Why students can't afford to be idealistic about their university options

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With the release of the A level results, most students are probably rushing to apply to the best universities. One consideration they will have is their starting pay and employment opportunities upon graduation. At least one person has written in to the TODAY forum page to encourage students to look beyond their starting salaries and job prospects.
Of what use is the Graduate Employment Survey (GES), besides allowing universities to trumpet the employability of their fresh graduates? (“Slight fall in employment rate for local graduates”, Feb 28)

Paired with favourable international institutional rankings, the three colleges appeal to the pragmatism of prospective students and — perhaps more significantly — their parents.

At first glance, the survey seems fair. A similar survey is conducted by the five polytechnics for their diploma courses. Yet, what it also does is reinforce conceptions that the diploma or degree is but a paper qualification and that starting salaries should guide study choices.

The emphasis of the GES is on employment rates and salaries, but other information should be considered before matriculation and upon graduation. The remuneration reported does not reflect the likelihood of future raises or opportunities for career progression. Within degrees or specialisations, employment options could differ as students enter different industries.

With calls by the Government for young Singaporeans to follow their ambitions, the Education Ministry could urge the three autonomous universities to reconsider the practice of conducting the GES, even though the onus is on individuals to not focus exclusively on these employment and salary figures.

Comparisons will be made even without an annual quantitative study. Look no further than the parents who converged on online platforms to aggregate data after it was decided that the highest and lowest Primary School Leaving Examination aggregate scores would not be printed on result slips and that top scorers would not be named.

But while the diploma or degree may be a paper qualification paving the way for a future career, it can be more than that. Preferences change during a course of study and options can guide trajectories.

It would be a tragedy if the decision to further one’s studies is guided only by starting salaries and job prospects, especially when graduates now have the privilege to make choices that go beyond fulfilling pragmatic needs.
The key assumption here is that "graduates now have the privilege to make choices that go beyond fulfilling pragmatic needs." I don't think that's true at all. Singapore has just been named the city with the highest cost of living for the second year in a row. Students entering university now will find that the starting salaries they receive when they start work will barely be sufficient for them to afford a HDB flat. Add to that the cost of providing for your parents and you'll soon see that these students don't really have any choice but to be realistic. They have to pick the courses that will allow them to find the best paying jobs or significantly modify their lifestyle expectations.

For instance, if they want to own a car, they'll need an above average income as the price of car ownership continues to increase in the future. The government's only solution to road congestion currently is to deter driving by making it more expensive. ERP, COE and the latest fuel hike should tell you everything you need to know about future trends. Prices will only increase.

Also, with the ageing population and the need to support them, government expenditure is set to increase in the next few years. This year's budget already saw a massive increase in expenditure to fund schemes like Silver Support. The government continues to remain unwilling to impose heavy taxes on the rich so where are they going to draw additional revenue from? It's going to be from the middle class. So, this generation can expect to have to bear a heavier tax burden. We don't know if it's going to take the form of rising GST or income tax, but we do know that the revenue will have to come from somewhere, and if not the rich, then it will most probably come from the pockets of the middle class.

Having the freedom to choose the course that you like rather than the course that will give you the best job prospects sounds good. But the truth is, it's no more of an option now for students than it was for older generations. The sad reality is our economic growth has been outpaced by an increase in the cost of living.