An edited version of this commentary was first published in NVPC’s SALT, “Keeping Up With ‘Education Inflation’“.
After more than a decade of formal education it is hard to convince a student – let alone a parent – that going to university is not necessary, and that one can be successful without a degree. It should come as no surprise that the government has responded to that demand. ST reported that at the moment “about 27 per cent of each cohort of students can get a place in a publicly funded university”, and the proportion could be 40 per cent by 2020 (Mar. 16).
It might be true that “[s]ome might fund interesting and rewarding pathways via the polytechnics which provide a crucial layer of technical skills for the economy”, but pragmatism reigns supreme in the mind-set of the average Singaporean. Students and parents who take interest in the graduate employment survey are lured by the high employment rates and respectable salary levels. Students are accustomed to competition, and with college graduation perceived as an academic pinnacle they scramble for spots. Parents, especially those who never had a shot in the past, are keen to groom a first graduate in the family.
This education inflation is inevitable. Detractors might lament an over-supply of graduates in the country, though their diversity and mastery could raise levels of economic productivity.
Yet the immediate implication of this new normal is that the possession of a degree per se is insufficient. The choice of the university, the combination of courses, and the eventual grade-based performances now matter more. Engagement in co-curricular activities is heavily encouraged, since multi-national corporations and public organisations have greater luxury in selection and recruitment. Above all involvement in multi-disciplinary endeavours – as well as the transferability and flexibility of skill-sets – is emphasised.
Because in many instances, graduates might realise that the field-specific knowledge they have amassed in school is barely applicable within their job environments and responsibilities.
If we assume that the government is capable of preventing a graduate glut through careful calibration, then the expectations of students and parents can be managed. As the education system diversifies to recognise talents beyond the scholastic realm, it would be meaningful to help students keep an eye on their future, to question how lessons in the classroom can be applicable beyond. Career guidance has been institutionalised, and should be extended flexibly to guide students with their personal goals and aspirations.
And if the desire is for Singaporeans to actively challenge the status quo then the distinction between graduates and non-graduates can be blurred gradually, progressively. For the time being however, helping students situate their compasses should remain a priority.