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).
“Many people, especially job recruiters who look at my resume, did not expect someone from ITE could be where I am now,” said the 38-year-old.
“When I went to ITE in 2002, I often heard… that ITE is for students who have no hope and cannot study.”
Ms Chan Wai Lim, 43, another ITE alumnus, also recalled people expressing disbelief when they realised that she does not have a degree and was from ITE.
The founder of design consultancy studio Trigger Design added: “The common practice is that people in the design industry have degrees. It’s rare that people in my profession don’t have degrees, what more if you have only ITE and diploma certificates.”
Such negative perceptions about ITE — viewed as the last option for academically weakest students, typically those from Normal (Technical) stream in secondary school — continue to exist, despite the many success stories of its graduates and the vast amount of resources that have been pumped into developing the 31-year-old institute.
Last month, the Ministry of Education (MOE) announced that ITE students who achieved a Grade Point Average (GPA) of at least 3.5 in their Higher National ITE Certificate (Nitec) exams would be guaranteed positions in polytechnics, offering more opportunities for ITE graduates to further their education.
Other moves to raise ITE’s profile include having the institute host the yearly National Day Rally since 2013, which Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said is a signal to the Government’s “longstanding commitment to investing in every person to his full potential”.
Yet, the institute is still struggling to shake off its image as the school of “last resort”, which experts attribute to the wider societal preference for cognitive or “head” skills over technical or “hands” skills.
Dr Teng Siao See, Assistant Dean and co-programme director of the schools, leadership and system studies programme at the National Institute of Education (NIE), said that this preference is reflected in the salary gap between ITE graduates and polytechnic or university graduates.
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.
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.
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.