When I was growing up, getting a university degree was never a question. Throughout my primary and secondary school years, I attended numerous tuition and extra classes to supplement what I had learned in school.
The end goal of this? To secure admission to a prestigious tertiary education institution. Looking back now, my economics degree only has marginal relevance to my current job, if any at all.
It’s not to say that my university experience was entirely futile — the years I spent pursuing my degree undoubtedly equipped me with a solid foundation in concepts such as market structures and economic policies.
But when it comes to the specific knowledge and skills required for my profession, I find myself relying more on the practical experiences and on-the-job training I’ve acquired over time.
I’m not alone in this predicament, though. Across the city-state, only a mere seven per cent of Singaporeans with post-secondary qualifications feel that their educational qualifications are “very relevant” to the job they currently hold.
But given this fact, why do many still relentlessly pursue higher education certifications?
The belief that education is crucial for a brighter future is deeply rooted in Singaporean society, which stems from its meritocratic system.
With good grades, you can get into a good university. With good university grades and a good degree, you can land a perfect, high-paying job. In other words, education paves the way to success in Singapore.
This is why many Singaporeans feel as though they are caught in a rat race from a young age, leading to a significant increase in the number of university graduates over the years.
As of 2020, nearly six out of 10 Singaporeans aged 25 and above have a post-secondary, diploma, professional qualification or university level credentials, up from less than half the population in 2010.
Notably, the largest contribution to this overall increase comes from the proportion of university graduates, which has surged by nine percentage points, rising from 23.7 per cent in 2010 to 33 per cent in 2020.
Younger age groups, particularly those aged between 25 and 34, demonstrate the highest rates of individuals with at least post-secondary qualifications, with nine out of 10 possessing such credentials. The trend continues within the 35 to 44 age bracket, where more than eight out of 10 individuals achieved the same educational milestone.
However, the perception among Singaporeans that a university degree equated to success isn’t wholly ungrounded though — that is if you tie success to the amount of money one earns.
University graduates do, in fact, earn substantially higher salaries. According to Seedly, graduates in their 20s and 30s earn a median pay that is at least more than double compared to those without higher education qualifications, as well as those from the Institute of Technical Education.
While this may be the case, an important factor to consider when examining the pursuit of higher education is the diminishing value added from a university degree as the number of graduates increases.
Take real-world cases for example — a degree can boost incomes by over 20 per cent in sub-Saharan Africa, where degrees are relatively rare, but in Scandinavia, where 40 per cent of adults have degrees, it boosts earnings by only nine per cent.
As post-secondary qualifications become commonplace, recruiters and employers will increasingly demand them, regardless if they are actually required for a specific job. This creates a situation where many jobseekers feel compelled to pursue higher education despite their career goals or interests.
At the same time, the abundant Singaporeans with post-secondary education also means that there is a high supply of jobseekers who are “over-educated” — which, in turn, leads to unemployment as the number of available jobs are not proportional to the number of job seekers.
For instance, Singapore saw an increase in graduates who remained unemployed for more than six months after leaving school, despite recording higher median salaries in 2022 as compared to the previous year.
In parallel, countries such as China are also seeing youth unemployment hitting record highs this year, with 20.4 per cent of job seekers aged between 16 and 24 unable to find work despite having higher education qualifications, with some possessing credentials from overseas institutions.
With graduates unable to secure jobs, many of them are turning to “low-skilled” jobs that offer lower salaries. Essentially, these graduates are underemployed.
According to a survey done by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and Ong Teng Cheong Labour Leadership Institute, about 4.31 per cent of degree-holders in Singapore are severely underemployed.
These graduates earn than less than S$2,000 a month, despite holding full-time jobs. “These are the ‘graduate poor’, and it is a black swan in our labour landscape,” said Zainal Sapari, an assistant secretary-general with the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC).
Even then, for those who manage to secure a “high-skilled” job, there’s often a mismatch between their educational qualifications and job scope.
Only 13 per cent of Southeast Asians feel that their educational qualifications are “very relevant” to the job they currently hold. In Singapore, this figure was drops to a mere seven per cent — the lowest across the Southeast Asian region.
This highlights the gap between the skills acquired through formal education and the evolving needs of the job market, especially in Singapore.
The issue with academia is that it just cannot keep up with the evolving job market, especially with the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) and automation. Often times, institutes of higher education do not equip graduates with the right skills needed for the workplace.
In fact, seven out of 10 young Singaporeans are unsure or do not think the tertiary education they receive in Singapore prepares them sufficiently to join the workforce.
Six in 10 professionals in Singapore’s workforce echo the same sentiments, believing that a degree holds less importance in landing a job today, as compared to 20 years ago.
Additionally, a Harvard Business Review report finds that the correlation between education level and job performance is weak. After all, academic grades are only indicative of how much a candidate has studied.
Recognising this paradigm shift, employers are now placing greater importance on specific skillsets rather than relying solely on academic qualifications.
In Singapore, data from a LinkedIn research revealed that more companies prefer to hire candidates with technical skills (39 per cent) and transferable skills (31 per cent), over education (eight per cent) and minimum years of experience (12 per cent).
But why are skills more valuable than academic qualifications today?
AI tools, including chatbots such as ChatGPT, have rapidly and drastically changed the job landscape today. These tools will leave a lasting impact in various industries, disrupting the way we work.
For one, it will result in the loss of certain jobs, but at the same time, it would also be the catalyst for the creation of new jobs that require different skillsets.
With automation replacing various job functions, its important to pick up skills that are hard for AI to replicate, such as creativity, emotional intelligence, critical thinking, and problem-solving — soft skills that require human judgement, intuition and empathy that are not easily replaceable by machines.
Automation aside, soft skills are also an essential part of improving one’s ability to work with others. The capacity to collaborate effectively with colleagues and cultivate positive relationships within a company plays a crucial role in professional growth and success.
Although the rise of AI has led to an increase in the demand for IT-related skills, an IBM study has found that the biggest skill gaps today are not digital, but behavioural.
That said, hard skills such as digital skills can still be easily picked up through various other means, instead of attending an institute of higher education. The rise of online education because of the pandemic has democratised access to hard skills, making it more accessible and affordable for individuals to acquire knowledge in various fields.
Online courses offered by reputable institutions like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) often provide practical, up-to-date knowledge that is directly applicable to the job market in a shorter period of time, providing a lucrative alternative to degrees that costs thousands of dollars.
I do admit though, universities and other tertiary institutions have been upping their game to equip their students with soft (and hard) skills, but these are usually in the form of courses that span a few weeks, such as NUS’ Roots and Wings course.
These skills definitely require knowledge, but it is really more about action — which is why hands-on experience holds greater value than just simply acquiring knowledge on these skills.
Today, 73 per cent of all professionals and young Singaporeans including Gen Zs, are prioritising skills over degrees.
But beyond acquiring the required hard and soft skills required for a job, it’s important to recognise the importance of adaptability and continuous learning as the job landscape evolves to become more complex and volatile.
In the wake of new innovations, continuous learning is no longer a choice, but a necessity. It holds the key to staying updated with the latest industry trends, acquiring new skills, and remaining competitive in the job market.
During his speech at the Global Lifelong Learning Summit last year, Singapore’s Minister of Education, Minister Chan Chun Sing, acknowledged that “no amount of front loading in [Singapore’s] school system would be adequate for the lifelong education needs of Singaporeans”.
This is why the Singapore government has upped its efforts to promote lifelong learning through initiatives such as SkillsFuture.
However, that is not to say that there is no value in a degree, especially when it comes to specialised fields such as medicine, finance, and law.
Degrees in such fields are often the backbone of these specialised career paths, and provide a solid foundation of knowledge and rigorous training that is essential for success and safety in these professions.
For instance, to become a Registered Psychologist in Singapore, you would not only have to complete an undergraduate degree, but also obtain a masters in the field.
While this holds true, it’s undeniable that the value of a degree has significantly deteriorated in the context of Singapore’s job landscape today.
Although institutes of higher education are adapting to this changing landscape by incorporating courses to enhance students’ workforce readiness, the pace of change remains a challenge.
The rapid evolution of the job market necessitates a comprehensive approach to education and career development, one that goes beyond traditional classroom learning and embraces continuous upskilling and real-world experience.
Featured Image Credit: pexels
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