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The Big Read: ITE sheds 'it's the end' tag after makeover but students, graduates still face prejudice

SINGAPORE — Most people are shocked when they find out that corporate safety manager Mohammed Faiz Junaidi, who holds a Master’s Degree in Health and Safety, was from the Institute of Technical Education (ITE).

According to the Ministry of Manpower’s Singapore Yearbook of Manpower Statistics, the median gross monthly starting salary of ITE graduates in full-time permanent positions in 2022 ranged between S$1,700 and S$2,500, depending on their type of course.

Meanwhile, the median gross monthly starting salary for polytechnic graduates range between S$2,200 and S$3,226, and start from S$2,700 for university graduates and can go up to S$6,600.

Besides the salary gap, Dr Teng said that existing stereotypes of ITE also reflect the lack of appreciation for technical skills.

In view of these challenges, TODAY looks at how far ITE has developed since its inception and what more can be done to improve general perceptions of technical education in Singapore.

TECHNICAL EDUCATION IN SINGAPORE OVER THE YEARS

ITE has come a long way in developing technical education since taking over from its predecessor, the Vocational and Industrial Training Board (VITB) in 1992.

Launched in 1979, the VITB provided mass vocational training to a cohort that comprised 50 per cent post-secondary students, while the other half of its intake had only primary school certification.

This led to a poor perception of the vocational institute, as those from the primary school-only cohort had low success rate and employability after graduation. 

The conversion of the institute into ITE has been pivotal in changing the face of technical education in Singapore. 

One significant development was to burnish its credentials, from a “lowly-regarded institution to one that is well-received by the public, parents, students and employers”, according to former chairman of ITE from 1994 to 2007, Mr Eric Gwee, in its 30th commemorative book.

His successor, Mr Bob Tan Beng Hai, told TODAY in an interview that ITE promotes success stories to improve its image, and offers equal opportunities to students to rise to their potential.

“If you go back to the early years of ITE, it was known as ‘it’s the end’. But over the years, we have changed its image by improving its curriculum, taking part in world competitions, and continuously demonstrating success stories. Now, even teachers want to teach at ITE because the institute is well-recognised,” he said.

“What makes ITE stand out from other educational institutions in Singapore is the fact that it offers equal opportunities of learning and development for all students.

“Students are offered various opportunities such as participating in international competitions not depending on their grades but on their levels of interest and willingness to work hard,” added Mr Tan, who was ITE chairman from 2007 to 2019 and is currently chairman of several companies.

“When you see ITE in that light, the institute is actually a springboard for continuous education and lifelong learning. It is not the end at all.”

NIE’s head at policy, curriculum and leadership, Associate Professor Jude Chua, said that this places ITE in a unique position to pioneer a “thoughtful sense of meritocracy that is pegged to intrinsic human worth rather than to academic performance”.

“Besides equipping students with relevant skills for employment, this also ensures that students receive an education that allows them to explore and pursue their interests,” said Assoc Prof Chua.

On whether the recent move to secure polytechnic spots for top Higher Nitec scorers would undermine these efforts to promote technical education to the same level as academic skills, Mr Tan said that the move is laudable and should not be seen as promoting a grades-centric mindset.

Instead, the new effort provides more pathways and educational opportunities for ITE students.

“It is not the end if ITE students don’t go to polytechnic. They can pursue their diploma education in ITE or gain work experience and then apply to polytechnic again,” he added.

In recent years, ITE has had an annual enrolment of between about 27,000 and 28,000 from 2017 to 2021 across its three mega campuses in Ang Mo Kio, Simei and Chua Chu Kang who enrol in a broad spectrum of courses ranging from accounting to beauty and wellness and artificial intelligence applications.

The institute, which is a post-secondary institution under MOE, receives government funding to fund its operations and students’ development.

According to MOE’s 2022 education statistics digest, ITE received at least S$500 million in recurrent government funding last year, or S$15,258 per student.

This is the highest amount of government funding that the institute has received to date, compared to the last highest amount of about S$489 million it received in 2018.

Such financial support has been channeled to develop ITE in various ways, including boosting its curriculum to be aligned with the latest industry practices. 

In addition, the teaching staff of the institute are required to update themselves with the latest industry practices, research and technology.

ITE’s electronics lecturer Max Chua said that the teaching staff are required to be attached to a relevant industry partner at least once every five years to update themselves with the most recent developments.

Such protocol ensures that the curriculum remains up-to-date and increases students’ employability in the future, said the 35-year-old ITE alumnus who had just graduated from a Master’s programme in electrical engineering from National University of Singapore.

“These partnerships with key industry players allow us to provide good internships and placements for our students while they are studying here,” said Mr Chua.

One former ITE lecturer, Ms Asrina Abdul Samad, who is currently a manager at ITE Academy that trains new lecturers, said that the rapid advancements in technology have made it essential to bring in real work experiences into the institute, so the learning environment mimics the real working environment.

“This ensures our students are highly employable and adapt well and fast in the workplace,” the 43-year-old said. 

Besides having strong industry partners where students can go for attachments, ITE also collaborates with these partners to develop a holistic curriculum. 

This has attracted the attention of technical institutes in other countries which view ITE’s courses as technical education par excellence. Panama, for example, has modelled its vocational education institute on ITE.

TODAY also previously reported that ITE’s wholly-owned subsidiary, ITE Education Services, was also helping 25 countries across Asia, Africa and the Middle East, such as Myanmar, India and Nigeria, to develop their vocational training.

NEGATIVE PERCEPTIONS PERSIST

Still, despite the many efforts over the years to boost the school’s reputation, negative stereotypes of ITE students themselves persist, former and current ITE students told TODAY. 

Prior to his admission into the institute, Mr Keane Ko’s secondary school classmates and family members held negative assumptions about ITE students.

“My parents were worried when I told them I wanted to pursue my education in ITE. They were afraid that I would become rebellious and my behaviour would get worse,” said the 23-year-old, who took the aerospace technology course in ITE from 2017 to 2018. 

“Some of my secondary school friends also used to joke that ITE stood for ‘It’s the end’. But my teacher told us that we are the ones who decide whether it’s the end or ‘it’s towards excellence’,” he said. 

Recalling a similar experience, a current ITE student who wanted to be known only as Javier, said that he had heard about ITE being a dead end, and that it was a school that “nobody cared about”.

Upon entering ITE, he realised that these prejudices were unfounded and came to see the institute in a different light.

“My lecturers have been very supportive and care a lot about us students, and there are many opportunities for us to develop our technical skills here,” said the 17-year-old.

ITE students are also viewed as having a bad influence on their peers, said Ms Hawa, who is currently pursuing digital and precision engineering at the institute.

“My family warned me not to mix around with the ‘wrong’ friend groups in ITE who would influence me to behave badly,” said the 17-year-old who did not want to reveal her full name.

One alumnus, Mr Mohamad Hilman Mohamad Hatta, who graduated from Higher Nitec in IT systems and networks last year, said he had believed in such negative perceptions before coming to ITE.

This made the 24-year-old feel worried about enrolling in ITE after doing poorly in his O-Levels.

“I was worried that I would be influenced or pressured to do things like smoking. But thankfully, my friends from ITE were a good bunch and they changed my perceptions of the students there,” he said.

The experiences of successful graduates such as Ms Chan the designer and Mr Faiz the corporate safety manager have also shown that the technical skills and knowledge they gained in ITE are relevant to the real world.

“My first job after ITE was as a technician, and my education at ITE really helped me to do my job well,” said Mr Faiz.

“Even in my current line of work, the technical skills that I gained have helped me to develop and progress.”

HOW ITE GRADUATES CHALLENGE STEREOTYPES

Another common assumption — that an ITE education will put one at a disadvantage when moving to the next level — has also been challenged by several ITE alumni who progressed to diploma education and found that they were more advanced than their coursemates who graduated with O-Levels.

This was particularly true for the hands-on aspects of the course, said an alumnus who wanted to be known only as Mr Woon.

Mr Woon, who graduated from ITE in electrical engineering last year, said that he had fears he would lag behind his peers before he joined the same course in Ngee Ann Polytechnic this year. 

The 19-year-old soon learned that his alma mater had provided him with a solid foundation in his course, that he was even teaching his coursemates who had O-Levels. 

“I felt relieved that my education in ITE had given me a strong fundamental grasp in my course that I could keep up with my studies relatively easier than my other coursemates,” Mr Woon said.

Another alumnus who pursued her studies in polytechnic, Ms Joey Tan, said that her ITE education also built her character and equipped her with relevant skills such as time management, discipline and teamwork skills.

“I found that when I was doing group work in polytechnic, I had a higher sense of urgency compared to my classmates who graduated with O-Levels. They had the mindset that there was still enough time to complete the work when actually there was not. 

“But I also learned in ITE about how to deal with different people in a team and how to manage when people have different working styles, so that has helped a lot,” said the 20-year-old, who is pursuing a diploma in business at Temasek Polytechnic.

The practical skills taught in ITE also came in handy for Mr Ko when he enrolled for a course in digital manufacturing and engineering at Nanyang Polytechnic.

Initially, he had expected to fall behind his peers who graduated with O-Levels, but he soon found himself teaching them instead on the practical aspects of the course.

“In polytechnic, I was the one teaching my coursemates on how to physically operate a machine,” said Mr Ko.

Alumnus Andrea Lee agreed that her ITE education had equipped her with the fundamentals for her product and experience design course at Temasek Polytechnic.

“I already learnt some of the basic terminology and processes typically used in the industry while I was in ITE, so some of my lessons in polytechnic were more of a recap of what I had studied before. This made it easier for me to understand what was taught in polytechnic,” said the 21-year-old.

ITE’s high standards of technical education have even attracted some Normal (Academic) students who wish to pursue an education that emphasises ‘hands-on’ skills after N-Levels.

Among them are electrical engineering students Ee Shen Yap and Brandon Yap, who are both 18 years old.

“I actually could have entered polytechnic after N-Levels through the Direct-Entry-Scheme to Polytechnic Programme but I chose to pursue ITE instead because I wanted a more hands-on experience. My parents supported my decision and allowed me to enrol here,” said Mr Brandon Yap.

Citing the same reason for enrolling into ITE, Mr Ee Shen Yap said: “I’m glad that I made the decision to enter ITE because the technical and coding skills I learnt in school have really helped me in my current internship at an engineering company.”

“It’s quite a relief for me too because it shows that what I am learning in school is actually very relevant to real industry practices. And when I speak to my colleagues, they also reaffirmed my perception that technical education would serve me well in this industry,” he added.

WHAT MORE CAN BE DONE TO BOOST ITE’S STANDING?

Though ITE graduates whom TODAY spoke to acknowledged that negative stereotypes of them were untrue, the pervasiveness of such perceptions still weighed heavily on their minds even as they progressed to higher levels of education.

Mr Hilman said that prior to entering Singapore Polytechnic, he thought that he would not do as well as his peers who graduated with O-Levels.

“I constantly had this general feeling of insecurity and kept comparing myself to my coursemates who were not from ITE,” Mr Hilman recalled.

However, his fears proved to be misplaced when he found that his ITE education had given him an edge in polytechnic. 

Dr Teng of NIE said that such effects of existing stereotypes can be mitigated by teaching ITE students coping mechanisms to withstand the emotional impact of such stereotypes.

But beyond that, to really elevate the perception and prospect of ITE students, the hierarchy between academic and vocational education needs to be addressed, she added.

“To encourage Singapore society to value both practical and academic learning, we could expose our students to some integrated forms of both types of learning from young so they could see and experience the merits in both,” said Dr Teng.

TODAY’s Big Read had previously reported about how technical work is underappreciated due to Singapore society’s preference for intellectual “head” work over “hands-on” technical jobs.

One of the experts interviewed in the article, Assoc Prof Irene Ng from the National University of Singapore’s Department of Social Work, suggested shifting to an apprenticeship-based model to increase pay for skills-based work.

However, this requires a buy-in from employers who must be willing to pay more for such work.

Speaking to TODAY this week, Associate Professor Walter Theseira, an economics lecturer from the Singapore University of Social Sciences, said that the salary gap between ITE graduates and graduates from other educational institutes needs to be addressed.

However, he added, there are many considerations to this, such as whether the industry can support providing higher wages and upskilling, and whether more government policies can support the professionalisation of technical work.

“For example, many safety-relevant roles require professionalisation, such as electrical work and lift maintenance. So there’s quite a complex set of factors to consider in addressing the salary gap,” said Assoc Prof Theseira.

When asked about the salary gap between ITE and polytechnic or university graduates, Mr Tan, the former ITE chairman, said that these groups should not be compared. 

“The depth and even the length of study in ITE, which is at least one year, is less than the years of study in polytechnic or university. 

“Still, that does not make ITE graduates any less valuable than their counterparts, and they can always pursue higher education in the future.”

On how ITE students can develop confidence, he said that they should be proud of themselves and confident of what they can achieve.

“Many ITE students come from low-income families and have to juggle part-time work and study to support their families. 

“That takes grit and guts, and demonstrates resilience and perseverance in pursuing education despite the odds stacked against them,” he said.

For Mr Faiz, the ITE alumnus, he overcomes insecure feelings and assumptions of inferiority about his educational background by constantly improving himself and upgrading his skills. 

Ms Chan, the alumnus who became a designer, said that the existing stereotypes used to weigh her down, especially when she compared herself to her friends who were in universities, and as a result, were more advanced in their careers. 

But she has learnt to channel such feelings of insecurity into working “10 times harder” than her counterparts. 

“It’s important to have a strong fighting spirit and to keep positive. A lot of companies in Singapore look at paper qualifications but it’s not the be all and end all,” she said.

“Find your interest and work hard. Don’t give in to feelings of hopelessness and never give up.” 

CORRECTION: An earlier version of the article used the wrong pronoun for Mr Woon, an ITE alumnus. We are sorry for the error.

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