Be realistic about what a degree can offer

I am heartened to see that we have adopted great flexibility in our education system ("Learn for skills and life, not just grades: Heng Swee Keat"; March 7, and "Learning for life? Policies, parents need to change too"; March 19).

Gone are the days of rigidity that constrain one in developing one's potential to the fullest. It spells hope for the late bloomers, who may have walked around with a chip on their shoulders.

Learners have more avenues and choices to pursue something that will bring their worth to the fore.

But there is still this underlying desire to pursue a university degree, which is all well if they do so for the right expectations of what it can get them.

However, this needs to be put into perspective.

Nothing defies the law of demand and supply. When supply exceeds demand, prices drop.

In this context, when we have 15,000 new graduates yearly pounding the streets for employment, it is only to be expected that the starting salaries for the newly minted degree holders will drop.

It is highly possible that one will take longer to be employed or experience underemployment for jobs that underutilise their academic preparations.

Competition among job seekers will be keen, not just from within Singapore but also from people from around the world.

The traditional prerequisites of good grades and famous schools all become hygiene factors in the recruitment of talents. Employers are spoilt for choice.

In this competitive landscape, it takes ingenuity to distinguish oneself from the pack. Networking, internships, community service, language ability, leadership qualities and being widely travelled will save one from the reject pile on a recruiter's desk.

Job seekers may have to cast their nets wider by leaving their comfort zones and seeking greener pastures overseas. One may have to consider being an entrepreneur out of necessity, which can be an attractive proposition in an age of great uncertainties.

It is important to manage one's expectation of what a university degree can get you.

If you still harbour the arcane notion that it will bring you high pay and the attendant flashy good life of cars, condos and cash - think again. You just might be disillusioned.

But the saving grace of a changed world is that it offers us choices. It ushers in a new paradigm of possibilities in how we work, live and play. It redefines success in a meaningful way to each individual.

A university education helps you open up the possibilities ahead. It is not a pass to the promised land of old.

Lee Teck Chuan

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 28, 2015, with the headline 'Be realistic about what a degree can offer'. Print Edition | Subscribe