Search
Close this search box.
Search
Close this search box.

Science, Technology
& Innovation

What’s the University for? An Age-Old Question in the COVID-19 Age

hesb-11-01-whats-the-university-for-featured-image

The COVID-19 pandemic has provided the occasion for us to rethink many of the things we do. Higher education has not escaped unscathed. Does the university, as we know it, still serve a purpose? And if so, whom do they serve?

 

Already on the eve of the pandemic, the rise of stackable certificates and corporate universities such as the Dyson Institute had seemingly challenged the premise of the university. In the past year, while online classes may have brought semblance of continuity during various lockdowns, students have questioned the rationale of paying astronomical tuition fees (at least in some countries), or for incurring student debt for years to come, for a greatly diminished educational experience.

 

As university cohort participation rates have reached the massification stage — and as university education is increasingly seen as a universal right rather than as a good that is available only to a select few — what exactly is to be gained at the individual and societal levels by a university education?
Sceptics have reason to believe that the university of today is merely a glorified finishing school, especially with the plethora of MOOCs and other forms of online learning to be had. Even the kinds of life experiences and skills that universities provide can theoretically be gained through many other avenues.

 

Universities and the Skills Debate: The Case of Singapore

The university serves many other purposes aside from producing graduates. Research universities have been the embodiment of the global scientific progress.

 

For the vast majority, however, the university is where one goes to qualify for good jobs. David Goodhart, in his latest book Head, Hand, Heart, points out how cognitive ability has become the “gold standard of human esteem” — to the detriment of manual and craft work, as well as work that prioritises caring for others.

 

In Singapore, the question of the university’s purpose has been closely tied to the skills debate. For much of the past decade, the government has been trying to convince Singaporeans that the future economy places greater emphasis on skills rather than paper qualifications, and that graduates should pursue the former. In fact, university education in Singapore has been aligned with labour market needs since independence in the 1960s, in line with the policy priorities of a fledging, post-colonial economy.

With issues of financial sustainability and graduate joblessness, what it does not answer is whether the evolution of higher education has necessarily produced the best outcomes — either at the individual or societal level.

Yet, a perennial issue in Singapore’s higher education has been the public pressure for a greater cohort participation rate in public autonomous universities. There has been a phenomenal surge in cohort participation rate in these universities, from 5% in the early 1980s to over 40% four decades later. This is surely no mindless paper chase, for students who cannot get a place in these universities are willing to fork out large sums of money to enrol in private universities and overseas branch campuses, or even to pursue a degree outside of Singapore. Pressures in an increasingly competitive global job market, along with the widespread belief in the positive contributions made by university-level qualifications to one’s lifetime earnings and social prestige, must surely account for much of this. In addition, a university degree is still a basic pre-requisite for entry to certain professions, such as medicine, the law, and accounting.

 

A History of Universities in Three Waves

The university, at least as conceived in the historic European centres of Bologna, Paris and Oxford, served even smaller, more elite cohorts than today — probably less than 1%. The university curriculum was largely based on the classics, after which the graduate was to pursue a career through further skills qualifications or apprenticeships. The purpose of the university education was to serve very lofty aims of “broadening the mind”.

 

The next development in the modern research university came through the Humboldtian, German-American model in the 19th century, when the university became a centre of scientific research.

 

Only in the next iteration of the university during the era of massification, in light of movements such as decolonisation in the 20th century, did university cohort participation rate grow from under 10% to as much as 80% in countries like South Korea and Taiwan today.

 

Needless to say, the purpose of the university had fundamentally changed through those three waves. The University of Oxford of the 12th century was obviously an entirely different institution from the Humboldt University of Berlin of the 19th century, which itself was entirely different from the South Korean and Taiwanese universities that sprang up in the 20th century. It was really only in that third wave that the talk of a skills-based university education began.

 

The implication of this briefest of historical overviews is that over the course of the last millennium, the university as an institution has clearly evolved. Yet, with issues of financial sustainability and graduate joblessness, what it does not answer is whether the evolution of higher education has necessarily produced the best outcomes — either at the individual or societal level.

 

The Problems of a Skills-Based University Education
Among institutions of any kind around the world that have survived the longest, universities dominate that list by far. They are often much older than many nation-states. Indeed, universities have been chastised for being slow to change and adapt, but clearly, they have not yet been written into irrelevance.


Students and employers perennially desire that university education revolve more around “real life skills” that prepare them for the job market. The implication is that university education is still “too academic”.
But the problem arises when, in a fast-moving economy in the digital era, such skills quickly become irrelevant. What a first-year university undergraduate learns will likely be irrelevant by the time they graduate three or four years later.

 

To calls in the Singaporean debate for university education to revolve around more practical skills, the retort from the educationists has been that employers should not shirk their role in preparing and developing employees through on-the-job training, such as through apprenticeships.

 

Could there be a case for a broad-based undergraduate education that nurtures the mind, rather than one that caters to specific vocational preparation? Much of the interest around liberal arts education in Singapore arose more than a decade ago, because of the interest in such a curriculum in spurring the kind of creativity and innovation among potential hires sought by the tech giants such as Apple and Google. The Yale-NUS College has been able to boast of a stellar graduate job placement record, as well as impressive median starting salaries. If this sort of education is truly valuable, then why has it been positioned as a choice for the “brightest” students, rather than as a mandatory requirement for all undergraduates?
At the same time, there are those who would argue — as Bryan Caplan has in his book The Case Against Education — that the primary function of a university education is not to enhance students’ skills. Rather, it is to signal the desirable qualities of a graduate — intelligence, work ethic and conformity — to prospective employers.

 

Reforming University Education: The Questions to Ask
David Goodhart argues that thinking of university education as an entry route for young people into the workforce needs to be reconsidered. He favours a more flexible “rotation model” in which work and education are rotated over the course of an individual’s career. What Goodhart argues for solves a number of problems, for instance, that some degrees could be training graduates for jobs that may soon cease to exist.

To reform university education in any substantial way, such as what Goodhart argues for, would require a considerable rewiring of current attitudes towards various kinds of work.

The benefits universities have brought to the education of their students, and indeed to society at large, have been eloquently argued for by many. The consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic have only accentuated their arguments.

 

All this may sound like an unquestioning defence of the university. Universities could certainly do with more multi-disciplinarity in their curricula, and even the addition of “real life skills courses” and “soft skills” as they already do. But to respond on the whim to calls for “real life skills” would be a mistake to those who believe in the power of the university — the power to add that extra component to a student’s personal development and growth that is not available in other educational institutions or through self-study. To reform university education in any substantial way, such as what Goodhart argues for, would require a considerable rewiring of current attitudes towards various kinds of work.

 

For instance, why is it that university education rests at the pinnacle of every education system around the world? Are the tangible and intangible benefits, in terms of enhanced earnings and social status, important enough reasons to continue the tremendous public and private investment in the pursuit of a degree?


Or is a degree meant to contribute substantially to one’s workplace capabilities?

 

In the case of certain professions, one might argue that this is indeed the case. After all, none of us are likely ready for a situation where doctors have not been adequately prepared and certified for their work. But what about the vast majority of university courses that are not vocationally-oriented? A recently published academic report revealed that Singaporean parents and young adults felt that a university degree in a general discipline was necessary rather than aspirational. Many jobs now required a university degree as the minimum entry-level qualification.

 

We do not pretend to have all the answers to what societies have to decide as a whole — students and employers alike. But the questions we raise here are what society needs to seriously consider, in order to avoid the pitfalls of mass graduate unemployment, or an inflexible university education that prepares students for jobs of the past.

LOKE HOE YEONG

Loke Hoe Yeong is an editorial board member of Higher Education in Southeast Asia and Beyond (HESB).

JASON TAN

Jason Tan is Associate Professor in Policy, Curriculum and Leadership at the National Institute of Education, Singapore.

FEBRUARY 2022 | ISSUE 11

Riding the waves of change

About

Leaders and changemakers of today face unique and complex challenges. The HEAD Foundation Digest features insights and opinions from those in the know addressing a wide range of pertinent issues that factor in a society’s development. 

Informed opinions can inspire healthy discussions and open up our imagination to new possibilities. Interested in contributing? Write to us at info@headfoundation

Stay updated on our latest announcements on events and publications

About

Leaders and changemakers of today face unique and complex challenges. The HEAD Foundation Digest features insights and opinions from those in the know addressing a wide range of pertinent issues that factor in a society’s development. 

Informed opinions can inspire healthy discussions and open up our imagination to new possibilities. Interested in contributing? Write to us at info@headfoundation

Stay updated on our latest announcements on events and publications

Join our mailing list

Stay updated on all the latest news and events

Join our mailing list

Stay updated on all the latest news and events