“A preoccupation with a formal qualification for its own sake has evoked fresh concern of late” (Moving Beyond the Paper Chase, The Straits Times Editorial).
While ST’s call for Singaporeans to let go of “the talismanic hold of paper” (ST, Sept. 16) is well-intentioned – and even though most know the degree is just a knock on the door – it still matters. On average starting salaries and benefits are higher for graduates. Management or associate programmes offered by multi-nationals in the private sector attract those fresh out of university. And while the public sector, following calls for change during the Prime Minister’s rally speech earlier this year, has promised to make its human resource policies less discriminatory, at the moment graduates and scholars are advantaged.
Mindsets are far too entrenched. Instead of asking junior college or polytechnic graduates to shun college, what should be emphasised is that the signalling effect of the degree is losing value, and is therefore no guarantee for a (well-paying, comfortable) job.
Because in an environment of uncertainty the degree appears to be source of comfort, albeit an expensive one. Most know that besides those in law or medicine degrees are no passports for upward social mobility. My parents, feeling their lack of college qualifications might have limited their own career advancements, now reckon that I could always fall back on the degree, that it is a safe bet. So why not? Little surprise that I am enrolled in a local university for business administration, probably the most pragmatic choice of degree.
Yet in this environment of ambiguity employers can afford to be shrewder. By 2020 the Singapore economy might be able to accommodate more educated workers, although a university enrolment of 40 per cent in each school cohort also means a lot more competition. Already prospective employees clamour for jobs in the finance and insurance industries. Parents and students should be cognisant of marked differences between overseas and local universities, between the more and less prestigious ones, between courses of study. Extra-curricular and leadership activities are no longer bonuses, but prerequisites.
This is the inevitable convergence of academic qualifications and general achievements.
Perhaps the only constant, as the ST editorial pointed out, is that society and businesses continue to “value all work done well and with passion”. Expectations on work performance remain the same. In the near future those without degrees might remain disadvantaged, but beyond the knock on the door fresh hires have to work hard, to acquire skills. The chase for a meaningful and accomplished life – at the workplace and beyond it – will continue.