Does Singapore have too many graduates?

Photo: mailer_diablo., CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Singapore’s university graduates are flooding the job market, while foreign workers are taking Singaporean jobs for lower pay,  panning  fears that unemployment and underemployment rates may increase. In comparison Taiwan is flooded with unemployed graduates who are slowing down the economy. Is there a solution to Singapore & Taiwan’s  dilemma?

By Dimitra Stefanidou

Singapore’s education system is considered to be one of the most successful systems in the worlds. Its foundations were structured based on the British education system, during the period of the British colonial rule.

A McKinsey Report in 2007 showed that Singapore holds a high ranking in the global list of the best performing education systems which nurtures children who do extremely well in international exams.

The latter distinction is not random, but instead due to a very carefully created education system, which was built from scratch 50 years ago, when Singapore became an independent nation. During the past five decades Singapore has provided access to education for poor and illiterate people, offering them opportunities to gain useful knowledge for their future career and development.

Additionally, Singapore’s teachers receive extensive education, in order to learn every technique and innovation that could help their students further improve. They also apply modern educational methods, urging students to develop a critical way of thinking rather than learning only through repetition.

Singapore currently has three public universities, the National University of Singapore (NUS), the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and the Singapore Management University (SMU). There is also the SIM University which offers public part-time degree programmes to adults and professionals. Singapore’s universities collaborate with famous international universities and institutions, such as MIT and the Eindhoven University of Technology. Moreover, the National University of Singapore (NUS) and the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) are respectively ranked as the 12th & 13th best universities in the world, rivaling Universities such as Yale, Princeton and Cornell.

Where are all these “brilliant minds” absorbed?

The highest paying jobs for 2016 are in the sectors of information technology (IT), accounting, marketing, finance and healthcare. The wages that employees earn on average are illustrated below:


Where is the problem?

Despite Singapore’s creditworthy education system and its high paying jobs, the Singaporean authorities express worries about the fact that too many graduates come out of the country’s universities. In 2014 alone there were 15,376 graduates from NUS, NTU, SMU and SIT.

Subsequently, the influx of new graduates will make it more difficult for people to get hired in a career field that they desire, which leads to graduates becoming underemployed.

Underemployment happens when graduates with high skills have to work in jobs that are either low paying or low skilled. It also occurs when people who want to be employed as full-time employees work as part-time employees.

Though Singapore doesn’t suffer from high rates of underemployment or unemployment, there are worries this trend won’t last. Former Minister of Manpower, Tan Chuan-Jin stated that “while we are not facing the unemployment and underemployment problems [that are] in other countries, we will not be immune to these trends … the proportion of degree holders in our workforce has been increasing”.

Moreover, Mr. Chuan-Jin stressed that “the market has begun to differentiate between degrees that carry their full worth in knowledge and skills, and those that are essentially paper qualifications”.

Foreign workforce displacing Singaporean workers

Together with the upcoming problem of underemployment, another factor that has to be taken into account is the presence of foreign labor in Singapore. In June 2016 the total foreign workforce was 1,404,700.

The competition that has been created by the presence of foreign talents imported to Singapore has made it really hard for locals to obtain high paying jobs. Many employers prefer hiring foreign employees due to the fact that they ask for lower wages, while having the same qualifications and productivity as Singaporeans.

Thus, universities in Singapore should aim at providing Singaporean students competitive qualifications and skills, in order to make them more marketable, rather than aiming to have so many graduates every year. Otherwise, foreign employees will be much more preferable when applying for a job.

The situation in Taiwan

Accordingly, Taiwan boasts a high number of graduates like Singapore; however they suffer from high unemployment rates. Taiwan has about 300,000 graduates every year, most of whom remain unemployed after their graduation. Taiwanese government statistics show that graduates with college and master’s degrees are more likely to stay unemployed, compared to people with lower levels of education.

Subsequently, the landscape is changing for Taiwan, as colleges have had fewer enrollments the past years, due to the demographic problem created by low birth rates.

Mr. Lee Yen-yi, who is the Director General of the Higher Education Department at Taiwan’s Ministry of Education (MOE), claimed that the enrollments for the academic year of 2015-2016 declined to 250,000 students; whereas the previous year they were around 270,000 (7.4% decrease in a year). Statistics have shown that 23 of the country’s 151 universities will face an enrolment shortfall this year forcing a number of university closures and mergers, which have already started.

Taiwan needs graduates with specific qualifications in order to help bolster its economy and workforce. However, there is currently an imbalance between the skills that are needed in Taiwan’s economy and the ones that graduates gain from universities. Thus, Taiwan’s education system must be reformed in order to adapt to the new reality, which demands employees with skills and qualifications in the field of technology and other sectors lacking skilled graduates. Subsequently, if Taiwan’s students fail to change the current trend of underemployment and unemployment, Taiwan will fall into a state of regression and stagnation.