Instead of capping the percentage of students going to uni, why don’t we do this instead?

By May 14, 2017Current

TL;DR – A degree is just the means. It’s not the goal.

There has been much talk recently about the percentage of Singaporean students going to universities. At the St Gallen Symposium,, Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung commented that Singapore’s education system needs to be aligned with the structure of the economy. Consequently, the proportion of graduates in a cohort has to be capped at about 30% to 40%. Later, when he was back in Singapore from the symposium, Minister Ong highlighted in Parliament that skills, not degrees, are what are at a premium now.

As expected, many Singaporeans were against the idea of capping the proportion of graduates in each cohort.

Why is the government so terrible? Why don’t they let all Singaporeans get a university degree? Doesn’t the government know that a degree automatically allows you to get a better job? Look at all the job advertisements. The jobs that require a degree pay more!

Do you think everyone can pass university exams?

Ok. Let’s say we let all Singaporeans go to university. And now, let’s be realistic rather than politically correct. Do you really think that everyone will actually be able to pass the exams in university? You need to be a whole new kind of delusional if you think that every single person in Singapore will be able to pass the exams in university.

Ah! But different people have different strengths! So different people can study different courses, courses which they have some natural aptitude in. That would make it more likely for them to pass the exams. Then we can let people spend more time in the course. Instead of four years, let them take five, six, seven years! And give them more help to ensure that everyone passes the exams. Then everyone will get degrees and we will all live happily ever after!

If make exams easier, then can already what…

Ok. Let’s assume we do that. Do you think that will result in everyone getting higher pay? Or would employers differentiate amongst the different courses? Don’t you think that employers won’t think that some courses are “easier”? Don’t you think that some employers will think that graduates from those courses are actually less capable and thus not worth a higher salary?

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That’s already the case today. Graduates from Stanford University or Cambridge University earn, on average, more than a graduate from, say, UniSIM. It shows that employers have the impression that the standards in universities like Stanford and Cambridge are higher, their exams and coursework tougher, thus their students are more capable. Don’t like it? Too bad. That’s the way the world is.

Get degree means will get better job meh?

And the market demands different courses and offer different market rates. The average starting salaries of graduates of law and medical faculties are the highest. Followed by graduates of computer science types of degrees. If your degree is in fine art or design, well… don’t expect your starting salary to be that high.

So for people whose inclination and aptitude aren’t in courses that are in demand in the real world, then will they actually get a job that requires their degree? We can have generalist degrees like… Bachelor of Sales and Marketing (is that even a thing?) But do we really need more people to do marketing and sales in Singapore? Besides, does a sales and marketing professional actually need a degree to perform and excel in their job?

So if a person gets into a course in university that the economy or market doesn’t really need, isn’t that a waste of time and resources? Or if a person gets into a course that the economy needs only because we let everyone do whatever they want, but that person eventually fails, isn’t that a waste of time and resources?

Ok. Then how about we make the exams easier? That way, anyone can get into any course, and pass the exams and get that degree.

That’ll be a disaster. We will have doctors who aren’t really competent operating on patients. We will have civil engineers who aren’t competent constructing buildings Do you want that? Our degrees will have no credibility. They will be worthless. People who take them would be wasting their time and resources. Not just their own resources. But also state resources. Is that what we want?

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Then how?

But there’s a way where we can ensure the standards of university degrees, maximise the chances that graduates will be competent and competitive in the job market, without actually setting a cap.

Here’s how.

Only offer courses that we think are or will be in high demand. Then, we assess all the people who want a space in those courses. The assessment should reveal whether the person has the aptitude and potential to do well in those courses.

Don’t fix or cap the number of people who can make it in. Don’t grade the assessment according to a bell curve. The passing mark should be an absolute mark (say 70% or 80%). All the people who meet that mark, regardless how many, should make it to the course. BUT, that mark should be set so that only those who clearly have a certain level of aptitude and potential in those courses will be admitted.

So someone who wants to get into an engineering course should demonstrate some ability to solve differential equations and apply physics concepts. Or someone who wants to get into a computer science course should demonstrate some understanding of object-oriented programming and some ability to analyse complexity and performance of algorithms.

Do you think that everyone in Singapore will be able to clear those sorts of tests? Surely not. Some, or perhaps even most, Singaporeans won’t be able to pass those tests. Then it’s not the fault of the government. They just aren’t suited for the rigour of an university course.

Of course, the exact implementation details need to be worked out. But philosophically, wouldn’t this be a better, fairer idea? Don’t cap the number of people using what people think is an arbitrary number. Let all those who can demonstrate that they have the aptitude and potential receive a university education. Those who can’t… well… they shouldn’t waste their time and resources.

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Wah… So heartless…

It doesn’t mean that those people can’t try again. Or they can take smaller non-degree courses. Structure those courses well. Ensure that those course will help people build their competencies, deepen their skills, broaden their skill sets, make them more employable, and increase their salaries.

And make it so that those courses are stackable. Take enough of those courses, demonstrate that you have gained a certain level of mastery in a particular domain because of your work experience and all the stackable courses you took along the way, and you could eventually get a degree.

But by then, that wouldn’t be that relevant. Or you might not see a need to pursue that degree anymore. What would be relevant is that you would have the skills needed to be so excellent at what you do that employers will be fighting to offer you a great job with a fantastic pay. Isn’t that what’s more important?

Perhaps we should be more imaginative. And stop being fixated with that piece of paper called a degree. A degree doesn’t mean anything. Or at least it shouldn’t define your life, who you are, what you become in your work journey. What matters is whether you can do the job, degree or not. A degree is just the means. It’s not the goal. The goal is to ensure that you can do a job, and do it extremely well.


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Joey Wee

Author Joey Wee

I am nice, most of the time!

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