkillsFuture Council last year.

ASPIRE and SkillsFuture Council

The rationale for ASPIRE is to “to further strengthen Singapore’s applied education pathways, provide more opportunities for Singaporeans to realise their full potential and aspirations, and to support better alignment of the supply of and demand for skills, so that Singapore will continue to prosper and be a land of hope and opportunity for everyone in the years ahead.” Its recommendations are clustered into 3 areas: 1) making appropriate educational and career choices, 2) development of relevant skills, and 3) career progression. To drive the ASPIRE recommendations forward, at the inaugural SkillsFuture Council meeting, the Council has identified four thrusts of work aligned to the recommendations.

What are the ASPIRE and SkillsFuture Council trying to achieve?

Multiple objectives are being achieved through ASPIRE and the SkillsFuture Council work. As there are going to be some things in life that require degree qualifications e.g. law, medicine and engineering while others do not absolutely need a degree, one objective is to better match the demand and supply for skills. Another is to cater to the new demands of the economy and develop Singapore’s society to an advanced stage through the acquisition of deep skills. However, in relation to the learning of academics, development of skills tends to have lower (not low) status in the eyes of many.

As such, a key target of the SkillsFuture Council is to try to change the Singapore societal mindset to recognize that every individual may not need a degree in order to progress in one’s career. It is doing this through influencing the “outcome” variables of a career based on skills mastery (i.e. salaries, promotional prospects and eventually the intangible thing of “status” – how you are seen in the eyes of the public). Realistic about the challenges ahead, the Ministry of Education noted that such a transformation of societal attitudes and mindsets “…will be a major, long term effort involving collaboration with all stakeholders, including employers, training providers, unions and individuals” (MOE, 2014).

Cognizant of the negative perception of an applied or skills-based approach to education, the current approach in Singapore is to promote the mastery of deep skills that support modern high value-adding jobs, much like the highly skilled workers in Germany’s Mittelstand. In addition, educational and career guidance will actively be used in the Singapore case to guide students to study courses that lead to careers that fit their inclinations and aptitudes.

How does the SkillsFuture Council attempt to do this?

The SkillsFuture Council takes off where the ASPIRE committee ends its scope of work. Amongst other things, the Council will specifically address the issue of working with employers, industry associations, and unions to develop specific skills progression frameworks for key sectors. This approach hopes that if students progress along the skills ladder, productivity should increase, followed by employment incomes and promotional prospects. The Council also seeks to promote respect for every job and for the skills mastery achievements of every individual. It hopes to achieve this through the efforts of a community-led Lifelong Learning Council.

Impact on K-12

There are multiple possible impact points on K-12. First, as the ASPIRE report noted, this emphasis on skills will help “realise their [students’] potential and progress in life, no matter what their starting point.” Second, if the re-shaping of societal attitudes and mindsets towards career progression via the mastery of skills is successful, the re-shaping could subsequently expand parents’ and children’s focus on academic (and examination) success in the schools to a more balanced attention to both academic and non-academic skills. The approach suggests that with these changes and with greater balance, non-academic skills such as the 21st century competencies of student leadership, teamwork and communication will not be overshadowed by the need to spend inordinate amounts of time on honing academic skills.

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