Singapore values vocational and technical skills highly and sees them as crucial to the country’s economic development. This was not always the case, however. Prior to the early 1990s, vocational education was viewed as a “last resort” for students who could not achieve in academic settings, and Singapore’s five polytechnics, founded in the 1960s, were not considered particularly desirable educational options. In 1992, the government created the Institute for Technical Education (ITE), which was intended to revolutionize vocational education and be a world-class example of how vocational and technological skills could be translated to a knowledge-based economy. The result was a state-of-the-art set of campuses devoted to technology and closely tied to international corporations. Vocational education was rebranded as “hands-on, minds-on, hearts-on” education to combat the perception that these schools were for low achievers. Since 1995, enrollment in vocational education has doubled, and now makes up 65% of the cohort who go on to post-secondary education (ages 16-18), with 25% accepted into the ITE and another 40% attending polytechnics. The ITE is recognized as producing highly skilled graduates; they are able to offer such a high level of learning because students entering them have received a strong academic foundation in literacy, problem-solving, math and science. Salaries for ITE graduates, who receive a National ITE Certificate (Nitec), have also become quite high in recent years. As of 2014, 87% of ITE graduates are hired in their fields within six months of graduation, leading more students to see vocational education as a strong choice for future success.
Polytechnics now offer nearly 150 diploma programs, and, like the ITE, have worked to remain closely connected with industry, growing and changing alongside Singapore’s economy. Students receive a combination of experiential and classroom-based learning. Many choose to continue into a job in their field after receiving the Nitec qualification, although in recent years, as many as 40% of graduates of post-secondary vocational education go on to pursue a university degree, and are often able to complete a bachelor’s degree in two years because they are able to transfer credits, depending on their focus during post-secondary education.
Vocational education can often continue far beyond post-secondary or higher education. Lifelong learning is considered to be an important part of the education system in Singapore, and as having a large impact on Singapore’s role in the global economy. Lifelong learning opportunities are diverse and the Workforce Development Agency encourages professional development in all sectors of the economy.
Recently, the Singaporean government has sought to further strengthen its vocational education programs. Recognizing that the demands for state-of-the-art skills and technological proficiency will continue to rise as the workforce becomes more high-tech and globalized, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong appointed an Applied Study in Polytechnics and ITE Review (ASPIRE) Committee in November 2013. The Prime Minister charged the ASPIRE Committee with reviewing the current ITE system and recommending changes in order to strengthen the alignment between ITE offerings and industry needs and better serve an increasingly diverse student body. In order to develop a set of recommendations for reform, the Committee conducted focus groups and interviews with over 17,000 students, 3,000 parents, and 400 school staff, as well as benchmarking visits to Germany, Switzerland, New Zealand, and Australia. The ASPIRE Committee released its recommendations in August of 2014. These recommendations included: coordinating and improving education and career guidance systems, strengthening workplace partnerships, articulating specific skill frameworks and career pathways, and expanding apprenticeship and continuing education opportunities. The Singaporean Government has accepted all ten recommendations, and is currently putting together an action plan to address each of them.
Adults who did not pursue post-secondary education upon graduation from secondary school are encouraged to earn a degree or a diploma later in their careers. The Singapore government has recently instituted several changes in part-time degree and diploma programs at vocational schools and universities in order to make it easier for adults who are working full-time to go back to school. The programs have been revised to be more “compact and modular,” and many have seen drastic reductions in course hours (sometimes as much as 50%). Many, too, now accept non-academic credentials such as Workforce Skills Qualifications and Literacy and Numeracy qualifications when admitting applicants. The government has also recently raised the level of tuition subsidies for adult students.