The extensive review of polytechnics and the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) being undertaken by the Government is aimed at "future-proofing" Singapore youngsters against unemployment.
Senior Minister of State for Education and Law Indranee Rajah, who leads the review, noted that despite having sound education systems, countries such as Finland and South Korea are grappling with rising youth unemployment. "It tells us that qualifications alone are not enough - there must be a match between the educational qualifications and the skills needed for available jobs."
Ms Indranee was speaking at the first townhall meeting held by the review panel yesterday to canvass views from some 150 polytechnic and ITE students.
She said the review, called Applied Study in Polytechnics and ITE, or Aspire for short, is aimed at drawing up a plan to increase the number and range of employment opportunities for these students. It will also ensure there is a match between the skills and qualifications that students attain and the jobs which are in demand by industry.
Ms Indranee highlighted the case of Germany, which has managed to keep youth unemployment at bay. Key to the country's success has been a dual learning system, where students on the vocational track receive job training in companies while pursuing courses in vocational schools. She said this form of education, called applied learning, integrates work and study and focuses on developing capabilities that are needed for jobs in industry.
"Currently the internship is an add-on. The applied learning pathway we will look at is where the apprenticeship or internship becomes part and parcel of the learning process," she said. For example, companies that take on students as interns must ensure that the student's work experience builds on what he is learning in school.
The review panel will look at piloting applied learning for jobs in some industries where there is a shortage of skilled workers, including manufacturing, aerospace, early childhood education, nursing, and building and construction, she added.
She admitted that changing the mindsets of students, parents and employers about paper qualifications would be a key challenge for the review team.
Ngee Ann Polytechnic student Yeap Yi Xuan, 20, who studies mass communications, agreed that most of her peers were set on the university route. "It is entrenched - that the only way to succeed is by going to university. It will be difficult to tear down this belief. After all, you can have very good skills, but employers still want to see that degree."
Altogether, 98 people from business, industry and education will be involved in the review. The group will comprise a 35-member steering committee, and four other committees looking at different aspects, such as strengthening links with industry.
In response to why such an unusually large group is involved in the review, Ms Indranee said it is an extensive review involving many different industries, educational institutions and stakeholder groups, including students and parents. "It's a complex undertaking... a lot of work, a lot of moving parts and you need to be able to drill down into the different issues," she said.
The committee is expected to complete its work in the second half of this year.