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Commentary: A second education arms race may be on the horizon

Job seekers are increasingly expected to possess not just a degree but internships, leadership roles, community projects, overseas experience and other credentials. Recruiters and job seekers alike can do something to prevent a vicious circle, says one observer.

Commentary: A second education arms race may be on the horizon

National University of Singapore graduates at a commencement ceremony. (Photo: Lionel Lin)

SINGAPORE: Imagine being an ambitious fresh graduate interviewing for a job 15 years ago.

Recruiters would have asked about your degree programme, your grades and the nature of your extra-curricular activities.

Today, the ante has been raised. New, additional demands are increasingly common.

What overseas experience do you have? How did you value-add to the organisation you interned at? Do you have experience working with data? Are you agile enough to cope with change?

Recruiters are now looking for demonstrations of aptitude that go beyond good grades. The Ministry of Education has recognised this and introduced policies to prepare future graduates for this new reality.

In his Committee of Supply (COS) speech last month, Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung announced the rolling out of micro-credentials by autonomous universities (AUs).

 “The AUs will re-package certain courses to create pathways that lead to smaller qualifications – often referred to as ‘micro-credentials’,” he said.

He also issued a note of caution. “However, we should be careful not to let such micro-credentials become a new ‘arms race’ to collect credentials.”

READ: A commentary on the value of a postgrad degree in a fast-changing world.


Mr Ong had similarly remarked during his 2016 COS speech: “I will be rather upset if I change this policy and see the sprouting of a new tuition industry coaching students how to ace interviews.”

He expressed this sentiment as he announced the expansion of aptitude-based admissions into Institutes of Higher Learning (IHLs), where applicants will be assessed through a wider range of measures beyond grades.

There was a recognition that the unhealthy competition fuelling the paper chase might be replicated in students’ bids to compete for “non-paper” qualifications.

Education Minister in charge of Higher Education and Skills Ong Ye Kung speaking during his ministry's Committee of Supply debate on Mar 5, 2018.

It is a valid concern. A second arms race in education may be heading our way.

Online, services “coaching students how to ace interviews” have sprouted up. There are many websites which curate internship opportunities and services that also coach job seekers to tackle psychometric tests and mock-case interviews.

Since most IHLs already undertake this role to help students equip themselves with skills to secure a good job, these admission and interview coaching services are thus reminiscent of the academic tuition industry (or the “shadow education industry”).

In 2013, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong remarked in his National Day Rally speech as he discussed various suggestions raised to improve the Primary 1 admissions process that “anyway, whatever solution you make, parents will find ingenious ways to maximise their chances”.

If I may add to PM Lee’s words, students themselves too will do what it takes to maximise their chances when they seek entry into IHLs and the job market.

After all, when standards are raised and everyone ups their game, one must work even harder to demonstrate how he or she can stand out from the crowd.

With degrees becoming more common, it is no longer the defining factor that decides if one gets hired – strong aptitude, skills and holistic experiences are the newly coveted signals.

And so, a new race to obtain them could begin, one where the item in question is not a degree, but internships, leadership opportunities, community projects, communication skills, portfolio enhancements and other credentials.

To be fair, participation in non-academic activities usually stems from a genuine desire to pursue one’s interest. Nevertheless, students are also aware of the practical value these have in helping them stand out.

After all, as Mr Ong himself acknowledges in his 2018 COS speech, “what students and parents need to understand is that passion and aptitude need to be demonstrated and is not declared, and that has to come through in the admission application”.

Students attending a "Singapore: Imagining the Next 50 Years" tutorial at NUS, discussing the topic of population in Singapore. (Photo: NUS)


In finding the best candidate for the job where “best” can no longer be defined in conventional metrics, it can be tempting for organisations to search for candidates that “check as many boxes as possible” and have a full set of qualifications, experiences and skills.

This in turn further incentivises the chase by students.

Faced with a potential new arms race in education, both recruiters and future job seekers must approach this carefully to ensure it doesn’t spiral into a vicious cycle.

We cannot eliminate competition, but all stakeholders can play their part in enhancing how competition is managed and ensuring optimal outcomes.

First, hiring managers and admission officers can finetune their selection processes by demanding and prioritising depth of experience and degree of value-adding.

Focus not on how many internships or leadership positions one has taken up, but rather how much one has been able to value-add to the position or organisation during his or her stint there, backed up by verified testimonials.

Second, they could shift the focus of the selection process towards the latter stages where resumes matter less.

Organisations can demand interested candidates sit for on-site assessments if they wish to apply. These could take the form of scenario-based and business case tests. This has the benefit of allowing greater reliability and organisational-relevance of assessments but avoids the logistical challenges that would come with interviewing even more candidates.

In practical terms, this means eliminating less candidates during the resume-assessment stage and allowing more to proceed to the on-site assessment stage. This means assessing if candidates are as good as their resumes say they are.

Attendees at a job fair line up for an interview carrying their resumes in leather bags. (Photo: REUTERS/Jason Reed)

By demanding that candidates go through a rigorous assessment, it helps organisations filter out candidates who submit their resumes to “try their luck” but are not serious about the job.

More importantly, it mitigates the unintended filtering out of candidates who may not have a strong resume but possess the necessary aptitude to excel, which is what organisations are ultimately looking for.

Third, young people themselves, hungry for success, must also approach the process more judiciously. They should focus not on lengthening their resume but showing the depth and mastery of skills and experiences.

Don’t take on activities so that your CV looks good but participate in internships and leadership positions with the view of value-adding.

Students must also be realistic about the competition they face and actively prepare for the scenario of not getting their dream jobs. Just as the Labour Movement encourages workers to learn a second skill, prospective job seekers should take modules during their schooling days to achieve some degree of familiarity in a secondary interest.

Faced with a potential new arms race in education, recruiters and job seekers can take steps to make the job recruitment process more meaningful and productive.

Even as competition gets stiffer, with the right approach and mindset, a virtuous cycle of skills-job matching could very well be what awaits us at the finishing line.

Ng Chia Wee will begin his undergraduate education at the National University of Singapore’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences this August.

Source: CNA/sl


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