On Tuesday’s Budget debate, MP Ang Wei Neng (West Coast GRC) got into a little hot water when he made a ‘radical idea’ of proposing that local universities and IHLs issue degrees with a validity of 5 years. He suggested that graduates would have to attend upgrading courses every 5 years, so that their degrees don’t lapse.
If you think that’s a bad idea, you’re not alone. Netizens have flagged several concerns, including the fees (who’ll be paying?) and time required for retraining, and that wealthier students would pick overseas universities where their degrees don’t expire.
Netizens also commented that if feels like he’s suggesting that IHLs work on subscription-based degrees and also that the model he’s proposing sounds suspiciously like “COEs for degrees.”
Opposition politician and lawyer Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss took to Facebook to say that she was “stunned like a sotong” by his “idiotic” proposal.
Responding to criticism from netizens, Ang went onto explain himself further in his Facebook post on Thursday.
According to The Straits Times, he said: “The idea of the time stamp is meant to be provocative to ‘sound scary’ and draw attention to the importance of lifelong (learning) and (is) not a (policy) recommendation.” He noted that professions, such as medicine, mandate that degree holders must take up continuous training frequently in order to continue working in the sector.
Such a statement seems to discount the fact that people learn on the job, and that anyone wanting to get ahead in roles like AI or Cloud Computing are already enrolling in courses – these could be unrelated to their original degrees. No one is saying that lifelong learning isn’t important to keep up-to-date with current markets, it’s just that obtaining a degree takes 3-4 years and the idea of diminishing its value within 5 years is a bit of an insult.
He misses the point in his examples
During the Debate, he also said that “even without a university degree, skill sets, personal experiences and knowledge can take a person very far” and cited the example of a job applicant in his 50s who was self-taught without a relevant degree, but was hired by an IT head and subsequently performed well.
He even gave the case for is own son, who deferred his university education to continue working in a cryptocurrency firm in order to not miss out on opportunities in this lucrative field.
Rather than talking about restructuring IHLs and bringing home a valid point about “your degree stops being relevant to your work after a while,” Ang seems to be questioning the need for a degree altogether.
Since a degree is basically a means to earn income, there are other ways to do so without a university qualification – there’s the gig economy, apprenticeships, vocational schools, etc. The basic question should be, what do you need your degree to do?
Schools are already evolving
Having a degree seems to be a rite of passage for most people, and it’s no secret that a degree is also a way to open doors to careers. In addressing the need to change the format of IHLs, Ang brought up several questions:
Should a more purposeful internship be extended as part of the IHL transformation? How can industry leaders shape the curriculum of IHL education so that students are more in touch with real-world needs? Can a full-time degree consist of a huge block of internships where the student can start work?
All you need to do is look at the curricula of some IHLs in Singapore currently, and you’ll find that these frameworks already exist.
For instance, Singapore Institute of Technology has been rolling out multiple degrees – from Applied AI to Digital Supply Chain – in tandem with industry partners, with intensive work-study programmes where students get 8 months’ worth of real-life work experience before they graduate. French business school ESSEC, which has its Asia Pacific base in Singapore, integrates 10-16 months of internships that students can undertake anywhere in the world, partnering with global entities from EDB to LVMH. Also, part of Swiss hospitality school EHL’s curriculum includes two 6-month-long global internships.
While a degree is often recognised as merely opening doors to employment, just because someone is qualified with a certain degree doesn’t mean they’ll be working in the same field (eg. many women with STEM degrees don’t pursue a career in a related field), or even work in the same position or industry for life, since mid-career changes are more common.
Therefore, the blanket statement about upgrading degrees every 5 years is fraught with issues. He doesn’t even mention the upgrading of other qualifications like NITEC, or what sort of degrees warrant an upgrade (ie. how do you upgrade Literature?).
Sending students to volunteer in poorer countries is not a teaching moment
Ang also proposed the idea of mandatory community service field trips for students to go to rural villages in neighbouring countries as a way to “reduce the sense of entitlement.” Even that sounds like condescension – because it suggests that those who are less privileged are serving a purpose to those who have it, as a “teaching moment.”
What does one expect when a Singaporean youth experiences first-hand the lives of rural villagers, especially without the context of local history and politics (unless they’ve expressed genuine interest)? Will they feel gratitude, or a renewed sense of entitlement upon returning to first-world Singapore? Already, there are so many things wrong with “voluntourism” – we don’t need to add “reducing sense of entitlement for privileged kids” to its list.