One size does not fit all in higher education

In this third of a four-part series on higher education, work and skills, Senior Education Correspondent Sandra Davie talks to OECD's Andreas Schleicher on how higher education institutions will have to transform themselves to stay relevant

OECD education and skills chief Andreas Schleicher says the degree aspirations of young Singaporeans are understandable, as research around the world has shown that those with university degrees command a premium in the marketplace.
OECD education and skills chief Andreas Schleicher says the degree aspirations of young Singaporeans are understandable, as research around the world has shown that those with university degrees command a premium in the marketplace.LIANHE ZAOBAO FILE PHOTO
Mr Andreas Schleicher is director for education and skills, and special adviser on education policy to the secretary-general at the OECD.
Mr Andreas Schleicher is director for education and skills, and special adviser on education policy to the secretary-general at the OECD.ST PHOTO: SANDRA DAVIE

Despite some calling into question the value of a degree education, most Singaporeans are firmly in the other camp.

In 2018, when the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) surveyed 15-year-olds around the world on their degree aspirations, Singapore had by far the highest proportion wanting to go to university.

The Paris-based think-tank's education and skills chief Andreas Schleicher says that the aspirations of young Singaporeans are understandable, as research around the world has shown that those with university degrees command a premium in the marketplace.

In fact, a survey of adult-skills results released in 2017 showed that Singapore has the highest percentage change in wages along with increases in the years of education among the 34 economies surveyed by the OECD's Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (Piaac).

Every additional three years of education translates to a more than 30 per cent increase in wages in Singapore.

For countries, such as the United States, the comparable figure is around 20 per cent, while the OECD average is a wage hike of less than 15 per cent.

Mr Schleicher says the finding does not mean that employers here recognise and pay for better skills.

"I think, unfortunately, employers in Singapore, as in many other countries, are using formal qualifications as a proxy for skills."

He also cautions that just because someone has a degree, it does not mean he or she is highly skilled.

In fact, Piaac has shown that high school graduates in some countries have better literacy and numeracy skills than tertiary-educated people in other countries.

  • About Andreas Schleicher

  • Mr Andreas Schleicher, 55, is director for education and skills, and special adviser on education policy to the secretary-general at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in Paris.

    As a key member of the OECD senior management team, Mr Schleicher supports the secretary-general's strategy to produce analysis and policy advice that advances economic growth and social progress.

    In addition to policy and country reviews, the work of the directorate includes the Programme for International Student Assessment, the OECD Survey of Adult Skills, and the OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey.

    Before joining the OECD, Mr Schleicher was director for analysis at the International Association for Educational Achievement.

    He studied physics in Germany and received a degree in mathematics and statistics in Australia.

    He is the recipient of numerous honours and awards, including the Theodor Heuss prize, awarded in the name of the first president of the Federal Republic of Germany for "exemplary democratic engagement".

    He holds an honorary professorship at the University of Heidelberg.

    A German citizen, Mr Schleicher is married, with three children. He speaks German, English, Italian and French.

    Sandra Davie

He also said that honing the skills of students should be the focus of not only universities, but also employers. Employers must recruit based on the skills that candidates possess and know how to extract value from their workers' skill sets.

He brought up the example of the US and Japan to illustrate why it was important that employers make optimal use of workers' skills.

The US has a low skills base compared with Japan, but its economy is more vibrant. Why is this so?

Piaac researchers looked at the evidence and surmised that the American economy was exceptionally good at extracting value from its workers, including talented foreigners who head to the US for further education and jobs.

"It is because the employers there recognise their skills, know how to use them and are willing to pay a premium for skills," explained Mr Schleicher.

"The reverse is true for Japan, where rigid labour market arrangements prevent many skilled individuals, notably women, from going into jobs where their skills can be well used."

He is full of admiration for Singapore's SkillsFuture movement, which aims to develop every Singaporean to his fullest potential.

Singapore, he said, should not only aim to raise the level of skills among its population, but also look at how to use its skilled and talented workforce better.

Q You say qualifications, including university degrees, are not always a good predictor of the skills that people currently have. Why so?

A Piaac, or our survey of adult skills, shows that when you look at the data across countries, there is an overlap in the skills of high school graduates and university graduates.

Japanese high school graduates come out better than university graduates in many other countries on foundation skills like literacy and numeracy.

Also, even if a student acquires skills and knowledge, these can quickly become obsolete in this fast-changing word.

Degrees signal what you did in the past. They don't necessarily show what you can do today. I studied physics but if you put me in a lab now, I won't be able to do a great job.

Q Singapore will reach 40 per cent cohort participation rate this year, which means that four out of every 10 in an age group would be able to enrol in one of the six universities in Singapore for degree studies. This is a big increase from just a few years ago. Should we increase it further?

A In many countries, not just Singapore, qualification levels have risen enormously with a lot more people attaining tertiary qualifications.

But as I said, actually not all of that is visible in better skills. Quality and degrees do not always align.

So it is a good idea to provide more places in higher and further education, but do ensure that there's quality and it is relevant to the future.

Across the industrialised world, graduates are much less likely to be unemployed and very likely to have higher earnings.

The "haves" and "have nots" in the economy are strongly linked to levels of education.

This also means that access to higher education is an important ingredient in promoting social mobility.

Having said that, I would say, there must be many choices and pathways in higher education. One size does not fit all.

Q Why is it important to be focused on skills?

A The single most important finding from our analysis is, in fact, that the knowledge economy no longer pays you for what you know.

Google knows everything these days. The knowledge economy pays you for what you can do with what you know.

Success is no longer about reproducing content knowledge, but about extrapolating from what we know and applying that knowledge to novel situations.

Q You have called for diverse pathways and different types of higher education institutions, yet the four-year traditional degree model has remained for a long time. Will it really change?

A It will change and I feel it (the move towards change) is already gathering pace in some parts of the world.

There are MOOCs (massive open online courses), microcredentials, industry certifications, work-study and apprenticeship programmes and coding schools, like Holberton and 42.

I believe the future is not with degrees, but with microcredentials - a certification indicating competency in a specific skill.

Learning will be done in many different places and many different ways, both online and offline.

Increasingly, employers will not just be looking at degrees, but at certifications, badges and various other forms of skills assessment. It's already happening in some fields, such as computing, with tech companies.

The current model of studying four years for a degree and then going out to start your career will not work any more.

We have to keep learning while earning. You have to keep going back to relearn and reskill as you have to keep adapting to the changes.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 12, 2020, with the headline 'One size does not fit all in higher education'. Print Edition | Subscribe