(From left) Lynn Hong, Sharmila Khan and Goh Keng Chwee, who graduated with degrees from private universities. PHOTOS: LEE JIA WEN, SINGAPORE INSTITUTE OF MANAGEMENT, NG SOR LUAN
When Ms Alicia Lum, 23, tells people she went from Victoria Junior College to the Singapore Institute of Management, many are surprised.
She could have gone to one of the local universities if she had applied for a less competitive course, but she was set on studying international politics.
Studying overseas was out of the question as her parents, who ran a hawker stall, could not afford it. Her next best choice was SIM, which offered a University of London degree programme in the field.
Ms Lum, who graduated with first-class honours this month, is now working in a volunteer welfare organisation but will do a Master's in International Development and Humanitarian Emergencies course at the London School of Economics and Political Science in September.
While Ms Lum may not fit the typical profile of a private school student - who tends to be from a polytechnic - she believes in the importance of a degree and is grateful to have an alternative way to become a degree holder.
She said: "Of course, I would have preferred to go to (one of) the local universities, but I am glad to have had the option of a pathway through SIM."
The Sunday Times interviewed 80 private school students and recent graduates to find out more about the Singaporeans who take the private school route, what led them to take up this path and what their hopes and dreams are.
These students have come under the spotlight after a survey released last week by the Committee for Private Education (CPE) painted a grim future for the tens of thousands of Singaporeans enrolled in private schools.
While the survey found that 79 per cent of fresh private school graduates found a job within six months of graduation, less than half - 47.4 per cent - found full-time permanent work.
They compared poorly against peers from National University of Singapore (NUS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and Singapore Management University (SMU).
Private school graduates also lagged behind in starting pay, earning a median gross starting salary of $2,650 a month, below $3,400 for NUS, NTU and SMU graduates.
Going by the students interviewed and estimates by bigger private schools such as SIM and MDIS, about seven in 10 private school students are from the polytechnics.
They opted for private schools as they could not land a place in the public universities despite the expansion of places and courses offered specifically for polytechnic upgraders.
Based on a sample of about 30 students who did not mind disclosing their polytechnic grade point averages, they had scores of mostly between 2.5 and 3.2 - not good enough for the six public universities, which generally admit polytechnic students with GPAs above 3.4.
A small group enrolled in private schools after they had failed to land a polytechnic place after their O levels. They take up an 18-month diploma course, followed by a nine-month degree programme.
Half of the 80 students The Sunday Times spoke to live in three-or four-room flats. Their parents hold jobs such as sales supervisor, technician, taxi driver, gardener and cleaner.
The students who had moved from the junior colleges to private schools come from slightly more affluent homes, mostly five-room flats or private homes.
Private school degree programmes cost on average $25,000 to $60,000, and many students said they have to take on part-time jobs or bank loans to pay their fees.
Many students liked that private schools offered generous exemptions to polytechnic diploma holders, which meant they can complete a degree in as short a time as 18 months.
Whatever their economic or academic backgrounds, all students shared a belief - that a degree is the new minimum job qualification.
"At one time, the O-level certificate was the minimum, but now it is a degree. And since I can't afford to go overseas and am unable to get into the local universities, the private school route is the only one open for me," said SIM student Muhammad Firdaus Heizer.
The 23-year-old, who is studying for a University at Buffalo sociology degree, hopes to become a police officer and has done his research.
"I am really keen on police work and have attended career talks. For the kind of work I aim to do in the police force, it definitely helps to have a degree," he added.
MDIS student Anna Tan, 21, agrees that a degree is a must-have.
She thus did not opt for any of the Earn and Learn programmes which enable polytechnic graduates to work and study part-time for a specialist diploma.
"At the end of the day, it is still just a diploma, not a degree. So if I had done the programme, I will feel like I have to still go on to university to get a degree," said Ms Tan, who has a business diploma.
She noted, however, that a poly classmate of hers went into the Earn and Learn programme and landed a job in a multinational company, but added that that case is an exception rather than the rule.
Students told The Sunday Times that they saw the degree path offered by private schools as a "second chance" for them to "lift themselves" academically.
And some have seized the chance to shine in their studies.
At SIM, for example, 225 of the 2,000 students who graduated with University of London degrees recently had attained first-class honours. Most - 125 - are Singaporeans like Ms Lum.
The students interviewed were not surprised about the high percentage of graduates on part-time, temporary jobs, as found by the CPE survey.
Some are taking their time to find a job that suits them, they added.
An example is a PSB Academy business graduate who has been working part-time for a start-up for the past six months while trying for a position in a technology firm.
The 25-year-old student who declined to be named said many students like himself "are aiming for particular job in a particular industry".
"But it will take time finding the right job and right company that will offer you a decent salary," he said, adding that he was willing to take on a part-time or flexi job in the meanwhile.
Asked what they thought of the 47 per cent full-time job rate for private school graduates in the CPE survey, students said this seemed "unusually low" but it could be a result, in part, of unfair perceptions.
Some employers believe that private school graduates will not perform as well as their peers from the public universities, they explained.
Many students, however, hope that if they perform well enough in a job, they will catch up with their peers from the other universities.
Said SIM banking and finance graduate Sharmila Khan, 25, who had five job offers last year when she completed her banking and finance degree studies: "Besides grades, employers are also looking for graduates with qualities such as resourcefulness and practical knowledge. I was involved in many CCAs (co-curricular activities) that helped me build soft skills."
While students said it was useful to track the employment outcomes of private school graduates, they also worry that the results will worsen employers' perception of them.
Said a Kaplan communications graduate who did not want to be named: "We already have the odds stacked against us and a lot of the perceptions are just based on the fact that we didn't make the cut for the public universities years ago.
"These surveys, while useful for those deciding on degree paths, will surely worsen the perception."
His classmate, who is now working as a property agent and gave his name only as T. Rajah, agreed.
"You asked if we are aware of the job survey results. How can we not be when these are in the headlines so often? But how much of the poor results is because of the actual job skills and abilities of private school graduates, as opposed to employers discriminating against them?"
He said he and his classmates took the private school pathway as they saw it as the only way to fulfil their aspirations of becoming degree holders.
He added: "This may change in the years to come, but right now, it is the minimum qualification we need to get a decent job and decent life."
SHE PERSEVERED TO GET A DEGREE, WITH MUM'S ENCOURAGEMENT
Ms Sharmila Khan, with her mother Govindasamy Sarathambal. She says what private school students lack in academic grades may be made up by other skills. PHOTO: SINGAPORE INSTITUTE OF MANAGEMENT
Ms Sharmila Khan, 25, could have gone out to work after completing her accountancy diploma at the Singapore Polytechnic.
It could have been great help to her single-parent mother Madam G. Sarathambal, who for years has had to take on several jobs to support her and her three brothers.
But Ms Khan had her heart set on banking or finance and tried for a place to study business at the local universities instead.
When she failed to get a place, she decided on the private school path, with her mother's encouragement. "If I want to enter the banking industry, then really I need a degree to get my foot through the door," she said.
She took on a part-time job with private school Singapore Institute of Management (SIM) to get a feel of how it is run and decided it was the school for her. She took a $20,000 student loan with a bank to finance her studies.
Ms Khan, who is single, graduated last year with a University of London degree in banking and finance with second lower honours, and landed five job offers, thanks to her co-curricular achievements.
She was active in the Investment and Networking club and the Economics Society, as well as SIM's Career Chapter in the Banking and Finance sector - which organises industry engagement and networking events.
"I spent a lot of time on these other activities, because I am a strong believer in developing other skills important to thriving in a job and in life," she said.
Ms Khan, who took up a job in an investment bank, is moving to another bank after being headhunted for a position.
She is glad she pressed on to pursue her dreams and earns enough to support her mother, who retired last year as a cleaner.
She said: "Private school students may have to work harder to regain their confidence and find direction. But what they lack in academic grades, can perhaps be made up by developing other skills."
LOOKING OUT FOR RESILIENCE IN JOB SEEKERS
Lynn Hong, who holds a private university degree, is the HR director of McDonald's Singapore. ST PHOTO: LEE JIA WEN
In her younger days, Ms Lynn Hong did not do well in her studies. She often failed subjects and ended up among the last in class.
She began to take her studies seriously only in secondary school. The former Normal (Academic) student worked hard to get into polytechnic on a scholarship.
To get a degree, she supported herself through a part-time business studies course conducted by Loughborough University at private school PSB Academy.
Today, the 39-year-old heads human resources and office services at McDonald's Singapore, one of the largest employers in the food and beverage sector, with a 9,000-strong workforce.
Her life experiences - including losing her father to a sudden heart failure before entering polytechnic - have shaped how she hires people. She pays attention to how job seekers overcome obstacles and failure.
"Having experienced what it was like to fare badly in class, I can empathise with and appreciate late bloomers," said the mother of three boys aged four to 11.
After completing her diploma in business administration at Singapore Polytechnic, she worked for 11/2 years as a human resource officer before furthering her studies.
"I know what is it like not to have a degree and be permanently relegated to a non-executive function," said Ms Hong, who forked out about $20,000 for her two-year degree course.
After working in several engineering and logistics companies, she moved to McDonald's in 2013, and was promoted to her current director position three years ago.
"Aside from reviewing candidates' CVs, I tend to pick up on their experiences, skills, character traits and body language from our conversations," she said.
"Beyond qualifications, I always make a concerted assessment of the candidate's attitude during a job interview, as that could tell me a lot about whether the person has what it takes to tide through challenges in today's world."
ENHANCING SKILLS WITH A DEGREE TO BETTER SELL HIS CAPABILITIES
Mr Goh Keng Chwee, 36, aims to further enhance his skills after graduating with the Computer Security degree from Northumbria University, by enrolling in a Certified Ethical Hacker course. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN
Mr Goh Keng Chwee, 36, took on various IT-related jobs after graduating with an Informatics Engineering diploma from Nanyang Polytechnic (NYP) in 2006.
He said that his working experience over the last decade has taught him that "without a degree, it is hard to progress" and get promoted. For instance, he did not get promoted even once during the six years when he worked as an IT engineer at the same firm.
Two years ago, after he was retrenched from his job as an IT analyst, the bachelor enrolled at the Management Development Institute of Singapore, which offered a Computer Security degree from Northumbria University. He will be graduating next month.
He said that he had always wanted to get a degree but could not afford the university fees after finishing his polytechnic studies.
Before pursuing a full-time degree, he took a short course in computer programming. While it helped refresh his computer programming skills, it was the degree course which would offer him the fresh knowledge and skills which will let him start a career in cyber security - an area which is seeing increasing demand.
Despite a recent survey which indicated that private university graduates lagged behind their public university counterparts in terms of their chances of getting employed after graduation, Mr Goh remains optimistic that he is not at a disadvantage. He said: "To get a job, you have to look at your capabilities and see how you can sell yourself to your employer."
He added that employers in the IT field take professional certificates into greater consideration compared to those in other fields. He aims to enhance his skills after graduating by enrolling in a Certified Ethical Hacker course.
Additional reporting by Jasia Shamdasani, Ervin tan, Nathanael Phang and Esther Koh Siang