26 Apr 2021

Do You Really Need a Degree to Succeed in Singapore?

Ask your parents or teachers (or anyone from that generation) this question, and the answer will probably be a resounding “YES!”.

There’s evidence to support this assertion: graduate employment surveys in Singapore have consistently shown their starting salaries are higher than that of diploma holders. This has entrenched in our minds a perception that university degrees are a powerful determinant of future career success. Some would even go as far as to say that your career has not started until you land your first degree-related job.

But times are changing. More employers are beginning to recognise other types of proof of domain knowledge and expertise. Also, underemployment among degree holders is another reality that cannot be ignored during these tough times. Especially for arts degrees, many degree-holders have ended up in jobs unrelated to their educational qualifications.

Last year, a Ministry of Manpower report showed that academic qualifications were not the main consideration for employers hiring PMETs in 2018. This applied to 52% of PMET job vacancies and included occupations such as software, web and multimedia developers, systems analysts and commercial and marketing sales executives.

Instead, these employers showed a trend towards valuing job-related skills, no matter how they were acquired. They were open towards candidates who picked up their skills through courses, or had gone through difficult training to master Google Analytics or Facebook skills. Course providers like Udemy, Coursera and edX were recognised and valued.

As far back as 2017, then Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung urged Singaporeans not to be “overly fixated” on the university cohort participation rate. He stressed that that skills would be what carried a premium in the new economy, and he appears to have been proven right.

That is not to say there is no value in a degree at all. A university education offers two great benefits that cannot be replicated: 1) a structured approach to learning, vital to fields with a large amount of domain knowledge like medicine or law, and 2) the opportunity to make connections with academics in the field and take part in cutting-edge research, stimulating intellectual growth without work pressures getting in the way.

Therefore, it would be more accurate to paint the question above in shades of grey, rather than a black-or-white yes-or-no answer. In this age of flexible learning, part-time degrees are available alongside full-time certifications, and there is no way to categorically state that one is better than the other.

Certainly, when it comes to learning and development, the correct answer has always been: whatever best fits you.