University — For Jobs or Learning?

Will The Importance of Skills Ever Exceed Paper Qualifications in Finding Employment?

The notion that society can only accommodate only X% of university graduates is a highly destabilizing thought, especially for Singaporeans. It almost puts our entire tuition culture and relentless paper chase into a tailspin. I have attempted to sooth some of these tensions in our earlier article by breaking down the scary headline and trying to make sense of it. One of the fundamental assumptions behind the idea that there should only be a fixed percentage of university graduates, is that a university education should be aligned with the skills needed in the economy. The broader debate would be thus be whether a university education be about training students for future jobs, or should it fulfill a broader purpose of education? Here, we consider two alternatives.

1. The Focus on Skills Reinforces the Role of the University as a Ladder for Social Mobility

Education — The Ladder for Social Mobility

Due to the proliferation of Tertiary education in Asia and around the world, University course offerings have gotten increasingly diverse. It is thus unsurprising to see more and more students taking non-skill-based degrees and struggling to find work after graduation. That is not to say these degrees, such as those in extremely niche and obscure disciplines have no value, merely that their seeming failure fulfill economic needs has translated into their graduates struggling to find employment. The consequence is that students would struggle to find jobs, or at least jobs that they had expected to get after graduation. On a personal level, this could mean a huge financial burden particular if loans were obtained just to get through university. On a larger scale, this represents inefficiencies on a societal level as it is unclear what the value-add is on the part of the universities. As any first year Economics student would tell you, the utilization of resources to operate universities incur an opportunity cost — or in layman speak, requires the sacrifice of alternative uses of these resources. Thus from a societal viewpoint, universities have to add value in order to justify their existence, tangible or otherwise. To resolve this issue requires overcoming informational imperfection — students need to be able to make their university decisions based on a clearer correlation between the degree they are receiving and the jobs that they can expect to get. For decades, a university education in Singapore has provided a ladder for social mobility, and this explains the obsession with getting a degree. While growing enrollments have yielded more graduates and lifted their incomes, diminishing returns have started to set in. A degree no longer guarantees a good job, especially if it is from private universities. Given what is at stake, it is essential for the government to ensure that what universities are “selling” yields returns to both the individual and society. We cannot afford profit-seeking universities to offer an ever-growing list of degrees that would simply add to our graduate unemployment rate, or even underemployment rate (where graduates are underutilized in unskilled positions).

2. A Holistic Education is More Critical to the Long-Term Development of Society

A Holistic Education System Could be the Missing Puzzle Piece for Sustained Economic Development

An excessive focus on skills could harm the economy and society in the long-term by being overly narrow, as well as kill the spirit of learning and education. A skill-based university education first requires the government and the universities to figure out the skills that are needed — not in the present, but in the future. As GIC’s former Chief Economist Mr Yeoh Lam Keong pointed out, “the history of education policy is full of examples of existing policy makers underestimating the skill and education needs of the modern economy and overestimating their ability to forecast them.” Clearly any attempt to forecast required skills and the “optimal” number of graduates would be nothing more than guesswork with unimaginable consequences should the exercise go awry. Even Bill Gates, one of the most prominent dropouts in recent times, have espoused the need for more graduates in the US. We could find ourselves with an entire generation of graduates so narrowly trained in what was believed to be the skill of the future, only to be caught out by seismic technological shifts and disruption, rendering them obsolete in one fell swoop. This is where an educational system modeled after the American Liberal Arts program could be relevant. Rooted in ancient Greek philosophies, a Liberal Arts education promises a broad based education that teaches students how to learn rather than just what to learn. Not only can this potentially equip students with the knowhow to be dynamic and adaptable to a changing economy, it could raise a generation of learners who can and will continue to educate themselves throughout adulthood. This does not only translate into economic benefits, but alters society’s attitude towards learning and lifelong education, which could potential allow Singapore to develop into one of the leading nations for learning and innovation. Clearly, a Liberal Arts program is not the only solution. What is important is to provide a broad-based education system that is less skill centric but focuses more on educating the workforce with soft skills rather than just cold-hard knowledge.


Expectedly, the answer to this highly complex question probably lies somewhere between the two extremes presented. The difficulty of course is getting the balancing act right. Slashing university places because we only need X% of graduates in the economy is a myopic and convenient solution that does the economy no long-term good. The need to develop alternative pathways to success as been discussed at length in my previous article. The transition process from a degree-obsessed society to a skill-based one is necessary, but should not be done by setting a cap to the number of university graduates, explicitly or otherwise. A skills-focused education pipeline is necessary for the economy, but universities should retain their function as a place of higher learning, offering a broad education to develop the workforce holistically.

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