Ong Ye Kung defends remarks on degree cap, but misses Yeoh’s point

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“It would truly be ‘unimaginative’ to confine ourselves to university education as the only way to develop to our full potential,” Education Minister (Higher Education and Skills), Ong Ye Kung, said in Parliament on Monday.

While the minister did not say he was responding to anyone in particular, his use of the word “unimaginative” seem to refer to remarks made by Yeoh Lam Keong, the former chief economist at the Government Investment Corporation Singapore (GIC).

Mr Yeoh, posting on his Facebook page on 5 May, had criticised Mr Ong for his comments on the education system here which the minister had made at the St Gallen Symposium in Switzerland a day earlier.

Mr Ong had said that the Government caps the enrolment of graduates to between 30% and 40% of the yearly cohort because it has to be “aligned with the structure of the economy.” This is so that those who graduate will have the required skills in the current age where disruption is the norm, he explained.

The rest of the cohort would take up vocational training for future employment in various industries.

This is in line with the intention that young people could become craftsmen in more fields.

Mr Ong said because of the cap, Singapore has managed to keep the graduate unemployment rate low, compared to other Asian countries.

Mr Yeoh said, in his 5 May posting, that capping the intake was a mistake.

“The truth is that nobody knows and the history of education policy is full of examples of existing policy makers underestimating the skill and education needs of the modern economy and overestimating their ability to forecast them,” he said.

He added: “At one time in the US, universal high school education was thought to be producing too many grads that would lead to unemployment and dissatisfaction. Today, its turned out to be a bare minimum. Sounds familiar?”

Mr Ong, however, said in Parliament that the economy has diverse needs and requires talent from a spectrum of expertise. As such there should be “diverse and multitudinous” pathways for people to enhance their skills.

These include “academic upgrades, apprenticeships, industry certifications, overseas exposures, or simply gaining work experience or building a reputation for oneself in the field.

“Degrees do not define us, individually, or as a society,” he explained. “Our society needs to evolve, such that all occupations, crafts and trades, whether the skills are acquired through a degree education or not, are respected and recognised.”

He said that degrees do not enable people to earn a living.

“Our ability to keep pace with changing needs of the economy is what helps us earn our keep”, he said.

Mr Yeoh had said in his posting that he did not disagree that vocational training is important and should be seen as being on the same level as a degree. This, however, is not the point he was making.

“I agree that vocational training should be upgraded to be on par with academic degrees and encouraged like in Germany, but this is not the same argument as limiting or capping the latter,” Mr Yeoh had posted.

“If anything, in the new knowledge economy with massive AI crowding out of many traditional jobs and professions, one should err on the side of too much education and training rather than too little.”

Mr Yeoh’s point was that education is as important as training and it’s not wise to cap it given the importance of the knowledge economy and that nobody can predict how many graduates will really be needed.

It is thus more important to make sure that degrees are industry-relevant, rather than to impose a cap on the number of degrees.