Expiring Degrees? Really?
Don takes a stab at why Singapore has been set ablaze by "time bombs" on degrees. But... is it such a radical idea that it needed to be doused soon after the idea caught on fire?
*This post may contain incendiary references. Let’s now enjoy the bonfire.
BEST BEFORE JUNE 2021.
This would be what my degree scroll reads if MP Mr. Ang Wei Ning had his way with his radical idea. Alas, he had to backtrack.
Admittedly, the idea is not new; the proposition he tried to get us to think about, however, cuts at the core of education in the Singapore system: why do we weave through the formal education system?
Very Clear Cut briefly took a stab at this in January. However, thanks to such a radical idea of instituting “time bombs” on our degree scrools, we have to revisit the topic to investigate if such an idea will detonate our education system, leaving nothing but corpses of dead scholars being burnt out from a lifelong pursuit of incendiary paper.
Let us first examine the utility of a degree. Some people become highly employable in the Singapore employment market with a Computer Science degree, whereas a Business degree grants you jobs in a rather different domain. Surely someone who graduated in Mathematics would be given a shot at algorithmic trading, but someone with a degree in Literature would be better off writing poetry than drawing charts. Some degrees like Dentistry lead one to a teething path with fewer career transition opportunities than a degree like Economics that allows for charting of worldly opportunities. Unfortunately, it is clear that degrees differ in utility, at least in finding an initial job.
Some people, like me, would be unaffected if my degree expires; I am no longer a practising physicist, so I would not need most content knowledge from my degree. But a degree also has a second utilitarian function: a proof of work through academic rigour. This explains the bifurcation between “degree jobs” and “non-degree jobs” in the job marketplace before considering technical competencies. If not for my first employer, I would never have had a shot in the cybersecurity industry; someone had the faith in me that my general degree could allow for such a pivot.
But it is in the utilitarian view that Mr. Ang’s ideas have some merit. Many qualifications are skills-based. Google espoused such a view with Google Career Certificates, where they explicitly mention being “job ready”. Vendors such as Amazon and Microsoft have issued their own versions of cloud certification courses certifying proficiency in operating on their respective cloud platforms. But technology changes rather rapidly, with previous generations of infrastructure and network understanding architecture to be on-premise, with physical hardware. Today, much of this is software-driven.
At least in tech, old skills will fade, and new skills will emerge. To keep up with the modern world, we need to retrain ourselves. Yet not everyone can keep up, such as seniors who struggle to keep up with essentials in today’s cyberspace like two-factor authentication and biometric log-ins. Singapore’s digital transformation, thus, can only be as fast as our seniors, for abandoning seniors through modernisation is both morally and politically suicidal.
But the tech window should not be our only lens when talking about skills expiry. In fact, perhaps we have all barked up the wrong tree. Do we really assume the world is going to be static? People change careers and disciplines all the time. Many professionals get frustrated with long hours. Some have pivoted to F&B. A minority managed to muster enough courage to ease into software engineering without too many bugs from their previous roles. Surely the current skills of employees do not completely represent what our employees can do. Why then, do we get so hyped up over the degree, if it speaks almost nothing directly relevant about potential?
If we look back at successive generations of Singaporeans, we have evolved from a society where the degree is seen as a pinnacle achievement to one where a third of the population already has a first degree by age 25. Yet our views about degrees have remained static; we expect that a degree is the gateway to success. These contrasting views give rise to internal contradictions; adding an expiry to a degree which we earned through our years of toil simply lays waste to our psyche, giving rise to the perception that we never truly “own” our educational qualifications, condemning us to a cycle of slavery to a degree. But is that true either?
A more academic view of education might be handy here. A university does not simply view a degree through skills. A university imparts the toolkit of learning, i.e. learning how to learn, which we discussed in February. But if we take such a paradigm, is a degree in isolation worth looking at?
I opine we need a paradigm shift; learning is a process and a degree is simply a stop along the cone of learning we chart for ourselves. Mr. Ang’s original point was in fact not about the expiry dates of a degree (which, in my view, is a bad idea to execute, which Devadas Krishnadas points out cogently). Rather, one’s educational journey needs to be rethought as a continuous one, rather than one with a pinnacle, which is why Minister Chan repeatedly hinted at the notion of “Institutes of Higher Learning” (IHLs) not being as valid as his preferred term, “Institutes of Continuous Learning” (ICLs). In other words, like other aspects of life like health, there is no end to learning, as what he mentioned at a speech at the Straits Times Education Forum, “We need to jettison the concept that we can ever be done with learning.” The difference between IHLs and ICLs goes way beyond the letter.
Returning to the utilitarian view, I opine we need both the mindset and toolbox to tackle said challenges. The mindset is evergreen, which is what the university seeks to inculcate: a meta-learning habit. But mindset alone needs to be complemented with an endless desire to evolve our toolbox, especially in faster-pace industries, which makes all participants in the labour force need to continually sharpen their swords for a smoother cut and thrust through their industries.
Looking back at the degree debate, I felt we missed the point completely. In the paradigm differences between the US universities and the UK universities, the Americans might have got it right with their idea of continual assessment as opposed to the UK university idea of one final exam. Perhaps the former is more stressful, as we need to be constantly on our toes. But if life is a process, surely we need to change our paradigms towards the pieces of paper we acquire in our lives. In fact, we are already somewhat there; we already mock ourselves for “returning knowledge learnt to our teachers”. Perhaps that is the cultural discomfort we feel uneasy about, once questions about our self-worth become formalised in the education system.