Ong Ye Kung: “What matters is ability”. So why the large polytechnic pay gap?


Minister of Education, Ong Ye Kung’s recent comments are spot-on. He suggested that what matters is ability, not a university degree, and he is correct. In his words:

“Degrees do not define us, individually, or as a society … 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.”

It is therefore unfortunate that his aspirations do not accord with existing reality. Currently, in many sectors, polytechnic graduates are being paid less than their university graduate counterparts even though they may be doing the same job.

Some employers’ hiring practices resemble the way many Singaporeans shop for expensive wines…

A friend on mine once compared certain employers’ hiring practices to the way many Singaporeans shop for expensive wines: they either don’t know, or can’t be bothered to learn about the differences between the choices in front of them, such as what sets them apart in terms of type and quality. Instead, they pick whatever they can get, as long as the price is right, and the paper on the outside looks pretty enough.

In fact, I have heard stories from polytechnic graduates about some employers who prefer hiring poly-grads because they deliver a very high quality of work, and yet, because of their qualifications, they can justify paying them less. This, if proven to be true, would be rather disturbing.

…it is hard to do justice to your job when your employer is hardly doing justice to you in the first place

Minister Chan Chun Sing recently told Singaporeans to “do justice to your job instead of searching for the perfect one”. As well-intentioned as his comments may have been, it is hard to do justice to your job when your employer is hardly doing justice to you in the first place. Surely there is little justice in using someone’s qualifications to pay them less when they are performing at the same level as their “better qualified” counterparts?

One might argue that the nature of a university education provide uni-grads with a greater depth of knowledge than poly-grads. This is not always true; neither is it always relevant. I am unsure if a poly-grad with a 4.0 GPA can be assumed to have a lesser depth of knowledge than a uni grad who graduated with a “pass”; and even if so, I believe what that poly grad lacks in knowledge, he/she probably makes up with attitude and intelligence, having graduated top in his/her cohort.

Furthermore, even if a poly-grad can be shown to possess a lower depth of skill than a uni-grad, the pay difference can only be justified if the skill-difference actually impacts their work performance, or if the skill-difference means that the employer needs to incur expense in bringing the poly-grad up to the required level of skill. If, for example, a poly-grad who did computer science and a uni-grad who did literature end up at a marketing firm, their respective depths of knowledge in their respective fields will be irrelevant – what is important is their ability to adapt to the demands of their job. Arguably, flexibility, creativity and rapid knowledge acquisition are increasingly important skills in our modern, globalized economy. Merely having a university degree says nothing about these skills.

Let me use an example from my own life. I am graduating soon and will start working at a law firm based in London in July. My firm hires both law graduates with university degrees (like myself) and those with the English Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL). The GDL is a one-year course, and it is well-known that GDL students do not have the same level of legal knowledge as those who studied law in university due to the shorter course length. However, since we will all be doing the same work, we will be paid the same. I have no problem with that. I do not think that I deserve a higher pay just because I have a law degree, and they do not. In fact, if someone with a GDL turns out to become a better lawyer than I am and gets promoted ahead of me despite the fact that I had a more comprehensive legal education, then I only have myself to blame.

In conclusion, the government’s broad policy objective is correct. We need to start looking beyond paper qualifications. However, the government’s message should not be primarily directed at potential students, or their parents, but instead be addressed to existing employers. It is their attitudes that lead to the current paper-chase among students, not the other way around.

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2 thoughts

  1. Hi Rio, I agree with your arguments. I am a uni grad but there are other factors at play also. I went for an interview recently and although I have the relevant experience and I told them what I can do for process improvement via my programming skills in MS office, and the position is using MS office, and there is a question in the form asking for the frequency of my reservist duties a year, is it this even relevant to a candidate’s ability to do the work?

    Alas the role I am applying to is a solo role so I am disadvantaged vis a vis females, foreigners, naturalised citizens and first gen PRs.

    I have no ideas what is the reason that I did not get the 2nd interview despite having the relevant experience and the productivity improvement I can make, my expected pay is also reasonable for my qualification, experience and skills.

    I am quite frustrated over this.


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