03 July 2003

Higher Education as Con Game

It surprises me even now, but only because someone close to family had succumbed to a con game, and a very sophisticated one at that, too. In fact it's even more surprising, and then it sinks in as just being tragic, that many more Singaporeans still fall into this con game, very willingly. And currently, there is no recourse, no compensation. There will be no investigations or explanations. Anything can happen in Singapore; it just gets buried, then forgotten, and then vehemently denied in the national psyche.

Even for a small Asian country, Singapore abounds... no, it overflows with universities and other institutions of higher learning. Like every other 'industry' or area of life, Education is very tightly regulated by Singapore's authorities. This includes all of Singapore's universities.

Over the years since independence, we've had many universities set up and formed by the State. Decades ago, there was the forced merger of Nanyang University (Nantah) and the Malayan College, to produce the english-language NUS, plus a technical university called NTU (Nanyang Technological), thus finishing off the only Chinese language university in the world, outside of China. In recent times we have the Open University, the Singapore Institute of Management, and the new SMU (after awhile the acronyms just lose significance and differentiation). Each of these universities were set up under the suggestion, justification, then guidance, and resources of the State. That's pretty fine with me, it shows how important Education and Higher Learning is for a State to want to take charge of the process, because our leaders believe in "constant relearning" and "upgrading of skills" of our citizens.

Some time ago, in the previous millennium and the previous decade, there was the Open University, touted as a path of higher education especially for older students (Education in East Asia tends to a thing for the young. You'll never see a diverse range of ages at a university in China, Taiwan, Japan, or Singapore... unlike Europe where it is more normal to see a slightly more mature crowd duke it out intellectually on the same ground, for the same degrees). As it happened, the University was given official support, justification and resources from the State. And as it happened, graduates from the Open University discovered after graduating that their hard earned degrees counted for nothing. In the private sector, companies paid these OU graduates salaries that were clearly not for degree-holders. In the public sector, the State itself did not pay them degree-level salaries.

Fast forward a few years to the SIM. The first few batches of graduates - ranging from management, computer science, engineering - this is not a 'fake university', hard subjects are taught and learnt - are finding that it's the same story. That's right. The state never puts the money where its mouth is. So, Singaporeans continue to believe in our universities, enroll in them, spend years of study in courses, and graduate to find that their degrees count for nothing. Now, this about-face, this silence, from the State is astonishing. For the staff of the SIM were culled by the State from NUS and NTU, the courses were designed by those lecturers and professors, and then approved by the State.

And yes. Take note, gentle readers: the Singapore government now has a new initiative and a new target for the education of Singaporeans. Our leaders have decided to slowly increase enrollment and number of universities, so that our nation can reach their "golden figure" of 25%. 25%, or a full quarter of the population, should have University or tertiary education.

And those of you in Singapore should know very well the rate of unemployment for university graduates, right?

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