Saturday 18 May 2013

Is a degree really all-important?

Even as the Government opens up more degree pathways for aspiring polytechnic graduates, its leaders are urging diploma holders to consider taking the road less travelled, be it going out to work or going into business
By Sandra Davie, The Straits Times, 16 May 2013

LAST year in his National Day Rally speech, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had some good news for polytechnic graduates and their parents.

After a year-long review, he said, the Government had decided to offer 3,000 more university places a year by 2020. The bulk of these places, which will be created by expanding the Singapore Institute of Technology and SIM University, will go to polytechnic graduates, many of whom increasingly aspire to have a degree.

But even as the Government opens up more university places, it has been urging young Singaporeans, including diploma holders, to consider other pathways.

PM Lee, who addressed polytechnic students recently, told them that getting a degree was not the only option.

He encouraged them to work for a few years or start their own business. "You will gain experience and understand yourself better and then be better able to decide what the next step will be," he said at Ngee Ann Polytechnic's 50th-anniversary celebrations.

A day later, National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan had similar advice.

The plain-speaking Mr Khaw, who spoke at an Our Singapore Conversation session, responded to a participant who said more university places should be set aside for Institute of Technical Education (ITE) and polytechnic graduates.

He added that Singapore could not have an entire nation of graduates. "Can you have a whole country where 100 per cent are graduates? I am not so sure," he said.
"What you do not want is to create huge graduate unemployment."

Degree the new O-level?

ALTHOUGH sound, such advice is not going to sway polytechnic students very easily.

The Education Ministry does not reveal the yearly university application figures. The local universities are currently conducting their admissions exercises and it is likely that a record number of polytechnic graduates and A-level holders are vying for the 13,000 places available this year.

About 17 per cent of a polytechnic cohort will land a place, compared to more than 70 per cent of those coming out of the junior colleges.

The remaining diploma holders are unlikely to give up on their degree ambitions. A few thousand will head overseas, mostly to British and Australian universities. These institutions give students generous credit exemptions, allowing them to complete their degrees in one to two years.

Those who cannot afford the cost will look to private schools such as the Singapore Institute of Management and EASB Institute of Management.

Those whose financial circumstances require them to go out to work will turn to UniSIM to study part-time to fulfil their degree aspirations.

Five years ago, the estimate was that 60 per cent of all polytechnic graduates go on to secure a university degree within five years. These days, polytechnic officials estimate that the figure is probably close to 80 per cent.

But why the hankering for a degree?

Ask any diploma holder and the answer is likely to be "better jobs and higher salaries".

A diploma holder's average starting salary is $2,000, while that of a degree holder is $3,000. So the difference is $1,000 at the starting line.

The gap widens further over their working life.

There are no up-to-date figures, but a 2007 study by the Ministry of Manpower showed that every extra year of schooling increases a worker's earnings by 13.7 per cent. The rate is higher for tertiary education.

Talk to job recruiters and it's also a fact that even those who perform remarkably well in their jobs quickly hit a ceiling.

Take Mr Luke Ong, 25, an enginering diploma holder who became a team supervisor in a multinational corporation within three years. Earlier this year, he applied for an opening as manager, but the position went to a fresh graduate.

"I used to think maybe I can get away without a degree. But the reality hit me just after three years."

So who can blame polytechnic diploma holders like him who feel that a university degree is the new O-level, the minimum requirement to land a well-paid job that will be a good stepping stone to a good career?

Underemployment of grads

BUT both PM Lee and Mr Khaw have given sound advice, and it should be heeded.

First, just because past job trends show that graduates land the jobs and earn more in their lifetime does not mean that this will be the case in the future.

Take the United States, which has been experiencing an economic downturn the last few years.

The graduate unemployment figure of 3.9 per cent doesn't look too bad. But on closer scrutiny, it appears that university graduates there are faced with underemployment.

Social economists such as Phillip Brown, Hugh Lauder and David Ashton, who wrote the book, The Global Auction: The Broken Promises Of Education, Jobs And Incomes, have argued that the conventional thinking that a degree equals higher earnings does not hold any more.

The authors surveyed businesses around the world and discovered there was a global auction for high-skill, low-wage work.

Employees may want to increase the value of their labour and earn higher wages, but companies wanting to maximise profits aim to lower their labour costs. So they will go where they can find workers with the skills they need, but who are prepared to accept more modest wages.

The dampening effect on graduates' salaries is exacerbated by oversupply. In the past 10 years, undergraduate numbers have doubled.

In addition to outsourcing of back-office jobs such as data input, graduate-level jobs are going to those who can be paid the lowest rate. Analysing X-rays, drawing up legal contracts and processing tax returns are examples of skilled jobs going offshore.

What's more, class distinctions among graduate workers are emerging. At the top, there will be a cadre of thinkers and decision-makers - perhaps 10 per cent or 15 per cent of the total - but the mass of employees will perform routine functions for modest wages.

Those with elite qualifications are more likely to be made "thinkers", leaving those with "garden variety" university degrees to be "doers", conclude the authors.

This is where the Prime Minister's and Mr Khaw's advice comes in useful. It is important that students, whether diploma holders or A-level school leavers, first figure out where their interest and talent lie.

And not all talents are best nurtured by immediately heading to university. There are many who would benefit from going out to work for a few years to hone their skills and understand the demands of the career they are interested in.

This way, when they enter university, they are able to make the most of their education to meet their career aims. And because they have picked a course based on their interest and talent, they are likely to end up scoring top grades.
It's one way for polytechnic students to ensure that they don't end with a "garden variety" university degree that will limit their career and life opportunities.

More to university than getting a degree
It's the 'learning to learn' system that matters, not that piece of paper
By Andrea Ong, The Straits Times, 25 May 2013


DO YOU need a university degree for a good career?

This has been hotly debated in recent weeks after four ministers - Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan, Acting Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing and Education Minister Heng Swee Keat - spoke on similar themes of how academic qualifications are not a sure ticket to success.

Indeed, Asia "is a bit hung up on that piece of paper", Singapore Management University (SMU) president Arnoud De Meyer tells Insight. A degree helps get a better salary, but it is the experience of learning that is more important in today's age, says Professor De Meyer, who has held top posts at Insead and Cambridge University's Judge Business School.

He also discusses last year's announcement of a 3,000-strong increase in student numbers by 2020, noting that not everybody needs to go to university and there are good jobs that do not require a degree.
- What is your take on the recent debate?
Having a good degree helps you to find a better job and a higher salary. It also offers you broader options. If you go for a diploma, usually you're quite specialised.

But there are successful people with no degree, such as (late Apple chief executive officer) Steve Jobs and (Facebook CEO) Mark Zuckerberg.

Even when the PM announced last year that 40 per cent of each cohort will go to university by 2020 (up from 27 per cent now), that still means that 60 per cent will not go to university.

If you look at other advanced countries like the Scandinavian countries or Britain, 40 per cent is in the upper limit.

University degrees offer three things as opposed to a diploma. First, you get your specialisation, your skills you build up.

Second, we've organised the SMU education (so) it is broad. Students have a lot of flexibility. They can have a second major, second degree or electives.

The third characteristic is "learning to learn". What you learn today may be obsolete five years from now. You need to constantly learn new things. That is also what university education provides - a system of learning.
- The ministers emphasised the value of work experience and entrepreneurship. Can't these be obtained both in and out of university?
I agree with what Mr Khaw said - that it is not about the piece of paper you can hang on your wall but about real experience and the components of your education.

It is about being able to immediately start working when you get a job. That is why we believe in internships and have made it compulsory for every student to do an internship. I also believe in international exposure and holistic education - these prepare people better for a job in the real world.

That's what universities need to do more in the future - mix conceptual and theoretical learning with practical exposure.

Asia as a whole is a bit hung up on that piece of paper. It's the experience of learning that is more important. A university is both about skills and things like interactions and discussions with each other, the creativity of working day and night on projects, going out, making new friends.

It is also true that we need to become more entrepreneurial, not necessarily setting up a business but in the way we act within the company. Our Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship has 55 companies created by our students. They are all small and some of them will fail, I fear, but you will see that our students have that entrepreneurial attitude.
- How do the recent statements by the ministers sit with the announcement last year that the Government will offer 3,000 more university places by 2020?
I don't see too much contradiction because they are creating more places.

I see three things happening here. One, there was this expectation that everybody will go to university in the end. Maybe some will have that chance.

But we have to be realistic. It's not necessary that everybody goes. There are really interesting and good jobs that don't require a university degree and they may be a better fit for people with more practical or artistic aptitudes. We all have different capabilities and should recognise that not everybody will have to go to university.

The second point is, we know from the European experience that if you have too many students going to university, you get graduate unemployment. So underlying the messages from the ministers is, be careful, a degree is no guarantee for a job.

Third, be careful in choosing a line of study. Choose a broad area where there will be demand.

Polytechnic graduates are concerned that in sectors where they compete with university graduates for jobs, starting pay and job progression will differ.

At polytechnics, you get very good people with much more practical skills who can hit the ground running. They start working at 19 for women or 21 for the men, and you could argue that they have four more years of earning money than a university graduate.

University graduates also have to pay their tuition fees. Somehow the market recognises the difference in investments that students have made.
- How has the value of a university degree changed in Singapore?
Recruiters ask for more than skills from your studies. They are looking for communication skills and global exposure. They expect us to groom students to be more job- ready.
- How can universities ensure both that their education remains accessible while graduates are employable?
(By) making sure our students are employable. We have to be realistic. Just because I got a degree in economics today doesn't mean it will be valid 10 years later. That's why we tell students to think about a broad set of capabilities and skills and to keep improving.

We also work closely with the Education and Manpower ministries to get a feel for where Singapore is going. We invest in helping our students understand the job market, listen to the market's needs and adjust our curriculum.

For instance, we now see fewer jobs in finance. Arts and cultural management is growing - (Korean rapper) Psy is here this weekend - so we launched a second major in that field.


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