In the recent years, there is increasing doubt among graduates in Singapore regarding the applicability of a university education to our adult life, especially to our future career plans. As university students, we spend half of our undergraduate career thinking about life after our studies – or if there is ever going to be one. With the intake of university students gradually increasing, competition intensifies and it becomes more difficult to differentiate oneself from every other competitor in the job market.
Relevance of Academic Knowledge
The subjects that we study in university are also not always directly relevant to ‘job knowledge’. While some courses remain directly relevant and geared towards the careers they are built for (e.g. accounting, law, pharmacy, engineering), many graduates worry about how the academic knowledge they have gained in their three to four intellectually grueling years can help them with their future at all.
To state an oft-quoted example, Arts and Humanities graduates (this writer included) majoring in subjects such as English Literature and Language, theatre studies, political science, sociology, philosophy – amongst other ‘abstract’ subjects – often have to employ every bit of their intellectual creativity in conceiving possible career options. Their academic knowledge is not likely to be directly relevant to the work in major industries. Without doubt, it is a meaningful intellectual experience to learn subjects like 19th century European political thought, or the anthropological history of indigenous people in Southeast Asia. But the knowledge of these subjects alone cannot help us with finding work in unrelated fields. Knowing the categorical imperatives of Immanuel Kant’s moral philosophy or the debate over the validity of the democratic peace theory will not impress a bank’s hiring manager sufficiently. This is a valid concern for most graduates since the majority of us will be working in non-academic fields, where our academic knowledge would not be directly applicable to work.
Three Positive takeaways from University Education
So is our university education useful at all? One of the main purposes of our academic pursuit is a reflection of our drive to perform. It is a measure of our own tenacity and ability to survive within the established structure and rules. Our potential employers want to gauge our capacity to learn – and to learn fast. But there are also three important takeaways from our tertiary education, regardless of our discipline.
Firstly, our university education equips us with skills. Skills vary across programs. Courses teaching specialized skills (e.g. engineering, computing, architecture, statistics) prepare students for specific positions in the job market. Students who acquire these specialized skills have options in these specific fields opened up to them, even though they may choose to pursue something else. Nevertheless, specialized skills are useful to have because they validate one’s proficiency in a professional field. Then there are courses that impart skills of a more generic character. For example, humanities and social science students sharpen their writing skills over the course of their academic training, and learn how to critically analyze information presented in media. These skills are applicable to a wide range of corporate and functional positions (e.g. marketing, public relations, communications), in various industries.
Some courses lie in between these two poles, by mixing both specialized and generic knowledge in their pedagogy to help students gain the advantages of both types of education (e.g. business management, real estate, projects and facilities management).
Secondly, all university students become equipped with a disposition towards critical thinking. Our tertiary education encourages us to look at the forces affecting the world that lie outside of our area of concern. The curriculum forces us to go beyond the rote learning that carried us across our secondary education. In university classes, we are often made to rethink once unchallenged notions of history, science, ideologies, language, and social values. We become more aware and attuned to the operational principles of the world and our economy. This critical disposition continues to develop for the rest of our lives; with tertiary education providing the framework from which we build our critical thought process.
Job knowledge requires both rote learning skills and critical thinking. We need brute memory for learning rules, mechanized processes and operation guidelines in our future roles, but we also need critical thinking to analyze the impact of our work on our organization, our customers, the industry, the economy, and the society.
Foundation for Future Knowledge
Lastly, the knowledge and learning process that we acquire serves as an intellectual foundation upon which we build further knowledge. Learning is a lifelong and arduous process, regardless of what we learn or how we learn it. Tertiary education serves to organize the learning process and establish the basis for our future intellectual development. Our interests will take a myriad of shapes – from hobbies to professional courses, from casual reading to postgraduate programs. Regardless of how we attain knowledge, the key objective of learning is to increase our accurate understanding of the world as much as we can. Our undergraduate education trains us to learn, so that we can be ready to acquire new information and skills for whatever career path we take on.
To conclude, having completed a university education certainly does not guarantee us a job. The purpose of our education thus far was to push our intellectual boundaries as far as possible, and to reflect that in terms of paper qualifications. What is ultimately valuable about the degree is its reflection of our personal drive to excel professionally. That drive is what ultimately pushes us to seize every opportunity in every situation we face. Our main challenge is to make our education applicable to our integration with the economy and the job market. In addition to content knowledge, we have the skills and thinking process – to succeed, we need to sell them more eloquently than the person next to us.