A degree to nowhere

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What does the future hold for graduates? A (slight) advantage is that more and more jobs are advertised with the requirement that “candidates must possess at least a bachelor’s degree…” (Photo credit: Danielteolijr, Wikimedia Commons)

What does the future hold for graduates? A (slight) advantage is that more and more jobs are advertised with the requirement that “candidates must possess at least a bachelor’s degree…” (Photo credit: Danielteolijr, Wikimedia Commons)

By San Peng

Steve Jobs. Bill Gates. Mark Zuckerberg. Larry Ellison. Michael Dell. What do these men have in common? One, they were/are billionaires. Two, they are (and one was) also the best-known college dropouts on Forbes’ list of world’s wealthiest people. What does that fact tell you? You don’t need a university degree to succeed in life? And if that were the case, what more with business education? If only. There is an important caveat here: these billionaire dropouts had gone to Ivy League or exclusive schools. Jobs dropped out of Reed. Zuckerberg and Gates (Harvard). Ellison (Chicago). Dell (Texas).

They are also what you call “outliers”. Even without a degree, they had the brains grit, drive and passion to succeed. The fact that so few of us (probably less than 0.00000001% of the population) come close to achieving their phenomenal success means that life is a constant toil with nothing much to show for it. Hence, many of us have more modest aims, such as being a wage earner with a regular paycheque.

However, even this dream might soon be beyond the reach of a sizeable chunk of the population. More and more jobs are advertised with the requirement that “candidates must possess at least a bachelor’s degree…”

In Malaysia, the rate of gross tertiary education enrolment stands at 30% compared with Thailand (46%), South Korea (89%), Japan (55%) and Mongolia (39%). But the outlook is decidedly not champagne and caviar for those who graduate either. The number of unemployed graduates with either a diploma or degree from a local institution of higher learning stood at a record 25% in 2010, reveals a TalentCorp Malaysia study last year.  Clearly, there is a mismatch between what industry needs – qualified personnel, high-skilled workers – and what the higher education system is producing – graduates lacking in IT skills with poor English proficiency and communication skills.

A quarter of our graduates leave universities with a piece of paper but are far from being equipped for the 21st century economy. Among the sectors with the most acute shortage of talent are oil and gas, manufacturing and banking. Adding to this is women’s low participation rate in the workforce despite record numbers of women entering universities and graduating.

Malaysia spends around 8% of total government expenditure (RM11.3 billion) on higher education. It aims to be a high-income nation by 2020, which means that in less than seven years, per capita income should roughly double. With this kind of investment, it should rightly expect a better rate of return on its human-capital expenditure.

Ironically, the best educated are also the ones fleeing the country. A World Bank report released in April 2011 highlights in stark terms the cost of brain drain.  It said: “Malaysia’s rate of brain drain is elevated: the skilled diaspora is now three times larger than two decades ago.”  The single biggest beneficiary is Singapore.  It said that one out of 10 Malaysians with a tertiary degree migrated in 2000 to an OECD country and if you include those in Singapore, the figure was double. Reversely, Malaysia is a magnet for low-skilled (and illegal) immigrants. That said, what many people do not realize is that opportunities are also aplenty for returning Malaysians and more so for professionals with regional and/or global MNC experience.

The World Bank report emphasised that brain drain per se isn’t all negative.” The existence of a diaspora can be positive for the exchange of goods, capital and ideas.” Meaning we could all benefit from our brethren who have embraced global mobility and are succeeding overseas. A brain drain is an opportunity. We could start with revamping the education system to produce higher skilled workers and raise productivity-linked wages. The key to this is the right education.

The Americans have coined a term – “college premium” – to describe enrolling into college and earning a degree that fits into a globalised economy. This is critical because if we ignore “tracer studies” from local universities (“90% of our graduates obtain a job six months after graduation”) and look at the reality on the ground, we know that many local graduates are in jobs unrelated to their degrees. They are also stuck with jobs they loathe (as a wit says: “I went to uni only to land a job at McDonald’s”).

None of this is news to those doing the hiring. As for the grads themselves, perhaps it is time for a mindset change and accept some risks. Why not take the plunge and work on your obsessions? Who knows, with a little luck, you, too, can become the next Jobs. Or Dell or Zuckerberg.

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