PM Lee says valuable to have good university education but Education Minister says skills more important

On Wed (4 Sep), during an hour-long ministerial forum with students of the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS), Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told the students that the value of a good university education is in learning how to learn and how to continue learning even after one has graduated.

He added that the government tries “very hard” to ensure that Singapore universities, especially autonomous universities, maintain a high standard and teach their students not only what they need to know but also how to think and learn.

“I think for the long term, if you get a good university education, it is something that will be valuable to you after you have forgotten the details which you have learned in university,” he said.

“You don’t need to know all the facts but you must understand where to look for the facts and you must have that discipline of the mind, that training to understand how to look at problems, to analyse problems, decide what to do, whom to get advice from, and how to proceed,” he later added.

Degrees can become obsolete

Two years ago, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung made some comments on university education in Parliament to address some of the controversies he had generated when he spoke about the university cohort participation rate at an earlier 47th St. Gallen Symposium.

“First, degrees, like most things in life, can become obsolete,” he told the House. “We live in a world where information and knowledge can be googled and available online. Skills are what carry a premium now, and skills need to be honed throughout our lifetimes.”

“So let’s not be overly fixated with how many percentage of each young student cohort move on to attend universities, because all of us – 100% – need to keep learning and deepening our skills throughout our lives.”

“Second, degrees don’t earn us a living, and don’t make our dreams come true. We do – our ability to keep pace with changing needs of the economy is what helps us earn our keep. It is the dedicated pursuit of a discipline that makes dreams come true,” he added.

“We must however recognise that because our dreams and aspirations are diverse, the needs of economy are diverse, the paths for upgrading must also be diverse and multitudinous. They should include academic upgrades, yes, but also applied qualifications, apprenticeships, industry certifications, modular and frequent skills acquisitions, overseas exposures, or simply gaining work experience and making for yourself a name in the industry or in your respective fields.”

It would be “unimaginative” to confine oneself to university academic education as the only way to develop to a person’s full potential, he said.

“Our society needs to evolve, such that all occupations, crafts and trades – whether the skills are acquired through a degree education or not – are respected and recognised.”

So, should Singaporeans listen to PM Lee or Education Minister Ong with regard to getting a university degree?