My close friend, a private university graduate, interviewed at a government-linked company (GLC) last year and was told by the interviewer a condescending tone:
“Well, if we knew you were from the SIM’s University of Buffalo program instead of the one in New York, we would not have called you down for an interview”.
Another SIM-GE graduate was also rejected in by her prospective employer and told that the firm was only interested in hiring a local university graduate. The employer was “only concerned” about her GCE ‘O’ and ‘A’ Level results.
These two examples above are certainly not rare cases. The latest statistics show that more than half (54 percent) of private university graduates were not able to find a full time permanent role 6 months after graduation.
The students also made up 7 percent of the fresh grads hired by the public service, while those from autonomous universities made up 26 percent.
The starting salary also differs greatly with private university graduates earning a median gross starting salary of $2,650 a month, below the $3,400 for graduates of NUS, NTU and SMU.
He pointed out that ITE graduates have a starting pay of $1,900 which is around $700 less than what a private university graduates earns per month.
He calculated that if one goes to a private school for four years, it is equivalent to sacrificing about $92,000 in salary that can be earned in the workplace. This excludes the tuition fee of around $70,000.
Why are private university students discriminated against?
Quoting Donald Low, “Meritocracy tends to reinforce the common belief that luck and circumstance matter much less than hard work and ability,”
Since young, many Singaporeans have been told that if we work hard, we would be successful. By extension, they mistakenly believe that the reverse holds true: if you did not do well enough and ended up in a private university, it’s mainly because you didn’t work hard enough in school.
This has resulted in many having the wrong perception that all private university graduates are less hardworking and less competent.
I apologize that I myself once thought this way when I was younger and ignorant.
I thought that private university graduates did not study hard enough and only got a chance to go to university because their parents were wealthy and could afford the high school fees.
As I grew older and matured, I realized that this view was not necessarily true. When I was working part-time during university to raise money for my overseas internship, I interacted with many students from private universities.
Some of them did not get a head start in our education system as they come from less privileged backgrounds. Due to the higher school fees, they struggled a lot and had to take student loans, borrow money from relatives and work part-time for their degree.
After hearing their stories, I had a deep respect and admiration for their determination, perseverance and hard work to deepen their knowledge and skills.
What can we do to improve things?
Are these negative stereotypes entirely fair? Definitely not! However, that is the reality we live in today and it would take some time for the others to change their perception.
If you’re a private university graduate worrying about your prospects, I want to assure you that there are many working adults like me out there who do not believe a graduate’s capability is solely based on their grades and the school they went to alone.
I would like to share some practical steps you can take to boost your profile and employability in the graduate job market.
I am not saying that these tips would totally erase the discrimination private university graduates but making an effort to build one’s CV and network is definitely a better option than not doing so.
1. Get work experience
Internships have become a necessity in our job market today. Employers are much more likely to hire someone with internships and work experience rather than someone with a generic resume, lacking experience.
Furthermore, if you perform well and your employer likes you, they will likely offer you a full-time position.
Other than internships, you can also consider pro-bono work. Organizations like Conjunct Consulting and Creatives for Causes enable you to build your portfolio, gain real-world experience and contribute to society at the same time.
2. Focus on developing the right skills
We’ve been constantly told that the skill gap is that major problem for Singapore’s workforce and the situation for fresh graduates are no exception.
Universities would take a while to adapt to these changes. Thus, as a student, you’d need to take charge of your own learning.
Want to get into digital marketing? Your school syllabus would not help much as you’d only learn 4Ps and other fundamental concepts. You need to complement that with knowledge of software that would make you more attractive to employers such as like Adobe creative suite, Google Analytics, and Socialbakers.
As shared in my previous post Is it Disadvantageous to graduate from a private university?,
unlike their counterparts in a local university, private university students mostly do not have to be subjected to bell curve system. This frees up a lot of your time to focus on building up your capabilities beyond the theories taught to you in school.
3. Leverage LinkedIn
If you don’t have a LinkedIn profile, my recommendation would be to set up one now. There are simply so many advantages of being on LinkedIn, even as a fresh graduate.
Most recruiters these days use LinkedIn to hunt for candidates. Connect with graduate recruiters and reach out to learn more about the roles they are hiring for.
You can also connect with seniors who have entered the workforce. Check out their career paths and history and be inspired by their success. Take note of the companies they’ve been hired in could be open to hiring private graduates like yourself.
More importantly, you could also ask if they can refer you for roles. According to Edric Lin, country director of Wanted, a referral-based recruitment platform, studies have shown that referrals make up 40% of all successful hires.
4. Gain international exposure
One of the best times to get international exposure is when you’re a student as many of the conferences, fellowships and exchange programs are either heavily subsidized or even free.
If your schools’ career office does not offer you much overseas opportunities, you may wish to tap on Youth Opportunities, the largest opportunity discovery platform for youth from all over the world. They post global opportunities regularly such as fellowships, conferences, exchange programs and even indicate if these opportunities are fully-funded.
As Singapore is the APAC HQ for many companies, you could also consider learning a new language such as Bahasa, Cantonese, Thai or Mandarin, to ensure that you’re able to communicate with clients and partners in ASEAN and Greater China.
5. Work on your soft skills
In an essay celebrating Forbes’ 100-year anniversary, billionaire Warren Buffett says there is one investment that “supersedes” all others: Invest in yourself. He believes this is an investment no one can take away from you.
One area I feel we can all work on would be our presentation skills. A gripe I hear often from some Singaporeans is that other nationalities who are more outspoken and can present well tend to overshadow them at work. If these are the skills that bosses and organizations value in Singapore, then perhaps it may be a good idea to adapt accordingly and brush up one’s public speaking skills.
More importantly, I feel that for all levels in an organization, it is important to be coachable and humble. Bear in mind that you don’t know everything and there is a lot more to learn. Our world is changing so fast, companies and individuals who are stuck in their old ways would become obsolete.
The graduate job market would only get more and more competitive with a larger proportion of each cohort getting degrees.
These days, we have what appears to be a second education arms race – fresh graduates are increasingly expected to possess not just a degree but internships, leadership roles, community projects, overseas experience and other credentials.
With employers beginning to look at multiple factors, your A’ level and Polytechnic grades no longer have to define your future. While it may come at the cost of time spent on socializing, or dating, you can use the time after school and during holidays to build an attractive portfolio.
With a solid resume upon graduation that demonstrates your hunger to learn and gain exposure, you would be able to prove employers who think of you as less hardworking or competent wrong.
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