Valuing Degrees

By Kwan Jin Yao

“Slightly fewer graduates from the three local varsities last year are landing jobs or managing to do so as quickly, although they are getting paid better” (Slight Fall in Employment Rate for Local Graduates, Amanda Lee)

Of what use is the Graduate Employment Survey (GES), besides allowing universities to trumpet the employability of their fresh graduates (TODAY, Feb. 28)? Paired together with favourable international institutional rankings the three colleges appeal to the pragmatism of prospective students and – perhaps more significantly – their parents. Compare the starting salaries and job prospects across courses, their officers urge at open houses and admission fairs, because these indicators are approximates of the value of a degree. The Ministry of Education (MOE) makes it clear that the GES provides these applicants “with timely and comparable data to assist them in making informed course decisions”.

At first glance the valuation seems fair. Moreover a similar survey is also conducted by the five polytechnics for their diploma courses. Yet what it also does is to reinforce conceptions that the diploma or degree is but a paper qualification, a knock on the door for a future career.

Yet what it also does is to reinforce conceptions that the diploma or degree is but a paper qualification, a knock on the door for a future career.

Notwithstanding some of its shortcomings – it is not clear, for instance, whether the overall response rate of 74 per cent is consistent for individual degrees – the emphasis of the GES on employment rates and salaries per se means other information should be considered before matriculation and upon graduation. The present level of remuneration does not reflect the likelihood of future increases, or opportunities for career progression. Within degrees or specialisations the employment options could differ, with entries into different industries.

With ubiquitous calls by the government for young Singaporeans to follow their ambitions the MOE could urge the three autonomous universities to reconsider this GES practice, though the onus is on individuals to not focus exclusively on these employment and salary figures. Comparisons will be made even in the absence of an annual quantitative study. Look no further than the parents who converged on online platforms to aggregate data, when it was decided that top scorers for the Primary School Leaving Examination will not be named.

The diploma or degree may be a paper qualification for a future career, but it can be more than that. Preferences change during a course of study, and options for exploration can guide trajectories. It would be a tragedy if the decision to further one’s studies is guided only by starting salaries and job prospects, especially when graduates of my generation now have the privilege to make the best of our choices, beyond the mere fulfilment of pragmatic needs.

This post was first published over at the blog of Kwan Jin Yao on 2 March 2015. It is reproduced with permission.


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