BY THAM YUEN-C, Straits Times

NO DEGREE, no problem.

Try telling that to corporate communications manager Vivien Tan.

The 39-year-old had thought along those lines 23 years ago when, after her O levels, she chose to go to a polytechnic instead of a junior college and university like most of her classmates did, despite her 11-point aggregate.

Her lack of a degree would later prove a disadvantage at various times over the past 18 years working in both the public and private sectors, when she was denied opportunities because she was not a graduate.

“There were limited opportunities given to non-degree holders to lead projects or take on leadership positions. Even though I was ready for new challenges and opportunities to showcase my leadership qualities, I wasn’t able to do so,” she tells Insight of the obstacles she faced.

The numbers bear out this unequal treatment. In the public sector, where Ms Tan worked as a corporate communications officer from 2006 to 2011, a diploma holder typically starts at a monthly pay of $1,800, while a degree holder can get $3,200.

A report of average starting salaries by global recruitment firm Hay Group found that graduates get paid up to 46 per cent more than diploma holders in Singapore.

These statistics, and the experience of Ms Tan and many others like her, make the Government’s message – that people can also succeed without a degree – a hard sell for now.

Education Minister Heng Swee Keat acknowledged just as much, when he said during a press conference to announce the Government’s push to improve opportunities for ITE (Institute of Technical Education) and polytechnic graduates, that changing mindsets would take time.

Observers say for the message to get through, the glass ceiling for non-graduates must be shattered.

And here, Ms Tan’s experience could be instructive. She says of her five years in the public service: “Although I’ve always received good performance appraisals from my bosses, they felt they could not justify giving me a promotion as I am only a diploma holder.”

The Public Service Division says there is no official glass ceiling for non-graduates – they can technically get promoted as long as they do well. Yet, in recent times, few, if any, have made it to the top echelons of a statutory board or ministry.

The announcement on Tuesday that the public service would promote non-graduates more quickly under its management support scheme for diploma holders, and also work towards merging the graduate and non-graduate career tracks, goes some way to changing that. As Singapore’s largest employer, its efforts could pave the way for more widespread change among employers.

But even among individuals, the belief that academic success in school leads to success in life is deeply ingrained in the collective psyche of Singaporeans, and is also borne out from experience.

National University of Singapore (NUS) sociologist Paulin Straughan says there are cultural and historical roots to this.

In Asian societies such as Singapore, a deep respect for formal education and the valorisation of the “scholar” have spurred people on a paper chase.

As Singapore progressed quickly from a developing to a developed nation, the importance of getting an education was entrenched. “We went to school and it opened many doors for us; we enjoyed upward mobility. You could see the immediate, tangible returns to a formal education, and that kind of trajectory became entrenched in our DNA,” Prof Straughan says.

Employers, too, contribute to this by giving preference to graduates in recruitment, promotions and remuneration, even in roles for which academic ability may not be key.

When companies in Singapore hire for their management trainee programmes that are meant to groom future leaders, they lean towards those who have gone to university, numbers from a Hay Group 2014 survey show.

And once hired as management trainees, those with degrees were paid 58 per cent more than their counterparts with diplomas, a separate Hay Group survey of 130 organisations here last year found.

For years, organisations in the public and private sectors have used qualifications as a convenient proxy to evaluate a job applicant. Mr Richard Yeo, director for rewards, talent and communication at human resources and pay consultancy Towers Watson, notes: “It boils down to whether a company has the ability to differentiate between competencies based on job and career levels. Some companies do not, so they use qualifications as the entry point.”

Add to this a tight labour market, and you have a wage structure that further encourages the paper chase.

Singapore Management University (SMU) professor and vice-president of business development and external relations Annie Koh feels still more can be done to make the pay structure between graduates and non-graduates more equal.

Referring to the disparity in graduate and diploma pay in the Hay report, she says: “If people have invested in a degree, the implication is they have already used up some of their funds, so they need to be rewarded higher.

“But 46 per cent more at the start seems to be fairly high. And by having two different career tracks, you continue to perpetuate this disadvantage for life.”

With Singaporeans being a pragmatic lot, changing these reward structures represents the best bet at convincing people that a degree is not the only route to success.

“Students value what the market values because wages are tied to what the market rewards. If employers were to value the other things and reward those things, then students and parents might adjust their strategies,” says NUS sociologist Vincent Chua.

For some who have had it drummed into them that to go further in life requires going further in school, the call for a cultural change is somewhat jarring.

But SIM Global Education’s Dr Timothy Chan says it is a “reality check”.

The director of academic division at the private institution says: “There is a very strong desire and aspiration for ITE and polytechnic graduates to further their studies on a personal level. However, not everybody actually benefits the same way from education.”

Another factor in the degree equation is that education fever has heated up over the years. Singapore added her fifth and sixth universities, with the Singapore Institute of Technology and SIM University (UniSIM), to cater to increasing demand for university places. The other four universities are the National University of Singapore, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore Management University and Singapore University of Technology and Design.

But today, the Government is wary of going down the road which some other countries have gone. In South Korea and Taiwan, for example, the heedless paper chase has led to a glut of graduates who end up either unemployed or underemployed.

As it is, many here see a degree as a ticket to a good life, and hanker after one.

This year, five of the six universities, excluding UniSIM which is a private university, drew 37,500 applications from A-level holders and 29,000 applications from polytechnic graduates. Even with each student, on average, applying to two different universities, this far exceeds the 14,000 university spaces available.

Now, the Government wants some of these polytechnic graduates to reconsider their choice – by providing different routes to the top for them and those from ITE too – so they will enter the workforce with just the diploma in hand. They will get more training on the job, which will go towards their progress up the career ladder.

It is not that a degree is useless, but that not all jobs require one, and that not everyone has to get one so early in life.

Ideally, this push will lead people to reflect on why they want a degree, says SIM Global Education’s Dr Chan.

SMU’s Prof Koh reckons it will take two or three generations for the culture to change, adding that Singapore will be a “leading light” when it happens.

For Ms Tan, who is still without a degree but now has a better-paying job in the private sector, it will also mean that her two daughters, aged 12 and 14, can follow in her footsteps without worry. Despite her own experiences, she is not one to harangue them to get a degree.

“I think it’s more important to see where their potential lies and to nurture that talent. Whether they eventually get a degree is not important.

“What is most important is whether they are able to study a course that they are passionate about, which allows them to do what they enjoy when they graduate,” she says.

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