Higher Education: Do we need degrees to succeed in Singapore? | campus.sg

National University of Singapore

Everyone wants to succeed in life, but when it comes to planning for the future, it can be a confusing time, especially given the current uncertainty in the world today. One question that is constantly asked by those at the cusp of leaving secondary education is: do I need a degree? 

Having a degree has always been perceived as a milestone – for the longest time, it was the only ticket out of poverty and a source of pride for so many. This belief has been so ingrained that parents put their kids in tuition for this purpose. The tuition race has been fueled by this social fear that you get left behind if you don’t have a degree.

Degrees required for some fields

If you’re thinking of becoming a doctor, lawyer, architect or engineer, a degree is a must. You’ll also need degrees if you want to teach, do research, or be involved with anything STEM. This probably means that you’ll need to know pretty early on if you want to be in these career paths, because they’re not the easiest courses to get into at a later stage in life (unless you’re a genius or have tremendous grit). 

Do I need degrees for other careers?

You don’t really need a degree to get a job or make a living – the gig economy is an example – but it all depends on the type of job you want to get. 

In fact, some jobs that you see advertised don’t really require a degree to do, because they teach you what you need to know. Even if you do have a degree, it doesn’t mean that you’re guaranteed to be good at it. It’s not uncommon to hear from employers that while there are many graduates in the market, the quality is often wanting. If that’s the case, then why advertise for degree holders? Two reasons come up:

  1. Every company would benefit if new recruits are able to plug straight into what they need to do without training. For recruits, that means work experience is necessary – and those fresh out of school don’t have any of that. So it’s presumed that students with degrees will have at least learned the theory of the jobs they’re supposed to do, so the training process is shorter.
  2. Another widely held belief is that employers want workers who can prove themselves to be hardworking and smart. So the degree is just to shortlist those who are potentially smarter and more hardworking because you need a level of both to get into university. 

In short, a degree is useful to open doors. In Singapore, many companies still seek students with degrees. And if you’re intending to work overseas, a degree is your minimum requirement for job applications.

However, the value of a degree lies with its scarcity – if everyone gets degrees, then those with a degree from public universities will be perceived as better than those from private schools. If everyone has a Bachelor’s degree, then everyone has to level up to a Masters or a PhD to get ahead of the pack. 

Will a degree mean more pay?

There are those who undertake degree courses simply because they have a thirst for learning, but the majority of us aren’t in that privileged position. Since obtaining a degree isn’t cheap, what you get after you graduate in terms of salary will always be relevant. 

According to surveys comparing starting salaries for diploma holders and degree holders, naturally you’d expect the degree holder to earn more. For instance, for Business grads, an ITE graduate with a diploma gets $1,781 but someone with a degree from SMU gets $3,600. 

Then again, you’ll still have to look at the type of career – you could earn $2,600 with a degree, but you can also earn roughly the same amount delivering food for Deliveroo

Finding your own path

In today’s society, the university represents the hallmark of education. Having said that, a university education may not suit everyone, especially in this day and age. Some people may be more comfortable with the gig economy (ie. delivery, social media influencer, etc), while some may be able to get to their dream job via apprenticeships (ie. F&B, theatre, etc). 

But for most people, a degree is the ‘safe’ bet, and it’s evidence that we’ve received the education needed to perform certain jobs. If a degree is something you want to pursue, the next question is – what to study? That is another problem altogether.