Sunday, December 18, 2005

"Do University Degrees Matter?"

In an article written some 2 months back by Farah Fahmy at, she pondered over the oft asked question as to whether "university degrees matter"? I've also written on a related post "What's a Degree Worth Today?" earlier. But while waiting for the football kick-off in the UK, I thought it'll be worth highlighting some of the quotes from Farah's article :-)

Farah wrote of her experience when confronted by many Malaysians as to how her actual degree programme relates back to her actual occupation today - she read "international relations" but she's currently a software engineer(!)
"But Farah... I thought you studied international relations. How come you're not doing something related to that?"

This is a question I frequently face whenever I tell people what I do, and what I studied. But whilst in Britain this question is accompanied by polite interest - it is, after all, normal in Britain for people to study one thing but forge a career in a different field; in my own workplace, there are former physicists and at least one English graduate working as software engineers - in Malaysia this question is usually accompanied by incredulity.
Ewww... and so I did Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE), I must grow up to be a philosopher, politician or an economist! I'm screwed(!) But now instead, I am running an information technology company.

What's the impact of such kinds of "thinking" in our Malaysian or to a certain extent Asian culture today? Farah's take was that it means
...employers will automatically overlook a graduate without a ‘desirable’ degree. If I wanted to do IT in Malaysia when I graduated, nobody, in all likelihood, would have hired me because I had the ‘wrong’ degree for the industry. Yet in Britain you could spend three years studying Chaucer and Shakespeare at university and still work in investment banking, whilst back in Malaysia a degree in Kesusasteraan Melayu, it would seem, puts you at the top of the unemployment heap.
I came back to Malaysia immediately after I graduated, however, I did manage to somehow (albeit somewhat unintentionally) end up in the information technology consulting industry. I was fortunate because my first employer was a local chapter of a US-based consulting firm which was more than happy to accept graduates of "calibre" from any field. The policy was really - "It's the brains that counts, not the knowledge" at fresh graduate levels - you'd pick up the skills and knowledge you need along the way. However, flip through the recuitment pages of the local newspapers and you won't find any local companies seeking candidates to fulfil IT-related positions with non-IT related degrees.

Farah also recounted her experience when choosing the "right" subject to study.
There is also, in Malaysia, a snobbish attitude towards certain degrees. The preferred degrees are medicine, engineering, law and accountancy. Social sciences? They're for those who aren't up to studying for the ‘proper’ subjects. When I was filling out my UPU (Unit Pemprosesan Universiti) forms all those years ago, I was tempted to put down anthropology at UIA (Universiti Islam Antarabangsa) as one of my degree choices. I talked it over with a friend of my brother's who was a UIA student at the time.

"Anthropology? Why would you want to do that? That's what all the matrics students who can't get into law do you know."

Which brings me to my next point. Malaysians seem to think that studying a degree because the subject matter is of interest a complete waste of time. You go to university to get a job that pays well. Why study history? Historians don't make money, and anyway there aren't many jobs for them. Ditto anthropology, archaeology, geography, languages, music, literature, religious studies and many other subjects. As far as (many) Malaysians are concerned, these subjects are a waste of time, and a waste of money.
In my opinion, there are not many professions out there in the market which requires immediate specialisation at degree levels - occupations related to the medicine, pure sciences and engineering, and to a lesser extent software engineering comes to mind as the exceptions.

In Singapore, the government has actually created a humanities stream within the Arts faculty in Junior Colleges to encourage top students to join the Arts stream. These "humanities scholars" will receive the best teachers - many of whom are expatriates in the teaching of English Literature, Economics, History and Geography. With this form of encouragement, Humanities and Social Science subjects are no longer treated with disdain as before, and many top students proceed to pursue degrees such as "PPE" at the top universities overseas.

So, does selecting the "right" type of degree matter? Unfortunately, it probably does to a certain extent if you do intend to work in Malaysia - although it's probably not as bleak as most would like to think. I have for example with me, one of my senior project managers, an honours graduate in English from National University of Singapore. Hence, my take is if you are good enough and you are confident enough, choose the course that will most suit your interest and your strengths, not one which you "think" might just be more "marketable".

And overall, what was the conclusion to the question she posed to herself?
Even though the likes of Bill Gates and Richard Branson have become extremely successful without degrees, a recent survey of job advertisements in Malaysia's five leading daily newspapers in July found that 19.8 percent of adverts offered jobs to those with a bachelor's degree, so it would seem that the answer to this question is yes. But of course, things are not as clear-cut as they may seem. In Malaysia, it is not just having a degree that matters, but also what and where you studied.
She's probably just about right. :-)


Anonymous said...

I would say that a university degree does matter, and is more useful if it is from any top university in the world.

Societies tend to believe that if a person can survive the tougher university in the world, he/she will be more competitive and reliable. So called the best of the best. In this stereotype world, wouldn't it be a disadvantage if one does not have a degree at least? Furthermore, the number of people holding the paper is increasing rapidly, and if one does nothing to obtain that paper, he/she will sure lose out in the intense competitions.

Then at the same time, i have a question. I heard that Malaysian degrees are not that widely accredited and recognised. On the other hand, Malaysia does not recognised Singapore degree too. So how far are these rumours reliable?

Anonymous said...

We don't know how long the interim period was before she became a software engineer - it is not inconceivable that she took certification, and read up on her books before that time. So, even the article is foggy, and not really a good example of 'international relations'...:)

Anonymous said...

The malay leaders including Dr M always thinks "those who sent their children for studies overseas are rich Chinese".

They do not understand how ones can develop themselves to become rich and independent character. Racist education policies and NEP etc are the root cause of the problems.

In fact, all Chinese in Malaysia were poor laborers before. Many of them become riches later because of their hardworking, nothing else!

Take my case for example. During my school days, I had to go to rubber estate to tape rubber from 1 am to 7 am every morning to earn a living, then to school at 8 am.

As there was no part-time work and study available in local universities, I went to overseas university 30 years ago as a private student doing part-time work and study. After spending about 5 years there, I graduated and brought some money back to Malaysia.

Here in Malaysia, I worked for over 20 years, got additional Masters degree and still not rich.

Contrary to universal privilege rights for the minority, it is sad that Malaysia is practicing privileged majority, NEP and discriminatory racist education policies.

Look at all our universities leaders are exclusively malays, clearly non-bumis are unfairly excluding, and now higher education in crisis! People become third world mentality!

Affirmative action that fails to develop self-reliance and autonomy can do a lot of damage in the long run.

Ultimately, anyone should have a chance to education and excellence; we need to build equity upon excellence.

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Anonymous said...

I am a person who has never really liked to get involved in politics but I do feel that one must pay attention to the game as it does dictate the way we Malaysians live.

I work in the field of human resources and I know that a university degree does not help one perform. The academic ballot only opens the door for interviews and opportunities. At the end of the day, the individual has to perform.

Employers are profit-oriented. They above all, must be objective and rational.

Today, the competitive business environment and discriminatory government policies in Malaysia make it deadly not to focus on results, even for a short period.

Not only does the NEP provide a disincentive for market-demanded work and enterprise for the bumis, it causes the non-bumis to distrust the system and look for short-term gains rather than work for long-term gains.

Graduates do not develop long-term market-oriented skills and goals, they look at short-term pay, do not take any risks and avoid responsibilities and challenges.

Generally, the better their education, the less the problems.

We cannot be in business for social causes. It is bad enough that the government has wrong policies that we have to cope with.

It has already been stated many times, that the higher proportion of unemployed bumis is mainly due to the incompatibility of skills possessed by them and those actually required by employers.

How can you force job market demands to change to suit another's race quota system?

Anyway, we already have enough of these quotas in the education, government civil service, housing and other sectors. The whole idea is to try to move away from this quota system, not add to it.

The key thing is to be adaptable and move with the times. Many unemployed graduates are static and complacent - that is the real problem.

Employers, be they from the private or public sector, need to hire candidates on merit to provide superior service and to compete effectively in the increasingly global marketplace, and 'churning out better grads' would certainly help.

While the quantity of graduates continues an upward trend, the same cannot be said of their quality - lowering of entrance qualification requirements coupled with inadequate teaching staff have produced graduates of insufficient quality.

Furthermore, many non-teaching obligations have caused lecturers and teachers to lose focus and therefore be unable to provide quality teaching.

To speed up the process of creating qualified graduates will mean upgrading Malaysian education at all levels. From young, students should be exposed to a more holistic and critical education. The current bias towards science and maths and the craze regarding examinations have created a generation of bookworms who memorise rather than understand.

Universities can choose to concentrate in certain disciplines to provide depth and quality, which in turn will attract good students from the region to study those disciplines. These local universities will then become universities of choice.

Teaching awards, better pay and remuneration schemes and a less non-teaching workload will not only inspire teachers to provide better a higher standard of education, but will also attract intelligent and talented people to the teaching profession.

Anonymous said...

While major nations in the world build their future with successful education systems, Malaysia still cannot make up its mind up on whether schools are about nation-building or brain-building.

Our political leaders are without question, completely hopeless on this matter. And they are probably less bothered because their children are not to suffer. Plus, it helps them that most Malaysians have no opinion on education except on the teaching of mother tongues.

Vernacular schools in Malaysia are better than national schools in general, but in a general world they are still both lagging far behind.

Malaysians want to earn more and more and have more and more Indonesian maids in their homes and condominiums. But their children are slowly getting more and more dysfunctional in challenging the world.

So Malaysians do what Malaysians do best - pretend like there is no problem and repeat this senselessly in our media, till all of the constituents are convinced there is no problem.

Standards have to appear from the bottom to the top, without fear or favour. And when these teachers are in the schools, their promotion system has to be based on teaching skills, not politics. Ethnic-based promotions have to stop.

This is about political will. Politicians have to act more as national leaders and less as leaders of racial zealousness. It is paradoxical when the minister in charge is actually the leader of his party's youth wing which prides in being racist over the years.

No one sees the need of a national educational structure when no one believes that this is possible. Perhaps it is the politicians who will be need the schooling.

As half-a-dozen graduates in my firm, the difference in the maturity of thinking between a foreign graduate and the local graduate is patently obvious.

Say what you want about the narrow-minded mentality of Malaysian students but it cannot be an excuse to deny him the opportunity to pursue his dreams especially when he has proved his capability.

It is a well-known fact that Malaysians who study medicine in the UK don't come back. I do not blame them since the starting salary of a doctor in a Malaysian public hospital is RM1400 whereas in the UK for example, it is around RM20000.

Malaysia has been a great country but certain practices by the government are causing certain people to leave.

I love my country no doubt, but love for my country does not make me a 'yes-man' for obviously biased government policies.

It happens a little too much, in case you didn't notice.

In the end, it is Malaysian taxpayers who end up paying for nothing.

Anonymous said...

The government should form a special commission on the movement of educated and highly skilled people to study and monitor their staying, leaving from and returning to the country. A country that has more talents is certainly better than the one without.

For decades, we have broached the subject of brain drain within and outside parliament. Large numbers of educated and highly skilled people leave this country to live and work in another one where pay and conditions are better.

In the beginning, some ministers and civil servants boomed out big words, saying that those who left were not loyal to the country and that their departure was good riddance.

Now, there are some people saying one thing and meaning another in government departments and universities. They mouth meritocracy and talents and yet they are mediocre, feudal and bloody-minded. They talk nine words at once, but they undermine highly skilled people. Hence, it is not surprising that returning scientists experience the delay in immigration clearance.

However, the crux of the matter is finding the factors that determine the mobility of highly skilled people, whether brain drain or the other way.

Because the government imposes racial quota in education and government departments, therefore Singapore and other countries take fortune at the tide. For years, there has been brain drain to our neighbour.

Clearly, there has always been movement of highly skilled people in and out of a country. If there is brain drain from a particular country, it can scarcely develop. On the other hand, if it can keep its talents and successfully attract its skilled citizens to return as well as foreign talents to come, it will prosper.

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Anonymous said...

Hey Rakyat,

I couldn't agree with you. You are taking an extreme example on this issue. The point is if you have the brain and the capability, you can be a CEO of a hospital and manage a group doctors which is far better than just being a doctor. The problem is people in the East tend to think that the smartest people are doctors, lawyers etc. It is true to a certain extent but in all cases. If you look at the US, the most intelligent ones in the country do not necessarily come from the medical fields. Look at those successful people in the world. You will find that their success has very little to do with the certificate they possess.

Golf Afflicted said...

Hey rakyat,

Dun so fast shoot me-lah. :-) I did cite the likely exceptions:

In my opinion, there are not many professions out there in the market which requires immediate specialisation at degree levels - occupations related to the medicine, pure sciences and engineering, and to a lesser extent software engineering comes to mind as the exceptions.

:-) Tony P

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SamFisher said...

hey guys... what is NEP? thanks...

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Anonymous said...

As mentioned by Tony degree did matters for specialised field that required specific knowledge such as doctors, lawyers, accountants, scientists, phycisists, engineers, etc. If you do not understand what quantum physics and the complexity of the mathematical models, obviously you can't be a physicist or nuclear physicists lah. And in this streams of career "top universities" matters a lot. At least I would put someone at the bottom of the short list if he is from University Pasar Malam. If he is from MIT, I think someone would offer him a very good remuneration packages.

However in more of the arts stream, degree is a plus to get you started in a career at a certain level. Jobs in the like of sales, management, customer relations, support and services, you don't actuall need a degree in marketing or sales. Degrees from other disciplines are welcomed.

Without a degree someone would problaby have to start from executive level or below. With a degree maybe can start from a manager level, some at executive level. But if he is from a well know university and major in management, I would offer him a manager position.

Yeah lor if you have no degree also can be a manager but experience is a must. At least I would not take in someone without experience and no degree for the position of a project manager. Maybe he can start from a project supervisor if he is good enough.

To become a CEO, any a mau a kau also can what, no need degree. Just register a company and put yourself at the CEO of a company that sell something.

No lah, not that easy lah. I don't think Tony graduate as a CEO. He probably has gone thru some ups and downs before he became the CEO.

IMHO to be a CEO of a hospital is different from being a CEO of an IT company. You must be in the medical industries. Just like being a CEO of a law firm. Can anyone without a law degree set up a law firm? I doubt so. Even if you can who would work for you!

To me, softwares are tools. People makes use of softwares, add intelligence into it to perform works. Software can be in any field, accounting, science, engineering, human resource management, sales, payrole, statistical analysis, business etc.

So for Farah's case I'm not suprise. I'm not sure what field Farah is in. Also in Malaysia, the title Software Engineer is not regarded as an "Engineer" as in the engineering field. There are many varians, software consultant, software specialist, software programmer, technical consultant, software developer. Some organization use attractive titles to attract graduates.

In addition, there are so many software tools nowadays, some are damned easy to use, some are damned difficult. Same for software languages. If Farah is a C++ and Java software engineer for enterprise applications and solutions, I'll be amazed, with my eyes poped out!

In some software fields, you don't actually need a relevant software degree to become software experts for off the shelf enterprise level software applications that is already matured, like the SAP, ERP, and some business softwares because there is no low level programming. All you need is your strong ability to design and solutions to business problems. They welcome degrees from any disciplines as the starting point. And they are very well paid. I came to know someone with a degree in general science from USM, he joined as software consultant for SAP. I don't have to tell you how much he earns now but well above any manager posts in town.

Overall, I think degree matters in our career path generally and it matters to a reputable organization.

Only sometimes, situtations forces some of us to join a field that is not relevant to the field we studied in U.

But to be sucessful, I think one have to be aggressive in persueing their dreams and willing to take risks instead of wait and see attitude.

Anonymous said...

In America, the big 5 investment banks (Goldman Sachs, Lehmann Brothers, Morgan Stanley.. etc) hire all kinds of people to fill their investment bankers post.

Engineers from MIT, mathematicians, Econs students from ivys and other top schools, etc etc are hired annually. Heck, my brother, whos studying system engineering at UVa (No.2 public uni ) is already secured by Lehmann Brothers for all summers throughout his remaining years there and a finance job upon graduation. And he's only in the midst of his second year.

I believe Tony is refering to cases like these when he wrote this post. Obviously, certain professional jobs like doctors, lawyers, etc still require the right degree. :)


Anonymous said...

I think a degree matters if one wants to seek employment overseas. With globalisation, a degree from a recognised foreign university would help those who wish to apply to work overseas.

Maverick SM said...

When it comes to competitive advantage, the paper qualification does matter. However, paper qualification will not by itself provide a person with a career path. It is skills, knowledge and attitudes that chart a person's career.

But without proper university education, the mental process of a person could lacks the intellectual process of critical analysis and statistical analysis which governs decision making and which is a basic necessity of management.

However, some had graduated with this basic fundamentals and is no better than those without the papers.

Anonymous said...

Does degree matter?

it's all about getting the extra competitive edge.

university education is about getting a job. now, having a degree is almost seen as a prerequisite for getting a job. not having one, means closing the doors to a range of opportunities.

in the past, finishing secondary school was seen as a feat. these people were greatly admired. they could easily get a job.

then it became common. people started to look at degrees.

having a degree, especially foreign ones, was seen almost as heroic. when these people balik kampung, they were welcomed like heroes. they could pick and choose among various companies. they easily outshined their competitors.

now, degrees are common. it has somewhat lost its competitive edge.

people start to look at other things that will give them the added edge. they look at soft skills. people with the right attitude and effective communication skills will succeed.

having a degree is somewhat merely a requirement to better paying jobs. though it gives little advantage over other job applicants. not having one will put the job seeker at a severely disadvantaged position.

unless they are exceptionally good or experienced, potential employer will not bother those without a degree.

now, the competitive edge comes from soft skills, people skills. students should strive for this. look beyond just a paper.

an analogy, graduates are like cakes. the best cake will get the job (or be eaten..haha..jk). having a degree is like the base of the cake. without it, the cake will not stand. right attitude and soft skills are the 'substance' of the cake. it's what employers look for. others like driving the right car are just icing on the cake (i think it matters more in singapore).

Anonymous said...

Sometimes a university degree is a burden. Once you have a degree, you feel that you should not do this, you should only do that. You start to limit your opportunities, dare not take risk, and miss many golden chances. You become an employee rather than a pathfinder.

If you are enterprising and know what you want, you don't need a degree. Eventually when you are successful, universities will offer you degrees!

Anonymous said...

So right about Malaysian snobbishness towards certain degrees. And it's not confined to the social sciences either.

I'll be pursuing a degree in Mathematics starting next year. Most of the reactions towards my decision have been negative.

I blame this on lack of awareness. Nothing else.

CheaYee said...

Hi. i just found this entry.

It depends however on the field of course. In australia, they would require a 4 years before employing you as pre-school teacher.

But here they don't. for the US thngy, i do remember that the international school i was at only required teachers with degrees (that at least they were trained in to teach that subject!).

But its different for pre-school level.

However, it would make sense financially and economically for a student to take what he has studied into the workng world and cash on it, instead of having to re-train all over again!

Anonymous said...

it is true that experience is extremely important in securing a job however for those fresh out from school these days paper count to a certain degree. When HR or hirng manager look at the resume, it is all about impressing him and getting him to meet you.
It is not like Bill Gates days where you don't need to have a degree, still can find VC to invest on you or make big money.

A University degree teach you the fundamentals of learning. When you go out to the real world you use the skills that you have acquired.

If you are a lazy guy who dropped out of school and love to hack. You have bad grades however very great programming skills, tons of experience and no degree. Do you think you get hire into some Big company as a programer easily? You think such people don't exist? Well think again. Nothing is impossible!

Nothing is absolute, Degree is important these days to get your foot to the door of working life. Working experience counts when you are going for your next job.