Monday, May 25, 2015

Moving beyond degrees, but where to next?

All my life I have been raised to believe that getting a university degree is everything. It was a message drilled into me since young.

“No matter what you want to do in the future, just make sure you have a degree,” my parents, relatives and anyone 10 years older than me used to tell me. It is a safety net, a ladder to attain a comfortable life. My “ticket to success”.

To them, a degree increases your career options and determines your pay. And should you choose to pursue a path that is different from your course of study, you can always fall back on the degree should the going get tough. That “piece of paper” meant everything.

This was the mentality that was firmly embedded in our parents generation and shaped the culture of our society for a long time. It is a mentality that is prevalent throughout Asian societies. China, Japan, Korea and even Singapore. The emphasis to get a degree in Asian society is real and sometimes border on obsession.

In South Korea, two-thirds of its population aged between 25-34 have a college degree. In China, so much emphasis is placed on students doing well in the ‘gaokao’ or the annual college entrance exams that it is driving waves of student suicides. The pursuit of academic excellence in Asian societies has even created the term tiger mums, who can be loosely defined as mothers who are overly strict with their children in order to foster a competitive academic spirit.

Singapore itself is not spared from the obsession with academic excellence. According to the World bank, Singapore is highest in the world in terms of its graduate numbers, with 6 out of 10 Singaporeans aged 25 to 29 having completed tertiary education. The country tops the OECD global education ranking that tests students' mathematics and science abilities, in front of South Korea and Hong Kong. To keep up, some Singaporean parents even attend tuition classes to help their children in their homework.

If you need any more convincing that Singapore has an unhealthy obsession on the pursuit of academic excellence, last year's Household Expenditure Survey reported that the money spent on tuition was at a staggering 1.1 billion dollars.

Singaporeans fixation on education may have stemmed from the ancient Chinese imperial examinations, where producing a scholar meant an upward shift in social class. This could be further bolstered by the society's emphasis on meritocracy — where education and academic excellence is seen as a ticket to comfortable life — hence the push by parents to do whatever they can to get their children on the university track. To many, a degree is seen as the final goal in achieving academic excellence, and by extension a successful, if not decent, life.

The importance of getting a degree is so high for some that the end justify the mean, as seen in the brief controversy surrounding fake degrees and degree mills recently a few weeks ago — which prompted MOM to release an infographic explaining the different types of degrees. No matter how you feel about the ‘fake degree’ saga, it only reaffirms our deep-seated degree fetish.

However, in recent days, there seemed to be an increased shift away from the focus on academic excellence, particularly coming from the government. In his National Day Rally speech last year, PM Lee urged Singaporeans not to go on a “paper chase for qualifications or degrees”, advocating instead on alternative pathways to achieve success instead. This year, in the unveiling of the Skillsfuture initiative, there are increased talks on the importance of “skills” instead of qualifications, and the government in a whole is seen to be moving towards an approach that seek to de-emphasise the importance of a university degree or academic excellence.

In March this year, DPM Teo announced that non-degree holders joining the civil service will be hired under the same scheme as most university graduates, to close the gap in career prospects between the two groups. The message is further supported during the Committee of Supply debate this year, where MPs urged the Ministry of Education to tackle the ‘pervasive’ tuition culture. In an extensively written article titled ‘As graduate numbers grow, a hard truth: Not all degrees are equal’, the same message is repeated: Getting a degree is not the endgame. It does not guarantee your dream job. You must be skilled in multiple disciplines to stay relevant.

The message may come as a relief to some and the effort to de-emphasise the importance of degrees is commendable, but moving forward, there are still several important questions and issues that need to be addressed for this initiative to truly work out.

One of the most prevalent issues would be the difference in wages. No matter what effort you try to put in to change the ‘degree obsession’ would not change anything, if at the end of the day, the difference in the average starting salary and career prospects remain the same. In a US report released this year, a college graduate will earn a whopping $1 million more than high school graduate over the lifetime and in Singapore itself, degree holders can get up to 46% more in their starting pay as compared to diploma holders. That roughly translates to about 1000 SGD in salary difference per month.

The gap in starting pay is a significant issue and unless it is properly managed, people will still flock to universities in hopes of getting a degree because at the end of the day, it is the money that talks. More so in a place deemed the most expensive city to live in — where every dollar counts. Unless the difference in pay is addressed, it would be extremely tough to change the mentality of the populace. After all, who has the time to think about self-enrichment or finding a meaningful work (but not well paying) when you cannot even put food on the table?

The difference in salary will definitely be one tough nut to crack. If the government moves too much in support for alternative pathways, for example equalising the pay of a degree holder with that of a non-degree holder, they run the risk of alienating the whole degree industry. People would then flock to the alternative pathways instead of attaining degrees because, after all, the cost of attaining a degree is significantly higher than a getting a diploma.

In fact, universities could end up empty if the shift in mentality is significant. We could see a drop in people who are trained in high skilled jobs too, for example, researchers or academicians. One way around it could be to make university education free and letting students pursue university education purely based on interest's sake, which in my opinion would be an extremely bold but welcomed move. Education, after all, should be free and should not be done merely for economic reasons (ie we want a higher pay).

Unless that happens, where the difference in wage gap is removed and university education is made free, I foresee little change in the population's mindset no matter how much the government shouts for it. Of course, this sounds terribly easy on paper and may be hard to implement, I don't see why Singapore — being one of the most developed country in Asia — cannot do it if other countries in Europe could do it. I guess we can only wait to see what the government has in mind with this increase in changes.

As a degree holder myself, I just hope that the degree that I worked so hard to get and the debt that I had accumulated in the process would not go to waste and be jolly well worth it.


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