Monday, 1 October 2012

Some thoughts and stats

A conversation over brunch yesterday led me to dig out this old draft I started almost a year ago. I spent a few good hours on it, thinking and researching, but the beginning of the second year in Kellogg was hectic with gatherings and soon I found myself down with morning sickness so the draft remained unfinished..

Now with ZK in my arms and on my mind, I doubt I'll be able to finish it the way I wanted. But I want some thoughts to be captured so I've decided to make do with an imperfect piece.. Perhaps I'll review it some time down the road.. Perhaps..

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Drafted 4Q 2011, completed 4Q 2012:

Took a long time to read this article a few days weeks year ago: "Can the Middle Class Be Saved?"

I must admit I didn't read the last two pages very carefully - it's so damn long! But parts of what I read inspired some thoughts.

The value of a uni degree

A university education is the aspiration of all parents and a great many kids. Apparently, some parents(-to-be) include university fees when considering how many children to have! But I wonder how much the uni grad of tomorrow could be worth in future..


Based on the latest Census data for 2010, 22.8% of non-students aged 15 and over had uni education - public or private. But this figure includes older generations who are generally less educated. If we look at just age 30-34, and the figure becomes 47.2%. (See Table 1.)

* I chose 30-34 to include more men (since they have NS before uni) but there were still some 15,000 more women than men in this group in 2010. In fact, there were more women than men in many of the working age groups.

Given that the current cohort participation rate for publicly-funded uni is 26% and assuming that it's about there for the cohort aged 30-34, a good 20% or so of people aged 30-34 have degrees from overseas or private universities in Singapore.

Table 1: Resident non-students by highest education qualification attained, 2010
Age group
Total (#)
Prof qualification
and other diploma
15 and over
Source: Census 2010 Statistical Release 1, Table 30
(I didn't key in secondary and below. And I don't know what the "professional qualification and other diploma" could be. Probably like my Montessori diploma?)

(Wa liao, this is like doing work!! Except that there's no vetting, haha!)


We are targeting to reach 30% cohort participation in publicly-funded uni by 2015, which I think is probable. And including grads from overseas and private universities, perhaps half of people aged 30-34 could have a uni degree by 2015.

Beyond 2015

So, what next?

So, there was this new committee set up to look into expanding the uni sector for Singaporeans beyond 2015. During its online public consultation, based on what I saw online, people were typically calling for more public uni places and fewer foreign students or none at all.

Let's look at numbers first.

Sito taught me two terms - norm-referenced and criterion-referenced. Let's hope I understand correctly.. For example, "O" levels are norm-referenced - which school (JC, poly, ITE, which JC etc) you go to depends on how well you perform compared to another student. For a school, it means admitting only the top n applicants. On the other hand, "N" levels are criterion-referenced - you just need to get a certain grade to get to "O" levels, although I guess within a school, they can be norm-referenced if they are streamed into different "O" levels class according to how well they do for "N" levels. For a school, it means admitting everyone who meet the minimum admission criteria.

(Sito is busy now so I'm not asking him - can't find online too - but I think these national-level tests on their own should be criterion-referenced, as in you get an A if you score x marks or above. Else how come number of As can improve year by year right? Correct me if I'm wrong..)

Since there are a limited number of places, our universities probably use norm-referencing, i.e. only the top n applicants get in. If the current n is cutting off a significant number of qualified applicants to publicly-funded universities, I would say, yes, we should have more places in these universities because an overseas education is hardly affordable by the average family and private education in Singapore, though many are less prestigious, can be quite expensive as well. Publicly-funded uni places are the first thing degree-aspirants look at.

Now we get to the key question. How many qualified applicants are being denied entry? I would think that these would be no more than the 20% who got their degrees elsewhere. But surely we are unable to almost double our intake to 47%? Even if we can increase our intake, there is another question...

And this is where I put on the old hat of an ex-policy officer - when the government funds something, there must be good justification. In this case, if the government funds more public university places, these additional places must produce grads who can find suitable jobs when they graduate. The question is, do we have enough and suitable jobs for university grads? Well, I tried to find employment statistics but the MOM website was killing me slowly!

Anyway, Sito reminded me that education is more than economics; it's an aspiration. Yes, I agree, but I also think that a university education is not an end; it's a means to an end. If they graduate and are not suitably employed, I don't see the point. But then again, with Singapore so small, we probably will need to continue focusing on higher-value jobs for which we need more highly-educated people. I guess I'm for expanding the university sector but to a certain economically sustainable level.

Anyway, by now, the committee has completed its work - and I'm still writing this!! Bah! Read the media release here and the full report here. I took a quick look. There's a part that says that the resident (i.e. citizen and PR) labour market is already accommodating a higher proportion of graduates than current cohort participation rates, presumably including overseas, private and foreign(-turned-PRs) graduates. So providing more publicly funded uni places would shift some potential overseas and private grads to local grads. The target cohort participation rate is 40% by 2020.

So we can expect the streets to be full of uni grads. This raises competition for jobs; only the best among them will get the better jobs. In fact, it may become such that anything short of a master degree and above won't bring you anywhere! Now that's a scary thought. I am lucky to have been sponsored for my master. Sito's MBA is costing us a combined 12 years (!) of savings *.*

Do we really need a uni degree?

Even if the labour market can sustain a high proportion of uni grads, I have another thought. While it may be too far fetched to say that an uni education is over-rated, I think it's not unreasonable to say that poly and ITE education are under-rated in Singapore.

The best poly grads will probably get a job they want, or find their way to university. The worst uni grads, well, they may have been better off going to a poly in the first place! I've interviewed people from local, private and overseas unis who just didn't sound that educated! On the other hand, I personally know many poly grads who are doing very well. So, study all you want but in the end, you do need to be able to work.

I believe that 天生我才必有用 - not everyone needs to have a uni degree to do well.

Was chatting with a friend the other day, about students who were not able to apply what they learnt in class, and he made a funny yet thought-provoking comment: mf, I think we will never understand students of that ability.

I recall an incident when I was in uni and my brother was in secondary school. He asked me something about cross multiplication and I explained it to him. Then he went on to do something completely wrong. I couldn't understand why then, but now I understand that some people just cannot understand anything more than simple maths. Cross multiplication is not simple to some people, but they could fare better than me in other areas, like speaking well, IT, athletics etc. I considered my brother hopeless but now I think he was just hopeless in maths. He's working now, in some IT thing, nothing to do with numbers, thankfully..

So yes, I agree we'll never understand students of that ability but I think we can agree that they may be good in non-academic areas.

Of marriageable age ≠ marriageable

Another thought pertains to the new gender divide. So the report has a line on "men continuing to seek work in a dwindling number of manual jobs, and women 'crowding into nonmanual occupations that, on average, confer more pay and prestige'" in the US.

Now, let's look at Singapore...


Among non-students in 2010, more men than women had university education. However, that's for people aged 15 and over, i.e. including our grandparents who are less educated, especially the grandmas. If we look at those aged 30-34, more women than men had university education.

Table 2: Resident non-students with university qualification by gender, 2010
Age group
15 and over
326,446 (51.5%)
307,652 (48.5%)
64,395 (47.2%)
72,109 (52.8%)

But because there were more women than men aged 30-34 anyway, regardless of education level - 152,552 or 52.7% out of 289,314 - I looked at other qualifications too. Turned out that the greatest gender differential is at the professional qualification and other diploma.

Table 3: Resident non-students with professional qualification and other diploma by gender, 2010
Age group
15 and over
67,190 (41.7%)
93,954 (58.3%)
25,9929,323 (35.9%)16,669 (64.1%)

Well, it seems that females may be more inclined to take up further learning? Not sure, since I'm not too sure what this category refers to!

However, if we look at this weird thing called economic status, fewer higher-educated females actually stayed on in the workforce. Higher chance of becoming tai-tais stay-at-home-mums?

Table 4: Economic status of resident non-students with university qualification, 2010

15 and over634,098326,446 (51.5%)307,652 (48.5%)
Economically active554,796305,935 (55.1%)248,861 (44.9%)
Source: Census 2010 Statistical Release 1, Table 33

(Saw citizen data after typing out the above - too lazy to change!)

Anyway, the prospects of less-skilled men aren't restricted in only the economic aspect. A few months ago, I read an article on WSJ, how, among black Americans, more women than men remained single; black women tended to marry black men of lower social-economic or educational status. I was then lazy to do more research but now I'm looking through Sg stats. I guess for Sg, our key manifest is in the singlehood front!

Table 5: Resident non-students aged 45-49 by highest qualification attained, 2010

Total malesSingle malesTotal femalesSingle females
All levels159,28721,069 (13.2%)160,33720,538 (12.8%)
Below sec51,1509,778 (19.1%)54,3454,939 (9.1%)
Uni36,0052,931 (8.1%)24,3874,473 (18.3%)
Source: Census 2010 Statistical Release 1, Table 14

Very often, Sg men complain that Sg women are materialistic and demanding, and Sg women complain that Sg men are, well, "very slack" seems to be apt here - tees and flip flops all the time, "you went home yourself for 25 years and now you suddenly need me to send you home?" type. Put it another way, if the women have higher standards that men cannot meet, there will be some women at the top and some men at the bottom who cannot find partners.

Actually hor, I don't need all these stats to say that Sg men at the bottom rung of the education and economic ladder cannot find Sg wives *.*

Also see this occasional paper - from my old haunt no doubt - on Marriages between Citizens and Non-Citizens 1998-2008, which shows the following:

  • Three quarters of the SC/non-SC marriages over the past decade were between SC grooms and non-SC brides.
  • SC grooms who married a non-SC bride mostly did not have uni education while SC brides who married a non-SC groom mostly had uni education.

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