Saturday, January 23, 2016

Every Singaporean Son and Daughter, A University Scholar?

The weekend is here, and the calm in the market gives time to think about other things.

I have quite a few Korean friends, and one of the issues that keep popping up over and over again is regarding the social stigma of not attending a university. In Korea, it's a really really big deal if you DON'T go to university.

In fact, I don't know a Korean person my age that isn't studying or already graduated from university. The quality of universities fall along a spectrum, from the SNU geniuses to unknown regional schools. Generally, unemployment among youths is bad enough that the government are shipping off Koreans to work overseas and sponsor their plane ticket out of the country. Obviously, having tons of restless unemployed young people is not an ideal situation to be in.

I posed a question to my friend: Does the Korean government actively try to get every Korean child to be a university graduate?

My friend replied that it isn't the government's doing. It's total societal pressure. It's such an ingrained mentality that enterprising people are getting the hint and private for-profit universities and "mugging" academies are popping up like nobody's business. The Korean education business is big bucks. Mega bucks in fact.

What's interesting for me is that I can see this clear trend developing in Singapore as well. In 20 or maybe even in 10 years time, we are going to be in the same situation as Korea, which is everyone a university graduate (by using the vague definitions we are working with now), massive youth unemployment and under-employment. We do have 2 aces up our sleeves compared to them which does improve our situation, and these are (1) the less retarded work culture and (2) English-educated population that can be more easily absorbed overseas to work there. However, if universities started handing out degrees like entitlements (which some parents have called for) rather than based on merit, we will have a different set of problems to face. Already the whispers of "genius superhuman foreign scholars" are turning into louder murmurings. What? Their DNA is better than ours? They just study way fucking harder than most of our lazy asses, that's all.

Anyway, back to Korea. The pressure is so strong to get a good job after university that if they are unable to secure a "graduate's job", they return back to school to pursue their master's, and then try again once they are done. Guess what happens if they fail to secure a prestigious job again? You guessed it. Back to school to take their doctorate.

I know a Korean girl who is planning to pursue an economics doctorate but has close to no clue about what is happening in the economy today. All she knows is the textbook model analysis of historical case studies. Useful doctorate? You be the judge.

"I don't know. You ask me, I ask who?"

In America, kids graduates high school and are sent packing to university. Getting a student loan is easy as pie. They are basically giving it out free because student debt never goes away, even in bankruptcy. They've got you, and they've got you good.

It's a running joke that you can have a great discussion on social science topics with any Starbucks baristas, because they have all graduated with an Arts degree from some college or university in America. The reason why its a running joke and it's funny is... because it's true.

In America, not only are the school fees becoming absolutely crazy in some schools, but the rosy prospects of becoming a degree holder is no longer valid because education quality is low and "graduate jobs" are not well paying. Now, a high school graduate who doesn't take on massive amounts of debt and gets to work straight out of graduation would probably end up better off than the average college student who digs themselves into debt and slowly crawl their way out, monthly installment by monthly installment. (I read an article about it and it even had an infographic, but I can't find it again.)

The debt is so insurmountable that the number of Americans going AWOL with their debt is increasing. No surprise. College kids used to run out of the state when they racked up phone bills in the past. Why not run out of the country if you racked up a huge loan?

I always hear the complaint that studying in the local universities in Singapore is expensive. Yet I never hear any good debates about the difference in quality. Costs in other countries are most of the time grossly underestimated, but even taking that low ball estimate and adjusting for quality, it becomes blatantly obvious where value lies. I've studied overseas and I've many friends that studied overseas. I can tell you for a fact, European universities are pretty low standard. (When I say low standard, I mean I studied half as much as I would locally, yet I ended up in the top decile. I'm not saying I'm a genius. Just ask other Singaporeans that have studied overseas. The only real threats are.... the local Asians. Oh the irony.) Excluding the Ivy League schools, the American schools are all pretty weak too. I've an engineer friend who is a consistent C student and he managed A's for every subject in the semester he studied in the top public university there. No points for knowing which school that is. Guess what grades he got once he came back? (C. He got C's all over again)

Singapore isn't quite as far down the rabbit hole as Korea, where parents literally sell off their souls to pay for their children's tuition fees to graduate from some unknown university with poor to mediocre job opportunities from it. At least our tuition fees don't suffocate you (but let's not be coy - it isn't cheap), loans are accessible and Social Sciences graduates don't end up working at Starbucks for minimum wage, mainly because there isn't a minimum wage (I jest). Our schools at least count for something.

The value of local universities cannot be denied. Unless you have spawned a genius child who got accepted into one of those mega exceptional universities, nobody, I repeat, nobody chooses to send their child overseas when they could have studied locally. Many go overseas because they were outcompeted for the course that they wanted (hello doctors and lawyers), but they do eventually get into respectable universities overseas and end up as professionals in those countries.

Now, I'm sure someone is going to bring up the topic of degree mills (Brilliantly excellent post by LIFT, MUST READ!!!). Seriously though. Do you think local employers are fooled? Maybe MNCs with anti-discrimination practices, but locally nobody is fooled. There is a spectrum of good universities, mediocre ones and just plain WTF-thats-not-a-real-unversity-GTFO. If you think that people with a university degree from the Seriously Unfake Authentic King's University (SUAKU) are viewed in the same standing as someone from Harvard, you're the one that needs your head checked, not the "stupid recruiters".

Anyway, things get a bit more trick from here on because the next topics are harder to tackle and seem booby-trapped.

The toughest question that I can think of is: Will you push your child to aim for a university education using all means available to you? If your child fails to secure a local spot, will you be okay with it? If you had the money and you could afford it, would you send your child to pursue a private university education?

Some kids even demand a parent's sponsored, overseas, all-expenses paid private university education as if it is their birth right. Will you dig yourself into a financial hell hole and postpone your retirement by 10 years because your kid is an ungrateful idiot? Of course framing it into this perspective makes the answer quite obvious to me, but I'm taking an extreme example.

I'm afraid that the answer to these questions will determine if Singaporeans in the future are all doctors and lawyers with plenty of foreign "un"talent as our base (which if you think about it, makes us the minority), or if society can accept that being a nurse or a paralegal are perfectly fine and respectable jobs as well.

After some very tiring thinking, I suppose my thoughts are gravitating towards "Sustainability". There is no point pretending that my kid is a genius if he/she isn't. I can "QE" him/her into higher education, but all that QE doesn't mean that he/she will get a good job, and it definitely has no correlation to having a good life. Sure, I can temporarily boost my kid's performance by throwing money in the air and getting private tutors and sending him to the best schools that money can buy, but really now, does that mean that my kid is a genius? That he/she can be a surgeon and cut people open? As a famous person once said, stupid is as stupid does.

On a very black and white, totally objective scale, it would seem that obviously university graduates earn more money, so obviously their lives are implicitly better with all those extra wads of cash. However, I do not agree. I am definitely far away from being and thinking like a parent (though I do hope that one day I might be one), but I don't think my job as a parent is so narrowly defined by society to be: Make sure he/she graduates from university and finds a good job.

I think my job is to equip my kid with the necessary skills to survive in the real world, utilizing whatever abilities that they possess. Once that basic is covered, it's about how to enjoy life.

It just seems to be that in Singapore and many other Asian countries that excelling in academics is the primary and sole objective. All other abilities seem to be irrelevant. I hate to break it to you, but not everyone in Asia wants to be, should be, or will be good at being a doctor, lawyer or banker.

It's much too simplistic to believe that a university degree is equal to a good job which equals to a good pay which equals to a good life. So the billions of the people in the world that aren't graduates are living sad, pathetic, unmeaningful and unhappy lives? I think not.

So back to my previous questions: Will you push your child to aim for a university education using all means available to you? If your child fails to secure a local spot, will you be okay with it? If you had the money and you could afford it, would you send your child to pursue a private university education? And Why? Or Why not?

This topic might be a can of worms, but I don't care. I am truly curious to know what other people think about this.


  1. I think the main reason that university education is so prevalent is that there doesn't seem to be any viable, proven alternative. Contrary to your disagreement, university graduates do in fact earn a higher income in general. Coupled with our conservative Asian culture, parents tend prefer that their children take the 'safest' and 'most proven' route to a life of higher standard of living. Frankly, I disapprove of such a large proportion of our population having degrees, especially those 'bought' from private universities, since it dilutes the value of mine.

    1. Hi Anon,

      I agree with you. In Singapore it is still the case where a university graduate usually earns a distinctly obvious higher salary. My point was more geared towards countries like South Korea (my favourite example) where university graduates from lower tier schools (which is MOST university graduates considering that only about 30 out of the 200+ odd schools are respected) start out in the workforce at $1600 SGD and work 12 hour days.

      I find it hard to see how we don't end up like a society like theirs, where the default minimum education is university. In their more exaggerated society, it is slightly easier to see how foregoing a university education and specializing in an atypical "non-office" job or profession could pay off much better.

      A plus to our society is the lessened emphasis of working at "brand name" companies. I feel most people just look past that and judge by whats the final amount of dough being brought back home. In that sense, we aren't as heavily penalized socially for doing something not so mainstream.

  2. GMGH
    Your post sets me thinking deep because I have a teenage girl in JC now. Very soon, I will face the related challenges of a U education.

    1. Hi starlight,

      I strongly recommend reading LIFT post (linked in post) about his take on university education. Though harsh and a cold dose of reality, I can't find much problems with his points.

      Thankfully I am still many years away from even having to think about that.

      All the best!

  3. Brutal honesty here - Many of the 1990-2000s generation are starting to have degrees. There are "quality jobs" for many of these graduates which happens to be.... drum roll.... relationship managers/ financial consultants. These are the kind of jobs which imo are terrible for the productivity of our economy and citizens wealth but beneficial to the profits of financial institution. Well, I truly hope the government can nudge Singaporeans to accepting the fact that nursing/ Train and bus maintenance work are respectable fields our children can be in.

    1. i agree with the sentiments here. the fact of the matter is want a good life for me so if i cna earn more money while sitting in air conditioned office, why should i toil myslef for salaries which are hardly enough to sustain me & my family even after working for unearthly hours in a thankless environment.
      if we want people to take up some jobs, we need to improve salaries.
      Nursing a well seeked profession in the western world as some of the senior nurses can earn as well or even sometimes better than middle level Drs. not so in Singapore. Similarly for Bus captains.

      I hope the things will change for the better in the near future

    2. Hi Choon Yuan and GP Blogger,

      I've seen so many of my university cohort becoming relationship managers / financial consultants. Interestingly, I have seen a paper that showed when the financial industry takes up too much space in an economy, it creates a drag on the economy by being deadweight rather than fulfilling its role of facilitator.

      The government has a very tough role to play, balancing and deciding between cheaper foreign labour or industry specific labour shortages & citizen unemployment (partially due to structural unemployment). It does appear that the presence of foreign labour pushes down the wages of some jobs, which in turn make them be viewed less favourably by Singaporeans and pushes them away from joining the manpower ranks of that trade / industry. It's quite a vicious cycle.

      However, I personally don't believe that companies only look at cost with no regard to quality of work and workplace dynamics. There is a point where foreign labour is really just too cheap even taking into account the difference in quality, and in that sense, it would be best if Singaporeans can be pushed up the value chain into tougher jobs with less competition from foreigners. Having growing industries that can offer such jobs and absorb that upward shifting workforce is not easy either.

  4. why restrict the young one to go for degree when all other countries are allowing toilet paper degree to be given like nothing and Singapore allow them to come in as graduate to complete with Singaporean for jobs ?

    1. Hi Anon,

      If toilet paper degree holders can beat Singaporeans, then that says more about the quality and value of Singaporeans than it does about the toilet paper degree holders.


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