Why It Matters

Before you rush for a degree...

Parents and students eyeing a berth in one of the six local universities cheered the news that a record number of applicants was admitted this year.

Some 15,000 polytechnic graduates and A-level school leavers won a place for the new academic year, 1,000 more than last year, raising the age group's rate of entry into university to 32 per cent.

The Ministry of Education said it was on track to reach its target cohort participation rate of 40 per cent by 2020.

No doubt, having a degree has always increased the prospects of better-paying jobs. The latest graduate employment survey released early this year showed median salary levels for the class of 2013 rose to $3,200 from $3,050 the year before.

The employment rate of degree holders also remained high, with close to nine in 10 finding jobs within six months of graduation.

Whether this will still be the case a few years from now remains to be seen.

Elsewhere, such as in South Korea and Taiwan, a glut of graduates followed the liberalisation of universities, resulting in increasing under- and unemployment of degree holders.

Social economists like Mr Phillip Brown from the United Kingdom argue that the conventional wisdom that a degree equals higher earnings does not hold true any more, when employers can scour the world to find the highest skills they can get for the least amount of money. This creates a sort of worldwide auction for high-skill, low-wage work.

As government officials have stressed, school leavers would do well not to blindly rush into a degree course before they figure out where their interests and talents lie. Some may even want to go out to work to hone their skills and understand the demands of the marketplace first.

Then, when they finally enter university, they would be better able to match their education with their career goals. When their talent can align with real-world needs, graduates would find that they have a better chance of success.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 13, 2015, with the headline 'Before you rush for a degree...'. Print Edition | Subscribe