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Getting A Degree: Changing Significance

Graduates walking towards future

• Dr Tan Ern Ser •

The ­university degree is now less of a ­passport to the good life, warns Dr Tan Ern Ser.

The Old Paradigm: Degree As ­Premium
Slightly more than a quarter of a century ago, it was generally taken for granted that a degree would lead one to a PME (professional, managerial, or executive) career.  One would then have access to a middle-class lifestyle, not quite the ‘good life’ associated with the rich and famous, but good enough for the many who hailed from humble backgrounds.

That was the era when the 5 C’s (cash, credit card, condo, car, and country club membership) was the buzzword, and upgrading was a constant refrain.  Just toss an object into a crowd and you are likely to hit someone aspiring to move up the HDB housing ladder and hoping to cross the social divide between public and private housing, and between public and private transport.

In aggregate, the Singapore Dream of upward social mobility was at its most ­salient.  This involved playing the ­mobility game, with parents obsessively anxious about their children’s education, or more correctly, qualifying for the so-called ‘good’ schools, eventually landing a prestigious scholarship, and at least a place in a ­local university.  All of these entailed getting good grades.  On their part, the children ­experienced relentless severe pressure to perform well in examinations with the goal of reaching the launching pad that could propel them into a high-income career trajectory.

Getting a degree was a major ­preoccupation.  Most tried to get the prized ­credentials the quickest way possible, ­preferably graduating after 16 years of local formal education. If they fail to enter a local university or if they have the means, they enrolled in a university overseas.

Whither University Education?
Along the way, some private businesses emerged to offer degree programmes, often involving tie-ups with foreign ­universities.  This qualification-getting phenomenon ­remains at a quite frenzy level with supply of and demand for university degrees feeding one another.  Some of the programmes offered are part-time, making it possible for working adults to attain a ­degree in as short as 18 months, compared to the ‘normal’ ­full-time, 4-year programme.

I am in no position to evaluate these programmes, neither do I wish to; ­however, broadly speaking, I am troubled about universities offering ‘dumb down’ courses or, worse, acting as degree mills with no accredited courses and actual instructions, let alone academic rigour.  I am also somewhat concerned about universities offering courses with ‘sexy’ labels but of no market value.
In an ideal world with no scarcity, ­universities may focus on education alone, which involves helping students to acquire a quality of mind capable of understanding the human condition, critical thinking, and creating new knowledge.  However, in the real world we inhabit, I believe ­universities should provide not only a good ­education, but also professional training that enable graduates to be both educated and equipped to be ‘future ready’ for the world of work.

We should avoid a situation where university commencements present a large crowd of people, all dressed up but ­having nowhere to go. Instead, it should be a ­celebratory occasion to mark an achievement and a happy transition to a life of meaningful contribution to the country and the economy.
The fact that universities have in recent years labelled the graduation ceremony as a commencement, rather than a convocation, is quite telling.  Whereas in the not so distant past, graduation put one on an escalator to vast opportunities and ample low-hanging fruits, it now leads one into an arena with many competing for less ­abundant high-hanging fruits.

The degree therefore no longer fetches a premium price, yet there is a reluctance to play the mobility game differently.   This inertia is perfectly understandable, given that a degree can be thought of as a sort of insurance.  But unfortunately, it may offer a false assurance or sense of security.   The still current model of every Singaporean trying to get a degree – any degree – may no longer be workable, and could lead to frustration, disillusionment and a dead end.

A New Paradigm
What is needful is a return to the original intent of what higher education ought to be about.  This does not necessarily entail going to university, but it does require one to seek a good education, strive for excellence, learn continually and expand one’s repertoire of knowledge and skill set.
At the same time, even as Singaporeans embrace the new paradigm, we should ­recognise that there are diverse types of contributions to society and economy. They are important in their own ways, worthy of ­support and deserving of rewards in our meritocracy; understood as one which adopts a broad, inclusive definition of merits.  This broad definition will encourage Singaporeans to move away from a one-dimensional credential-seeking mentality and towards a system which recognises multiple pathways to success.

Dr Tan Ern Ser teaches Sociology at NUS and is Head of the Social Lab at the Institute of Policy Studies.  He received his PhD in Sociology from Cornell University on a postgraduate scholarship.  He has won several teaching awards and is author of ‘Does Class Matter’.  He was appointed a Justice of the Peace in 2013.