D ifferent Paths to a Degree

Flip open the local newspapers today and chances are you will come across advertisements from a myriad of educational agencies offering bachelor?s degree programmes awarded by Australian and British universities. Some advertisements say, "Why get a Diploma when you can get a Degree?"

A typical bachelor?s degree programme from a foreign university could work like this: At the start of each subject, course materials are distributed to students for self-study. Foreign university lecturers then fly into the country to deliver intensive lectures to students (although it is also possible that local lecturers are used). Lecturers grade assignments written by students. Examinations are set and marked by the foreign university itself.

Many foreign degree programmes are catered to diploma holders from polytechnic institutions in Singapore. These are institutions that provide education as a combination of theoretical and practical work. A polytechnic education starts typically at the age of 17 and takes 3 years to complete.

A sample of foreign universities and the programmes offered showed that a bachelor?s degree could be just 15 months away for polytechnic diploma holders (Table 1). This is because some universities offer 1 to 2 years course exemption (advance standing) to applicants.

On the other hand, a local Singapore university programme is a long, 3 years on-campus experience. The local universities in Singapore comprise the National University of Singapore (NUS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and the Singapore Management University (SMU). Prior to attending local universities, a pre-university study in a junior college starts at the age of 17 and takes 2 years to complete.

Polytechnic diploma holders do have an option to attend local universities. Admission is however limited to outstanding students who are in the top 5% of the polytechnic diploma. NTU for example, offers eligible polytechnic diploma holders 1-year exemption for only its bachelor of engineering courses in civil & structural engineering, electrical & electronic engineering and mechanical & production engineering. No exemption is available for other NTU courses.

In summary, the polytechnic-foreign university degree path could last 4 years 3 months, the junior college-local university takes 5 years, and the polytechnic-local university path takes a minimum of 5 years if not more.

University

Country

Programme

Educational agency

Eligibility

Duration

University of Canberra

Australia

Bachelor of Business Administration

Asiainstitut of Management

Poly diploma holders

15-18 months full-time

Benedictine International University

USA

Bachelor of Science in Business

Hartford Management Centre

Poly diploma holders

15 months full-time

University of Portsmouth

UK

Bachelor of Science (Hons) in Computing

Bachelor of Science (Hons) in Technology Management & Computing

Informatics Computer School

Poly diploma holders

16 months full-time

12 months full-time

Macquarie University, Sydney

Australia

Bachelor of Medical Sciences

Bachelor of Biotechnology

Management Development Institute of Singapore

Poly diploma holders with Biotechnology or Chemical Process Technology background

18 months full-time

Deakin University

Australia

Bachelor of Technology

Bachelor of Engineering (Hons)

IMC Open Learning Centre

Poly diploma holders with Engineering background

2 years part-time

3-3.5 years part-time

Table 1. A sample of foreign university programmes available in Singapore and its corresponding duration. Full-time refers to attendance of course as a full-time student whereas part-time consists usually of evening classes catered to working adults.

The popularity of foreign degree programmes appears to be high, if we were to just judge from the financial performance of Informatics Computer School. For the year ended March 2002, Informatics Holdings? operating profit after tax increased by 24% to SGD 21.5 million, on the back of a 10% rise in turnover to SGD 200.2 million. One of the contributions to strong growth was its higher learning division.

Recognition

One of the points that come quickly to mind with such degrees is whether they are "recognized". When inquired, the Ministry of Education informed that recognition of bachelor?s degrees from foreign universities depend on future employers. Degree holder aspirants should check with future employers or relevant industry bodies prior to enrolling in a degree programme.

Informatics Computer School informed that its degree programme from the University of Portsmouth, UK, has no problem in recognition by private companies in Singapore. In fact, a large number of course participants are working adults sponsored by large, local corporations. This adds to the credibility of the programme. Furthermore, the University of Portsmouth is also a member of the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU). Membership in ACU is the recognition criteria accepted by the Public Services Commission in Singapore in the employment of graduates.

Ms. SM Kuan, a human resource executive with 10 years of experience, commented, "if two job-seeking candidates come across as equally outstanding in terms of employability, the local university graduate would be preferred over the polytechnic-foreign university graduate. However, this depends on what job nature we are looking at. Local university graduates tend to speak and write well and are preferred for jobs that are of executive and administrative nature. For jobs that require practical experience and skills, polytechnic graduates are the preferred choice".

The Polytechnic Choice

Mr. Kevin Ng, 25, a sales and marketing manager, was a polytechnic graduate in mass communications. He then went on to study for a bachelor of arts degree in public relations with the RMIT University in Australia. Due to his polytechnic diploma, Kevin had direct entry to the third year of the course. Today, with his practical knowledge from the polytechnic and the academic backing of his degree, Kevin ranks high on employers' lists. On top of this, as his degree was done overseas on campus in Australia, his overseas exposure gave him an edge over local university graduates.

Ms. SK Leong, 35, a secondary school teacher, graduated from the National University of Singapore with a bachelor of science degree. When asked if she would take a different path to a degree today, she gave a definite yes. Ms. Leong said that with so many options available today, she would definitely give things a second thought at the age of 16. If given a chance to start all over, her choice today would be a polytechnic diploma followed by a bachelor?s degree programme with the recently established Singapore Management University. SMU offers eligible polytechnic diploma holders course exemption of up to 5 courses. Apart from the advance standing, SMU is ideal because it is Singapore?s first private university funded by the government of Singapore. SMU is modeled after the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, America?s top business school.

Conclusion

On the surface, a polytechnic diploma coupled with a university degree appears to be a short cut to obtaining paper qualifications due to the exemption offered by foreign universities. The fact is that in some cases, the exemptions are due to the efforts of the polytechnics. The Temasek Polytechnic, for example, has created an international relations and business development department to link the polytechnic with overseas educational institutions, to result in a number of American, Australian, Canadian, New Zealand, and UK universities providing advance standing to the polytechnic?s diploma. The purpose of the polytechnic in doing so is to promote continuing education among its graduates, as many wish to further their education after a few years of working experience.

With so many options available, it is up to one to look around for a good degree programme to further the polytechnic education one already has. As most educational agencies are usually privately run companies with a bottom line to meet, only degree programmes that are marketable are offered. As such, the curriculum of a foreign university may be tailored to meet local job market demands. As one of the benefits stated in the brochure of the University of Portsmouth goes, "because the programme is developed in close consultation with prominent employers, the syllabus is highly relevant and useful in the real world".

In the long run, when relevant work experience is gained, a polytechnic graduate who furthered his education with a bachelor?s degree programme from a foreign university can be a sought-after employee in the job market. Mr. Stefan Reinhardt, 34, who graduated with a bachelor of business administration degree from the University of South Australia after 15 months, has this to say: "At the end of the day, it is what you make out of it".