Published on 03 Feb 2024

The Big Read: No more an inferior option, polytechnics have come a long way. What's needed to take them up another level?

  • Each year, some 20,000 students enrol into Singapore's five polytechnics, a clear sign that they are no longer seen as educational institutions for those who could not enter junior colleges
  • Factors for polytechnics' success include better outreach programmes, diversification in courses as well as their close links to industry, students and educators told TODAY
  • Polytechnics play an important role in Singapore's push to place more emphasis on skills instead of grades, but they do face challenges
  • These include the wage gap between university and polytechnic graduates and the speed at which skills become obsolete
  • The Ministry of Education and polytechnics spoke about what they are doing to tackle these challenges, including doubling down on collaboration with industry partners

SINGAPORE — With a six-point score for his O-Level examination, Mr Matthew Neo had a key to most tertiary educational institutes — so he headed to Republic Polytechnic (RP) to pursue a diploma in sonic arts.

While he could have gone to a top junior college (JC), few batted an eyelid at Mr Neo’s school of choice.

Now 19, the second-year student told TODAY: “I am interested in working in audio, and the course is exclusive to RP.

“Nobody questioned my decision... I have the responsibility to take charge of my own learning, and (my parents) are supportive and want me to succeed.”

Mr Neo said choosing to study in a polytechnic — with its slew of industry talks, projects with real-world applications and an upcoming internship — instead of a JC was the right choice for him.

Likewise, National University of Singapore (NUS) undergraduate Abdul Qayyum described the three years he spent studying for a diploma in law and management at Temasek Polytechnic (TP) as very enriching as he became “more mature and developed a lot holistically”.

Mr Abdul too had the option to go to a junior college but opted to pursue a diploma. Several teachers in his secondary school had supported his choice, he recalled.

“Some teachers felt that many of us were better suited in polytechnics and did not have the necessary ‘rigour’ for the junior college curriculum and A-Level examinations,” said Mr Abdul.

“This likely stemmed out of care and concern for us as at that time, we often heard of quite a few of our seniors who went to JC who withdrew or did not do well for A-Levels.”


While he had several job opportunities with his diploma, Mr Abdul decided to further his education upon graduation because he felt the average starting salary “did not seem sufficient” and that the positions offered lacked career progression opportunities.

Those with a diploma in law cannot be called to the Bar without a recognised law degree, but can work as paralegals.

With polytechnics having long shed their past as educational institutions for students who could not enter JCs, a growing number of secondary school students are opting to take the polytechnic route in their education journey.

On Feb 1, 19,200 Secondary Four and Five students who sat for their O-Level and N-Level examinations in 2023 received their Joint Admissions Exercise results. About 52 per cent, or 10,000 students, were posted to a polytechnic.

About 52 per cent of the cohort had chosen a polytechnic as their first choice, of which 40 per cent were also eligible for JC.

Including all other pathways such as early admission exercises, more than 20,000 students enrol into Singapore's five polytechnics each year.

Education experts and the five polytechnics — Singapore Polytechnic (SP), Ngee Ann Polytechnic (NP), TP, Nanyang Polytechnic (NYP) and RP — credit the polytechnics’ ever-growing popularity to industry collaboration and the focus on equipping students with skills.

Yet, the salary gap between university and polytechnic graduates has continued to widen.

In a written response to a parliamentary question in February last year, Education Minister Chan Chun Sing revealed that the median starting salary gap between university and polytechnic graduates increased by S$200 between 2016 and 2021.

According to the 2023 Joint Polytechnic Graduate Employment Survey, the median gross monthly salary for fresh and post-National Service polytechnic graduates was S$2,800, up from S$2,600 in 2022.

While there is no data available for graduates of autonomous universities in 2023, data from a similar study in 2022 found university graduates had a median gross monthly salary of S$4,200 — 62 per cent higher than their polytechnic counterparts.

The surveys conducted in 2010 found university graduates had a median gross monthly salary of S$2,900, 45 per cent higher than post-National Service (NS) polytechnic graduates’ monthly salary of S$2,000.

Mr Chan said in his parliamentary reply that the widening gap was caused by several factors, such as the relative demand and supply of manpower, and differences in productivity between jobs and sectors that different groups of graduates enter.

“While some differences are understandable, it is important that we ensure these differences do not widen significantly over individuals’ lifetimes. Singaporeans must feel that there are opportunities to progress over their career regardless of differences in starting points,” said Mr Chan.

With polytechnics playing a key role in Singapore's push to place more emphasis on skills instead of grades, TODAY looks at their evolution, what contributed to their popularity and what the future of these institutions will look like.


Polytechnics originated as vocational institutions to establish a solid foundation for essential workplace skills, said Dr Betsy Ng, an education research scientist at the Centre for Research in Pedagogy and Practice at the National Institute of Education.

Singapore’s first poly, SP, was established in 1954 to produce skilled technicians to support the country’s move towards industrialisation after World War II.

Nine years later, Ngee Ann College — now known as NP — was established by the Ngee Ann Kongsi, before being renamed Ngee Ann Technical College after it was taken over by the Government.

As more foreign investments poured into Singapore, there was a growing demand for skilled technicians to meet the demands of multinational corporations looking to set up shop here. Hence, SP and NP were expanded to take in more students.

Despite this, the polytechnics faced a hurdle — secondary students were not applying to join them.

Dr N Varaprasad, partner and principal consultant at Singapore Education Consulting Group, recalled that SP struggled as it had an engineering bias.

But what helped attract more students to polytechnics was SP’s outreach programme, said Dr Varaprasad, who was its deputy principal from 1985 to 1990.

“We kickstarted a schools outreach programme, bringing in busloads of secondary school students to see the tech marvels — such as the largest CAD-CAM set up in the world and the most advanced marine simulator in Asia — open houses with cheerleaders, establishing links with school principals and putting up posters in their schools,” he told TODAY.

A CAD-CAM is a powerful computer that integrates computer-aided design and manufacturing.

Repositioning graduates as technologists, rather than a technician, also helped shift the tide.

With a growing number of applicants, the Government decided to establish Singapore’s third polytechnic, TP, in 1990.

Dr Varaprasad then became its founding principal and chief executive officer.

“In the 90s, with the establishment of TP, the whole image of a polytechnic as a technical institution with only hard skills changed,” he said, crediting the school’s diversification to provide diplomas in service industries such as logistics, tourism and hospitality, creative design and legal studies.

“The presence of a third poly in the landscape made for a more competitive landscape in polytechnic education.”

Adding to the competition was the founding of NYP in 1992 and RP in 2002.

“I believe that this resulted in a heightened awareness of polytechnic education as each polytechnic went on its own outreach blitz and came up with innovations, such as TP's early admission programme based on school preliminary (examination) results, problem-based learning, and character education,” added Dr Varaprasad.

Mr Russell Chan, principal and chief executive officer of NYP, said that the quantum leap for the polytechnic was the increased involvement of companies.

"From just advising and reviewing our curriculum, to taking an active role in shaping the skills that the students learn, and in some cases co-teaching and co-certifying and co-developing solution for business application," he said.

"This is why you are seeing NYP moving quickly to jointly explore, and even adopt, with industry emerging technologies, like virtual production, AI (artificial intelligence), and alternative protein sources."

Dr Ng, the education research scientist, added: “Over the past five to six decades, the established polytechnics have demonstrated the success of numerous graduates, many of whom have achieved advanced standing in universities and outperformed their peers.

“These achievements contribute to dispelling any negative perceptions that may have once surrounded polytechnics.”

One of the biggest changes 56-year-old Des Sim has seen in polytechnics is the structure of their modules.

“When I was a student, there were nine subjects that you did throughout a year,” said Mr Sim, who graduated with a diploma in mechatronics from NP in 1990 and is now a fabrication project manager.

“But my son has more freedom in choosing what he wants to study, and he has different subjects each academic term instead of a fixed schedule.”

He added that his school holidays were often spent on workshops and practical lessons to learn how to use highly specialised equipment. Now, these lessons are part of the curriculum during the term, and the facilities “are so much more advanced”, said Mr Sim. His son graduated from NYP with a diploma in digital visual effects.


To enhance the education for students of the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) and polytechnics, the Government has conducted several reviews over the years.

The most recent was in 2021, when the Review on Opportunities and Pathways in Applied Education led by Second Minister for Education Dr Maliki Osman, made six recommendations. They include:

  1. Expanding industry exposure for polytechnic students beyond their third-year internship, such as through job shadowing and short job stints during vacation periods
  2. Strengthening curriculum to build competencies such as critical thinking, communication and engagement skills
  3. Providing more flexibility in the curriculum by allowing selected students to spread out their learning over more than three years and take on opportunities such as advanced electives or minor programmes
  4. Enhancing training for personal tutors to provide more support measures for students with higher needs
  5. Enhancing post-graduation career guidance

"Through the review’s recommendations, we will continue to support the diverse needs and aspirations of students and graduates from the polytechnics and the ITE while ensuring they are equipped with relevant skills to remain resilient and thrive in the future economy," the Ministry of Education told TODAY.

These recommendations have already been adopted by the polytechnics. For instance, in 2023, 451 students of NP graduated with a diploma and minor, of which three students had two minors.

The 10 minors available allow students to "stretch themselves and widen their skill sets based on their interests", such as in data analytics and artificial intelligence, said principal and chief executive officer of NP Lim Kok Kiang.

He added that this has been well-received by students, with 820 of them on track to graduate with a minor in May 2024, 82 per cent more than 2023.

Prior to the 2021 review, the Applied Study in Polytechnics and ITE Review (Aspire) committee was formed in 2014 to look at how to enhance the education and job prospect of polytechnic and ITE students.

Its recommendations included enhancing internships and establishing polytechnic and ITE leads for key industry sectors to strengthen linkages with industry and enhance program offerings.

Several initiatives, such as increased internship opportunities at polytechnics, and more involvement by industry partners to shape curriculum, have resulted from the recommendations.


For Mr Sim, the main draw to enter polytechnic was the choice to further his studies or enter the working world after graduation.

“Back then, if you wanted to go into a local university like NUS or NTU (Nanyang Technological University), you needed to be at the top of your cohort. But you could also pursue a degree overseas,” he recalled.

According to MOE, over the last few years, one in three fresh polytechnic graduates matriculated into autonomous universities — namely NUS, NTU, Singapore Management University, Singapore University of Social Sciences, Singapore Institute of Technology and Singapore University of Technology and Design.

Another major attraction was the practical skills that polytechnic equips students with, several students told TODAY.

“When I compare my studies to my friends who chose to enter JC, I feel like I have more time and what I learn is more practical,” said Mr Neo, referring to the hands-on approach and opportunities to have a taste of how the skills apply in the working world.

“I wouldn’t say poly is easier. It’s more self-directed, and you have to take charge of your own learning… I would rather not deal with the stress and mugging near examination periods in JCs.”

Chief executive officer of recruitment agency Reeracoen, Mr Kenji Naito, said that many industries, particularly in financial technology and technology, emphasise practical abilities and hands-on experience.

“This shift is driven by the need for employees who can adapt quickly to technological advancements and contribute effectively to the evolving demands of their roles.”

The growing emphasis on skills in job hiring has also resulted in a growing number of companies recognising polytechnic graduates.

“As industries continue to transform, embracing diverse educational pathways and valuing skills will be crucial for fostering a resilient and adaptable workforce,” said Mr Naito on the growing attractiveness of polytechnic graduates for businesses.

Increasing efforts to allow secondary school students to explore potential education and career paths have also aided the polytechnics’ cause.

Mr Patrick Tay, Member of Parliament (MP) for Pioneer Single Member Constituency, said: “More O-Level school leavers today choose the polytechnic route because they are clear what they want to do.”

The chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for education added that with the polytechnic curriculum being highly relevant to working world needs, alongside internship opportunities locally and overseas, such institutions have become increasingly attractive.

This is the case for 24-year-old Jeremy Soh, partner and head of business development at AI startup Gignite.

While pursuing a diploma in financial informatics at NP, Mr Soh had the opportunity to participate in various hackathons and present his business idea at the Singapore Fintech Festival, allowing him to build connections with people in the fintech space.

He also managed to land a six-month internship in London through an overseas internship programme at NP to gain entrepreneurship experience.

His course has been renamed to Diploma in Data Science, and he graduated in 2019.

The biggest draw to polytechnic for him was the freedom and ability to pursue more than just studies. As someone who had dreamt of being an entrepreneur, having time to chase his dream was one reason he chose to enter a polytechnic.

Likewise, companies collaborate with polytechics to tap potential hires and meet their manpower needs.

Mr Ernest Phang, managing director of group human resources at OCBC, said: “Polytechnic talents are technically competent and can operate well in an interdisciplinary environment, thanks to the industry-oriented training that they receive.

“With a different perspective, they bring in fresh insights which often leads to more innovation and creative ideas.”

Through its year-long internship programme, OCBC Ignite, the bank allows students from NP — and from March, TP students — to work on projects in data visualisation, machine learning, cloud technologies and mobile app development among others.

“Each internship is curated to the student’s interests and area of study, with mentors attached to the students,” said Mr Phang.

“Completing the internship could also lead to full-time employment with the bank as we seek to boost our technology bench strength.”

On the hospitality front, Marina Bay Sands (MBS) also has partnered with all five polytechnics through its US$1 million (S$1.3 million) Sands Hospitality Scholarship Programme.

It also provides internships in various roles at the integrated resort, which give students “valuable exposure to the industry”, said Ms Chan Yit Foon, senior vice-president of human resources at MBS.

She added that this allows MBS to build “a strong pipeline of local hospitality talent” and for students to start their careers with MBS.


However, not everything is hunky-dory for polytechnics.

NUS undergraduate Abdul said polytechnic students may face ceilings when it comes to job progression, as university degrees are often more valued.

He noted that the lower starting pay and widening pay gap between polytechnic and university graduates are also a pain point for polytechnic graduates.

On this point, Mr Jeffrey Ng, regional director at human resource firm Michael Page Singapore, said academic qualifications "lay the groundwork for professional success".

This is because academia instils "a robust foundation of knowledge, critical thinking, and perspective that is invaluable throughout one's career trajectory”, Mr Ng said.

However, this does not mean skills are not valued.

“While entry-level positions may prioritise academic credentials due to a lack of professional experience, there's a discernible shift that occurs once a candidate crosses the threshold of three years in the industry," said Mr Ng.

“At that juncture, it becomes increasingly evident that the skills they have honed on the job are the real drivers of professional advancement.”

Mr Naito of Reeracoen said that diplomas being valued less than degrees “might be rooted in historical biases towards traditional educational pathways”.

“As industries evolve, there is a growing acknowledgement of the effectiveness of polytechnic education in producing skilled professionals. It may take time for these perceptions to fully shift, but the trend is moving towards recognising skills irrespective of the educational background,” said Mr Naito.

While the skills-centric approach in hiring may benefit diploma holders, polytechnic graduates told TODAY that they face a never-ending challenge to ensure their skills remain relevant.

For Mr Soh of AI startup Gignite, advancements in technology meant some things he learnt during his studies could become obsolete in "days and months".

To ensure he was still up to date with the latest skills, he would take on his own tech projects during his free time while serving National Service and by keeping in contact with people in the fintech industry that he met during his studies at NP.

While NP taught him the foundations and equipped with "the mindset to be focused, motivated and competitive", the evolving skills can be a challenge for other graduates to keep up.

Mr Tay, the MP who is also the assistant secretary-general of the National Trades Union Congress, added that polytechnics need to ensure “speed to market” for their programmes, curriculum and attachments.

This is because the “half-life of skills is shortening” and “the speed of market disruptions and change of skills in demand is increasing”, said Mr Tay.

AI, in particular, poses a challenge for polytechnics as there are several questions about how educational institutions and their students can stay ahead of advancements while using it responsibly and ethically, added Dr Varaprasad.


As the workplace grapples with rapidly changing technology and creative disruption, polytechnics need to continuously enhance their partnerships and engagement with industry stakeholders, such as companies, said HR and education experts.

Dr Ng of the National Institute of Education, for one, suggested that polytechnics should look into expanding apprenticeship training for students.

While there are such programmes, they are often for those with good academic results, she noted.

“Being an apprentice is also about learning skills-based employment and other soft skills that are important to the inexperienced poly students.”

Mr Soh, the NP graduate working in AI startup Gignite, said that polytechnics need to "remain focused" on what has worked for them  — working with industry partners and showcasing how the skills learnt in the classroom apply in the working world.

"This gets students excited to learn, and will always benefit students even after graduating," he said.

On this, the Ministry of Education (MOE) said that the five polytechnics will continue to "maintain close partnerships with industry partners through co-development of course content, internships, and work attachment opportunities, to ensure that our students are equipped with the most updated knowledge and skills to thrive in the future economy".

In responding to TODAY's queries, the ministry added that it is reviewing admissions into polytechnic year one to "better recognise the different subject levels taken by students".

It has also expanded the Polytechnic Foundation Programme, allowing more students to take it up. MOE will be removing the current stream-based admission — which limits the programme to Normal (Academic) students — in the academic year of 2028.

The polytechnics told TODAY that they are employing a variety of strategies to keep their curriculum up-to-date and to enhance the value of a diploma.

A key plank of their efforts is doubling down on what has worked for them — industry partnerships.

NYP, for one, has revamped its curriculum with a "Professional Competency Model" where students focus on acquiring specific skills and knowledge relevant to real-world tasks based on industry knowledge and partnerships.

Three of its six schools will have its curriculum based on its model when the new academic year starts in April, said Mr Chan of NYP.

"The curricula are agile, responsive to industry changes, and provide our students with the latest skills and knowledge. And our industry-relevant training is informed by real industry intelligence and needs, coupled with having access to proprietary learning materials from top companies," he told TODAY.

Industry partners also play a key role in RP's enhancement of its hospitality programme.

Its principal and chief executive officer Jeanne Liew told TODAY it has launched its Talent Advancement Programme to equip hospitality students with the right skills in collaboration with 16 businesses in the events, financial services and hospitality sectors.

Students who get into the programme in their second year of studies will be assigned to a mentor and participate in an early work immersion that can range from part-time roles during weekends to full-time positions during semester breaks.

They then take part in a 40-week structured internship, where students rotate across multiple roles to "broaden their competencies and enhance life skills".

"Recognising the specialised skillsets and extensive experience gained through the Talent Advancement Programme, School of Hospitality graduates may receive offers of bond-free, full-time employment at a higher position, along with up to 10 per cent additional remuneration, from their internship companies," added Ms Liew.

To ensure their graduates remain relevant as skills evolve at a quicker pace, several polytechnic leaders like Mr Soh Wai Wah, principal and chief executive officer of SP, said Continuing Education and Training is crucial.

Acknowledging that adults have different learning needs, SP has micro-credentials for adults to learn from bite-sized modules that can be stacked for higher-level recognition.

To help adults acquire job-relevant skills at a comfortable pace amid their busy schedules, about 30 per cent of its Continuing Education and Training programmes are held online for flexible learning, he added.

On the AI front, Ms Anita Kuan, deputy principal of TP, said the school has developed a digitalisation plan and launched an AI studio to equip its design school students with skills in Generative AI.

"The studio offers a vibrant, constantly evolving space for students to delve into the convergence of design and technology. By introducing students to the dynamic world of AI-assisted creativity, TP aims to nurture not just designers, but future innovators who are well-equipped to lead in the ever-evolving design landscape," she said.

Freshmen in the polytechnic's business school will also be required to learn how to use AI effectively this year onwards, she added.

Similarly at NP, students across the polytechnic have been required to take a module that incorporates generative AI that is related to their course.

"Aimed at enabling students to use generative AI tools to assist them in their learning or problem-solving, the lessons will also give them the opportunity to reflect on the use of such technologies, fostering a mindset that values the learning process as much as outcomes," said NP's senior director of technology, innovation and entrepreneurship Patrice Choong.

The school has also collaborated with cloud computing company Amazon Web Services to develop AI talents through a new specialisation in its data science course,

For Mr Neo, the sonic arts student, his future after his diploma is still uncertain. He plans to use his time during National Service to decide between pursuing a degree or securing work.

“I have the luxury of choice since my diploma is arts-based and most employers are looking for experience, not just academic credentials,” he said.

“So who knows? I will wait until I have to make a decision.”

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