When going to university is a bad idea

By October 3, 2016Current

TL;DR – There are more options than just going to university.

via Elizabeth Boon

via Elizabeth Boon

In Singapore, we seem to be convinced that there is only one route to success: Getting a university degree.

Many believe that if we don’t make it to university, then that’s the end of our lives. That’s why we keep clamouring for more university places.

For many of those who cannot make it to the four autonomous universities (i.e. NUS, NTU, SMU and SUTD), where tuition fees are highly subsidised, their parents would fork out huge sums of money for their childten to be able to attend private universities. Often, these youths (or is it their parents?) do this because they believe that the money is a good investment.

After all, once you get a degree, you can get a good job with good pay. Sure-win investment, right?

Except that it doesn’t seem to be the case.

The Council of Private Education (CPE) conducted a broad-based survey of 4,200 students who graduated with degrees from nine private schools in 2014. It found that compared to graduates from the four autonomous universities, graduates from private schools (e.g. SIM, Kaplan) find it harder to land jobs and also, on average, they also command noticeably lower starting salaries.

Specifically, here are some of the findings. The private university graduates who did not have prior experience working full-time found it difficult to get full-time work upon graduating:


Comparatively, 83% of graduates from autonomous universities found full-time work within 6 months.

The graduates of private universities were also found to have lower starting pay. Their median starting salaries were:

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private vs autonomous university graduates

Comparatively, the gross median monthly salary of graduates from autonomous universities is $3,200.

Is this a good investment? Let’s also compare to polytechnic graduates:

160109 - Poly salary (sdpoly09)

It would seem that for the guys who have served their national service, the investment in a private university degree might only yield very marginal benefits.

Why is it that graduates from private universities in Singapore appear to be disadvantaged?

There are two possible reasons.

First, it could be that graduates from private universities are just less capable than the graduates of our autonomous universities. This could either be because the graduates from private universities are just innately less capable. Or it could be the courses in the private universities are less rigorous and do not prepare their graduates as well.

Second, it could be that employers are unfairly biased against graduates of private universities. Even if they are as capable as those who graduated from our autonomous universities, there may be employers who think otherwise and thus reluctant to pay them as well.

Whichever the case is, the reality is that a degree from a private university may not yield the returns that many youths expect.

This prompted Mr Ong Ye Kung, Acting Minister for Education to say:

“When you make a decision to pursue a degree, it should be after a thorough exploration of the choices and pathways available – not because a degree programme is the default pathway. A degree is but one path. Hopefully, with greater access to information, students and their families can make the best choices for themselves”

Indeed, one young lady just did that. Meet Ms Gabrielle Ong.

via Straits Times

via Straits Times

This very interesting young lady has been special for a long time. When she was 16 and done with her O levels, she had said half-jokingly that she wanted to quit school.

via Straits Times

via Straits Times

via Straits Times

via Straits Times

So, Gabrielle went to junior college. But after her ‘A’ levels and after receiving offers from all four autonomous universities, she decided to take a different route from her peers.

via Straits Times

via Straits Times

Instead, she decided to take a three-month course in web development. After the course, she received a number of job offers and she’s close to choosing one as a junior software developer in a start-up. As she puts it:

“I see it as learning from the university of life. It’s a different kind of education, but I’m taking charge of my own learning.”

via Straits Times

via Straits Times

Go watch her interview video, it’s quite refreshing!

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Like what Gabrielle found, there are indeed many options available. Under the SkillsFuture initiative, the Government is opening up more varied pathways for Singaporeans.

As reported by the Straits Times:

“These include the Earn and Learn scheme, where graduates from polytechnics and the Institute of Technical Education can work and further their qualifications at the same time. The universities, too, are developing pathways for working adults.”

So, if you are a youth looking at furthering your studies, consider all the different options available to you.

University isn’t the only way to go.


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Author CRC

Working on a startup is a scary crazy process. To destress, I write random stuff.

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