One of the most commonly asked questions I get from my readers is “If I end up in a private university in Singapore, will I be at a disadvantage compared to my friends from local universities?”
Having received this question repeatedly over the past few years, I decided to attempt this question as I felt that this is a topic young adults really want to know about.
Just a bit of background if you’re unfamiliar with the higher education system in Singapore. There are more than 300 private schools in Singapore, attended by an estimated 77,000 Singaporeans and 29,000 foreigners.
According to a recent Straits Times article, local students who do not make the cut at public universities often take a degree at these private institutes. Some examples include Kaplan Higher Education Institute; Management Development Institute of Singapore; Ngee Ann-Adelaide Education Centre; SIM-GE etc.
So, is a private degree disadvantageous? In my opinion, yes and no.
1. Many people may perceive you negatively
I’d be the first to admit that during my younger days, when I was pretty ignorant and immature, I was one of those who had a negative impression of students from private universities.
How did I end up thinking this way?
In Singapore, meritocracy dictates that if you succeed, it’s because you worked hard and therefore deserve your success.
However, by extension, many mistakenly believe that the reverse holds true: if you fail, it’s because you didn’t work hard enough, and therefore it is your fault that you failed.
Thus, in the past, I thought that private university students were where they were only because did not study hard enough. I also thought of them as wealthy due to the high school fees. This gave me the impression that these students didn’t work hard and only got a chance to go to university because their parents could afford the high school fees.
I felt it was unjust that people could attend university based on wealth and not merit and that university education should be a privilege for the hardworking.
For instance, I had a really hardworking but lower-middle class close friend that scored AAB/B but could not make it to NUS/SMU law. He had to settle for his second choice eventually. In contrast, there was another rich kid who scored all Ds but could study law in a private university because of her parents could pay the super expensive school fees.
After I grew older, I realized that this view was wrong.
- Many other factors influence a student’s performance such as family income and one’s parents’ level of education, not just laziness. Poor grades didn’t mean that someone did not study hard enough.
- It was untrue that all of them were rich kids who did not study hard. I learnt about this when I started working part time and got to interact with more people outside my usual social circle.Yes, there is a large proportion of private university students who come from super-rich families.However, there are also many hardworking people who come from middle and lower-middle class families. Their lives were not easy at all and they had take student loans, borrow money from relatives and work part time just to get their degree.Given that private university degrees are usually much more expensive than those from local universities, they struggled a lot more. After hearing their stories, I had a deep respect and admiration for their determination, perseverance and hard work to deepen their knowledge and skills.
Thinking about it, I don’t think our education system can be made totally equal. Rich kids will always have an advantage be it through private tuition; connections and having tons of safety nets for them even if they don’t study hard.
However, if we focus our efforts on reducing income inequality in Singapore, we can create more opportunities for poorer students. As Donald Low and Yeoh Lam Keong mentioned in their book Hard Choices, it is insufficient for Singapore to merely have system that facilitates social mobility. It needs to be combined with a more equal income distribution as
“it is easier to climb the ladder when the rungs are spaced closely together.”
2. If you go to a private university, you may start off earning less than someone from a local university
In general, private university students have poorer job prospects than those from our top public universities. Despite the higher school fees, these students also earn about 15% less compared to richer students when they graduate.
These statistics are from the Council for Private Education (CPE) which regulates the private education industry. They surveyed 4,200 students who graduated with degrees from nine private schools in 2014.
Only 58 per cent of the fresh graduates who had no prior working experience found full-time jobs within six months of completing their studies. Another 21 per cent managed to find only part-time or contract work. The median starting salary of those with full-time jobs was $2,700 a month.
This compares poorly with the 83 per cent full-time job rate and $3,200 median gross monthly salary of the graduates from three public universities – the National University of Singapore (NUS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and Singapore Management University (SMU) – for the same period.
However, on the bright side, there are some firms which do not discriminate such as the first company which I started in. In such MNCs, fresh graduates from both types of schools tend to earn the same.
Furthermore, the pay you get from your first job is only temporary. I’ve slowly learnt that what matters more in the working world is how you plan your career.
For instance, if you come from a private university and work in Firm A but switch to Firm B after one year of work experience, you will definitely get a higher base than a loyal local university graduate who stayed in Firm B for a longer period of time even though both of you graduated at the same time. It seems unfair that the loyal employee is paid less than the one who is new but I guess that is how companies work.
At times, the type of firm you start off at matters very much too. For example, my partner was from one of the SIM GE programs while I am from NTU. We both started at the same salary in mid-2014. He works in Human Resource and I work in sales. However, 1.5 months after starting our first jobs, he now earns 20 percent more than my basic salary every month due to huge increment by his company and had 7 more days of leave than I do. This is because he works for one of the German MNCs and German companies tend to be generous like that.
3. A private degree may be less valued in certain industries
There are some industries which care a lot about academic competence such as research; management consulting; actuarial science; policy etc. The top firms in these industries tend to care a lot about factors like your GPA and where you studied.
In contrast, there are industries like sale; design; advertising and public relations that do not really care so much about your GPA or where you studied. As such, they tend to treat graduates from both types of university equally. Sometimes, for entry level jobs, the firm may just pick the one who ask for the least pay especially for boutique agencies.
At times, even when the role doesn’t require academic competence, some organizations have a more ‘elitist’ culture and tend to favour local university graduates a lot more than private university ones.
Some of the private sector firms are like this. At times, even when HR or managers are from private universities, they would still prioritize fresh graduate candidates from local universities when there are plenty of resumes to sieve through.
Our civil service in Singapore isn’t any better. I don’t have the hard numbers to prove but based on what I’ve heard from my friends from private universities, many of them are not being considered by the civil service, even for uniformed professions.
I heard that this criteria is less strict in statutory boards and government linked organizations like NTUC. However, even in such cases, private university students are not promoted quickly as scholars or the academically inclined graduates from local universities.
For this reason, I find it ironic that the education ministry wants to change this. As this top commenter says “Why don’t the Government sector or civil service walk the talk first? Lead by example, talk is cheap. There are still many Civil Service Board that discriminate against private uni grads by favouring autonomous uni grads.”
Since GE2011, with the introduction of political competition, I’ve noticed a real effort by the ruling party to appear less elitist. For example, there has been so much visits by Ministers and photo taking to the non elite schools like Laselle, SIM, Pathlight, ITE etc. I do hope to see that these publicity attempts can be complemented by real change.
However, the good news is that most employers will not really care about which university you went to after your first job. =) Degree is just one factor and other things matter too like having a good work attitude; making the most of opportunities; knowing how to market yourself; learning the right skills and most importantly, connections.
4. Private university students can benefit from not having moderation/bell curve
On the bright side, unlike their counterparts in local university, private university students mostly do not have to be subjected to bell curve and compete with extremely hardworking foreign students.
Thus, it would be easier to graduate with a good GPA if you study hard as all you need to do is master the content and not outperform your super hardworking peers. Besides which, you can also spend more time working part time and being involved in co-curricular activities.
With a higher GPA and more time to build your portfolio, it is easier to get into competitive graduate programs in universities overseas.
After all, there seems to be a shift from focusing on grades to skills now. Just yesterday, Chan Chun Sing urged youths not to rely too much on good grades for jobs but rather to focus on skills instead.
5. Private Universities in Singapore generally do not have as much resources
While many of the private universities in Singapore are extremely wealthy due to the exorbitant school fees which students have to pay, they generally lack some important resources.
For instance. many do not have a well developed career office in school. For me, I was very lucky to be able to do an overseas internship in Hong Kong as my school had a tie up with Sing Tao News Corporation. Some other students in my program could also go to countries like Nepal, Cambodia, Spain and North Korea for internship and overseas programs.
From what I heard from many of my good friends in private universities, their career offices tend to be poorly equipped. However, this was a few years ago and things may have changed.
At the end of the day, I think that if you come from a privileged background, it doesn’t really matter which university you go to.
After completing your education at a private university, if your parents have connections, they can help you get into competitive Management Associates programs.
Yes, some of you may think that this is unfair to those who studied so hard all their lives but this is life. In the past, I thought the solution was to restrict the number of universities so only the truly hardworking ones could get in.
However, I realized that I was wrong and it does not solve the problem. The focus should be to ensure a more level playing field by reducing inequality.
Moving forward, as the number of graduates increase and a degree becomes a norm here, I would think that Singaporeans should look beyond their degree and focus on differentiating themselves from the competition when they graduate.
One can do so through good internships; mastery of valuable skills; interesting extracurriculars and community service.
Gone are the days where the top competitive firms ask fresh graduates for their O level and A level results (though the backward ones still do), now these companies ask for internship records and look out for instances where you participate in serving the community, Given the higher expectations required of us, I think it is simply ridiculous when people call graduates these days the “strawberry generation“.
These are just my views and they are formed from my limited 1.5 years of work experience so they may not be 100 percent correct.
This article was first written in January 2016 but updated in September 2016 with new statistics.