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Commentary: Let’s stop overstating the value of a university degree beyond your first job

The COVID-19 crisis has accentuated the importance of certain skills and traits for professional success, and shown that degrees aren’t the sole means of acquiring them, says Jaime Lim of PeopleSearch.

Commentary: Let’s stop overstating the value of a university degree beyond your first job

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

SINGAPORE: It’s no secret that degree holders generally start their careers on a better footing than most. 

For one thing, graduate employment surveys in Singapore have consistently shown their starting salaries are higher than that of diploma holders.

In many parts of the world, which university one graduates from also often ends up playing a part in remuneration.

In the United States, since 2015, US Bureau of Economic Analysis figures show Ivy League graduates start their careers with much higher salaries than their non-Ivy League peers. In 2019, the median starting salary of Ivy League graduates was 55 per cent more than that of private university graduates.

These factors serve to entrench the perception that university degrees are a powerful determinant of success, thus propelling students towards a relentless pursuit of academic qualifications, even while more employers are beginning to recognise other types of proof of domain knowledge and expertise.

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The inherent complexities of the correlation between paper qualifications and an individual’s employability and starting salary must also be acknowledged.

At any one time, certain types of qualifications will prove to be more equal than others.

The state of the economy, business requirements and the skills that employers deem valuable at the time determine which degrees and qualifications influence an individual’s employability and starting salary.

Underemployment among degree holders is another reality that cannot be ignored during tough economic times or when certain industries experience a decline.

File photo of someone studying. (Photo: Unsplash/Green Chameleon)

Let’s also consider today’s context where more and more of us are having to pivot to job roles and fields that have very little to do with the degrees we graduated with, especially if they were general degrees.

This should spur students, job seekers and employers alike to take a step back to re-evaluate the true meaning of a degree.

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This is not to say there is no value in a degree.

The structured approach to learning that a degree offers is certainly beneficial especially pertaining to fields such as medicine or law which require individuals to have a large amount of domain knowledge and to have gone through rigorous testing and hands-on training.

A university education also provides other advantages such as the opportunity to hobnob with academics and participate in debates with one’s peers and professors. All of this can contribute to intellectual and creative growth.

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However, generally speaking, can those without one excel in their fields and in fact surpass degree holders in terms of competence?

Employers in Singapore are certainly waking up to this.

A Ministry of Manpower report published in 2019 showed that academic qualifications were not the main consideration for employers hiring PMETs in 2018. This applied to 52 per cent of PMET job vacancies and included occupations such as software, web and multimedia developers, systems analysts and commercial and marketing sales executives.

(Photo: Unsplash/Mimi Thian)

Instead, employers were looking for candidates with relevant skills, work experience, soft skills and the right attitudes.

Our recent straw poll of HR leaders has reinforced this.

There is also a greater openness now to candidates who acquire hard skills through massive open online courses designed by institutions such as MIT and giants such as Microsoft. Platforms such as Coursera have been offering these for the past 10 years.

These certification courses are more affordable than degree programmes and offer students who require flexibility to complete them at their own pace. New methods of learning are certainly a game-changer.

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The debate over the value of a degree is a long-standing one.

In 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, stressing that skills, rather than paper qualifications, are what carry a premium in the new economy.

Mr Ong Ye Kung speaking in Parliament on Jan 4, 2021.

He said there should be “diverse and multitudinous” paths for people to enhance their skills. These could be academic upgrades, apprenticeships, industry certifications, overseas experience, or simply gaining work experience and making a name for oneself in one’s respective field.

In the past, having a degree indicated one had advanced training and superior ability. Today, it is possible to achieve this through other means.


The last decade has also shown us that whether or not one has a degree, continual learning is imperative.

In an age of ubiquitous disruption and massive unpredictability, both employers and job seekers we interact with concede that the knowledge and skills gained from a university degree can easily become obsolete.

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In fact, as early as 1971, research by Harvard Business School suggested that academic achievement does not determine a person’s managerial or business success.

Our conversations with HR practitioners also reveal a realisation that even a candidate’s years of experience can be a poor predictor of job success since operating environments are volatile and past experience can become irrelevant in the blink of an eye.

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A 2019 IBM study which included surveys with executives across 50 countries found that the biggest skills gaps are not digital but behavioural. These include complex problem solving, teamwork, leadership, communication, agility and adaptability.

The COVID-19 crisis has increased the demand for such skills.

Office workers at Raffles Place during lunch hour on Jun 2, 2020, the day after Singapore exited its "circuit breaker" to stem the spread of COVID-19. (Photo: Jeremy Long)

Instead of being fixated on candidates’ academic qualifications, employers should use tools that test an individual’s ability to learn, reason, and think logically, and their willingness and ability to learn new skills.

These include psychometric tests and situation-based interview questions. 75 per cent of Fortune 500 companies reportedly use such tools.  

The unprecedented pace of digital transformation we’re seeing today is also making people realise the importance of developing other skills that machines are not likely to be able to replicate.

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For instance, in the field of medicine, while AI and other disruptive technological tools can assist with diagnosis, helping people make informed decisions about treatment options requires contextual input and empathy that only a human healthcare professional can provide.

Technology development in itself is predicated on humans being able to observe society, identify problems that require technological solutions and design and build these solutions.  

As the world grows more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous, for higher education in general to be relevant, it needs to catch up with real-world needs and equip students with such skills.

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What is troubling is that while employers realise that a degree is not necessarily an accurate indicator of a candidate’s abilities, a quick scan of job portals still shows that the prerequisite for many roles is at least a Bachelor’s degree.

As recruiters, we often present employers with candidates who possess the skills and experience necessary to get the job done, even if they don’t have the degree stated in job descriptions.

(Photo: Unsplash/Ben White)

We have found this approach to be generally successful. If the candidate has a proven track record, a portfolio of work and possesses traits such as adaptability and a willingness to learn, the absence of a degree hardly ever negatively influences hiring managers’ decisions.

We have seen this happen for various job roles and fields including, but not limited to project management, software development, digital marketing and business strategy development.

For entry-level candidates, a lack of experience tends to cause hiring managers to focus on the degrees they graduated with and the schools they attended. But even this is changing today as more employers use alternative screening tools to assess the candidates.

These include behavioural and situational job interview questions, psychometric tests, and in some cases, proposals to solve a particular business challenge.

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Why then is a degree stated as a prerequisite?

When asked this question, one hiring manager said that because of the value society has put on degrees, it is an easy manner of signalling to applicants the complexity and status of the position.

Unfortunately, this practice only serves to reinforce the mistaken perception that individuals without degrees are less employable.

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As the education landscape evolves, employers should take a more considered approach.

FILE PHOTO: A sign is pictured outs a Google office near the company's headquarters in Mountain View, California, U.S., May 8, 2019. REUTERS/Dave Paresh

Several global companies including IBM, Google and Apple no longer list a degree as a prerequisite in job descriptions for engineers, strategists, analysts and data scientists among other roles.

Doing so not only sends out the right signals- that not having a degree is not a barrier to entry if you have the requisite hard and soft skills - but is also more reflective of ground realities and better informs job seekers of what’s expected of them.

As we reassess job descriptions, we should also reassess the merits of graduate employment surveys.

Considering that more employers are placing a greater emphasis on individuals’ skillsets and key traits than they are on a piece of paper, surely such surveys are on their way to becoming an anachronism. 

In fact, they send out signals that lead to a vicious cycle of raising degree holders’ expectations and employers having to meet those expectations whether or not the individual merits a higher starting salary than another candidate without a degree.

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Going forward, those who believe that having a degree will increase their earning power should also recalibrate their expectations.

Social economists Phillip Brown, Hugh Lauder and David Ashton have sought to debunk this belief in their book, The Global Auction: The Broken Promises Of Education, Jobs And Incomes.

Their survey of businesses around the world uncovered a global auction for high-skill, low-wage work. Employers looking to maximise profits and minimise labour costs traditionally hire skilled workers who are willing to accept modest wages.

With the explosion of higher education across the world, there is a steady supply of such workers.

(Photo: Unsplash/Mohammad Shahhosseini)

They also discuss a phenomenon known as Digital Taylorism. This involves deconstructing, standardising, codifying and computerising the work of white-collar workers to enable lower-skilled and cheaper workers to deliver components of it.

We have already seen examples of this in the legal profession when it comes to drawing up certain types of legal documents, in the medical profession when it comes to analysing X-rays and in accountancy when it comes to processing tax returns.

Considering these realities, we urgently need to rethink how we assess the value of educational pathways and individuals’ competencies, and how they contribute to human endeavour going forward.

While degrees are certainly not bereft of value when it comes to knowledge and skills acquisition, let’s also recognise that the skills of the future can be acquired through other equally, if not more credible means.

This means rewarding individuals for the value they bring to the job rather than the paper qualifications they walk in with.

Jaime Lim is Group Business Leader of PeopleSearch, an executive search and outplacement services firm with a presence in six cities including Singapore.

How much does PSLE grades impact life? Listen to three working adults share their experiences in a no-holds-barred conversation on CNA's Heart of the Matter podcast:

Source: CNA/el


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