SINGAPORE — After 23-year-old Gabriel Wong obtained his International Baccalaureate diploma in 2018, he felt it was only natural to pursue a university degree next — he did not seriously consider any other alternative.
“To be blunt, it’s difficult for the average person to be competitive in the modern job search without a university degree,” said the information systems student at Singapore Management University.
After all, he noted, many recruitment advertisements still call for candidates to have at least a Bachelor’s degree or equivalent.
And were he to have children in future, he would expect them to pursue a university degree too, which he feels is the prudent choice, unless they decided to become entrepreneurs or had other passions and goals.
Earlier this year, Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong called for the professionalising of skilled trades, such as the work done by electricians and plumbers, to assure graduates from the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) and polytechnics that their wage and career prospects would not be too far below their university-going peers.
Yet, that such sentiments — as uncovered in the survey — persist in spite of concrete steps taken by the Government, suggest that much still has to be done to reframe Singaporeans’ perceptions.
Sociologists told TODAY that structural reforms must accompany government messaging, for Singapore to move the needle on this matter.
AN ASPIRATION GAP
The survey also found that youths who are highly educated and more well off were more likely to say that they expect their future children to have degrees too:
95 per cent of the youths polled who had a monthly household income of S$20,000 or more agreed they expected their future children to have a university degree, as did92 per cent of those who had a monthly household income of between S$15,000 and S$19,99986 per cent of those who had a degree or higher82 per cent of those who lived in private property
Those who came from humbler backgrounds or did not have degrees themselves were less likely to expect their children to obtain university degrees:
68 per cent of those who had a monthly household income of less than S$4,00065 per cent of those who had a secondary-level education or lower57 per cent of those who had a polytechnic diploma or equivalent
There was a similar outcome to the question of whether a degree is still necessary to achieve success in Singapore, with those who were more well off and highly educated more likely to agree:
78 per cent of those who had a household income of S$20,000 and above77 per cent of those who had a household income of between S$15,000 and S$19,99973 per cent of those who had a degree or higher
In contrast, 62 per cent of those who had an ITE or A-Levels certification or equivalent and 59 per cent of those who had a polytechnic diploma or equivalent said they agreed that a degree was necessary for success.
The results point to “social reproduction”, wherein the wealthy and well-educated have higher expectations and aspirations of their children, and hence spur them on to achieve more than the children of the less wealthy and educated, said Dr Vincent Chua, an associate professor of sociology at the National University of Singapore (NUS).
“In other words, a class-gap in aspirations exists. In a more equal society, class should have no bearing on aspirations, where the less privileged dream too and are able to see their dreams translate.”
“As technology advances rapidly, the ability to excel in a job will often outshine the possession of a degree. I believe that, over time, employers’ expectations and perspectives will continue to evolve,” said Mr Zaini.
Regardless of their stance on a degree’s necessity, youths across the board said that possessing a paper qualification was ultimately just getting a “foot in the door”.
“I think that in Singapore, while a university degree is often your foot in the door and could enhance opportunities, success isn’t solely tethered to academia,” said Mr Wong, the Singapore Management University student.
He added that some thriving professionals attribute their success more to “specialised skills, networking, and practical experience” rather than formal education.
QUALIFICATIONS AND SKILLS SHOULD COME HAND-IN-HAND
There is indeed a growing emphasis on a “skills-first” hiring approach, which the World Economic Forum defines as stressing a person’s skills and competencies over their degrees, job histories or job titles when attracting, hiring, developing, and redeploying talent.
But this does not mean paper qualifications cease to be important, only that they are now no longer the only thing that matters.
In fact, Dr Chua from NUS said a degree would continue to matter as society continues moving towards a knowledge-based economy and becomes less and less an industrial one.
“The importance of degrees will only grow. True, the comparative advantage of degrees will fall as more people obtain degrees, but this only serves to reinforce the basic necessity of a degree. It has become a non-negotiable.”
Ms Shalynn Ler, Singapore general manager of executive search firm Ethos BeathChapman, added: “From a cultural perspective too, in Asia, while values are shifting slowly to focus on other aspects of success in addition to academic results, most youths themselves would have grown up in an environment where academic results are still tied to success. Hence, it will be hard to totally shift away from this.”
She acknowledged that while Singapore may be moving towards a skills-first approach, the trend remains more prominent among “seasoned professionals with rich achievements”.
In the absence of relevant work experience, fresh graduates would often still have to emphasise their education levels and cover letters to distinguish themselves, she said.
Still, she said this might shift as more millennials become hiring managers themselves and see the value in a skills-first hiring approach.
Acknowledging this, Mr Zaini said: “For fresh graduates, there is undoubtedly a salary difference between degree and non-degree holders. However, with experience, opportunities are based on your skills and achievements rather than qualifications.
“If an organisation values you, a non-degree holder might earn more than a degree holder. Ultimately, work experience speaks for itself, and as you gain experience, qualifications become less significant in the job market.”
TODAY will be going live on Oct 19 and 20 to discuss the findings of the Youth Survey. Tune in to the webinars at https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/today-goes-live-2023-2259246