Higher Education: Is Going to University a Want or a Need?

NEO WEI TING explores the debate on whether a university degree is necessary in this day and age.



Neo Wei Ting
Events Manager

Hype Issue #59

Published on
June 14, 2024

As I approach my final months in Polytechnic, the question of “what’s next?” is constantly on my mind. The most appealing option is, of course, the most common: furthering my studies at university. However, as I inch closer to graduation, I start to wonder if I should spend another three to four years of my life watching lectures and completing assignments to get a degree. If you’re just like me; unsure about how to reply when someone asks about your path post-graduation, read on. In this article, I’ll be covering the various considerations surrounding the pursuit of a university degree.

During an Education Forum held in Mar 2023, Minister of Education Mr.Chan Chun Sing urged Singaporeans to look beyond their grades and start focusing on skills development instead. He has also been a strong advocate for employers prioritising skills and competencies over academic qualifications when hiring. 

Despite this, many graduating students still believe obtaining a degree is a requirement, even though acquiring skill sets through work experience is equally important. According to The Straits Times, 38,000 tertiary graduates applied for places in local universities in 2022, and only 18,000 students were successfully placed. The remaining 52.6 per cent were left to either take a gap year, try again in the following years, or start work immediately.

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Over half of the tertiary graduates who applied for university places were rejected in 2022. Chart made with Flourish.

This brings us back to the traditional mindset of needing a degree. Growing up, most of us have had our parents constantly drilling into us the importance of studying hard and getting a degree in order to secure a good job, forcing us kids to fall victim to thinking university is our end goal. As the number of university applicants increases, Singapore leans more and more towards “credential inflation”. This term is used to describe a hiring practice where higher-paying jobs are offered simply due to paper qualifications rather than greater skills or productivity. 

How Job Requirements are Evolving

What most people forget is the fact that not all job scopes require a university degree. If you’re looking into careers such as law, medicine and architecture, you would need a professional degree in the specific field of study regardless. However, other industries may not look at your cold-hard qualifications as much. A LinkedIn report in 2021 showed that more companies prefer to hire candidates with technical and transferable skills over those with purely educational qualifications in Singapore. 

Edwin Leong, 21, is a polytechnic graduate who is currently serving National Service at the Officer Cadet School (OCS). At polytechnic Mr. Leong pursued his passion of becoming a preschool teacher and graduated with a diploma in Early Childhood and Development.When asked why he has no intentions of pursuing a degree, he responded that a polytechnic diploma is sufficient. “I believe my skills as an Early Years educator are highly proficient. I’m also able to adapt to current trends and generations, so I feel that my teaching style is highly suitable for this industry,” Mr Leong said.

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Though there are Early Childhood Education degrees, a diploma in this field is enough to enter this line of work. Photo from Unsplash.

University Remains as a Valuable Asset

Universities will not become obsolete. There are still certain benefits that only a degree can get you. University graduates will generally have a higher starting pay compared to those without a university education. A degree can also provide certain credentials that will set you apart from the rest in the same industry. There is no denying that a higher education will make you a more attractive candidate compared with an individual who doesn’t have the qualifications. This will help boost your career opportunities for better job prospects and bring advantages such as job security in the long run. 

Many of those who apply for university courses are Junior College graduates. Iris Tan, 19, graduated from Anglo-Chinese Junior College last year and recently enrolled in Business at NTU’s Nanyang Business School. Iris believes pursuing a degree will be a “useful step into the working world” and help “significantly enhance job prospects”. She also wishes to meet people and start networking through opportunities such as exchange programmes, which are “valuable for future career connections”.

On the topic of exchange programmes, a benefit not often talked about is the chance to study abroad for university students. Many students have chosen to advance their studies overseas for a new change in environment and culture. Studying overseas has a plethora of benefits on its own, from gaining soft skills to engaging in new experiences, and even getting specific qualifications that cannot be obtained in Singapore.

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Exploring the many benefits of studying abroad may tempt you to apply for university. Infographic by Neo Wei Ting

Despite the strong plus points a degree brings, Iris acknowledges that there are alternative pathways that could be advantageous to her as well. “I am particularly interested in the marketing field in Business school. However, I believe that a university degree isn’t the only option to enter this industry. There are many other options out there such as a Polytechnic diploma specialising in the marketing field which could potentially allow one to earn a place in this industry,” Iris said. 

Changing Perspectives

Currently, soft skills such as communication, critical thinking, problem-solving, and adaptability are highly valued by employers. Singaporeans need to focus more on gaining relevant skills rather than just aimlessly pursuing a degree. Understanding the balance between academic recognition and personal skill sets for a desired job is the first step to deciding whether a degree is necessary. Do you have a job in mind when considering a university course? Start thinking and researching what this job requires and you may just have a lightbulb moment. Good luck!