Saturday, October 07, 2017

A Third Class Honours, by any other name...



In today's new NTU has made a decision to re-label the Third Class Honours designation to something more politically correct. The question is whether this will really make a difference to their students or how the industry would view local graduates.

I was in a bad situation myself sometime last year. I was teetering on the brink of losing a cum laude  and started make plans to graduate without a cum laude designation. This was because I was scored bottom in my Civil Procedure and International Moots class. The options do not look good because the industry is going through a tough patch, I have yet to score a training contract, and a 1-1 mapping between NUS and SMU would map a summa cum laude to a 1st class, a magna cum laude to a 2nd Upper and a no-frills cum laude to a 2nd lower even though a cum laude designation within SMU maps to the upper half of a 2nd Upper from NUS. I was also really worried that the older lawyers, many who would not even countenance a second law school in Singapore, would discriminate against us SMU graduates.

The situation was the opposite 18 years ago when I graduated from Engineering. I was in the 1st Class bracket, but in all my job applications, I mentioned that I expected to get a 2nd Upper. In those days, 2nd Upper was a cool grade. Folks were more relaxed about academic achievement with only the government and Anderson Consulting being really interested in paying more to hire top flight engineering graduates. Those days, lying about expecting a 2nd Upper even turned out to be a good move. After I joined P&G for a year when I found out that some of my colleagues take quite a lot pride about rubbishing 1st Class Honours graduates resumes. But the excuses are always that 1st Class Honours graduates may not have developed as a "whole person" and may have sacrificed their extra curricular activities.

These days grades matter. It's not because universities developed funky titles for their best students.
It's because HR departments need it to justify the expense and there are more students vying for those few professional jobs that guarantee a ticket to the middle class. HR department know where you stand on a percentile basis relative to your peers because it take an intern perhaps an hour to generate a table that maps degree classifications to percentile numbers and subsequently to starting salaries. Kids these days just put CGPA on their LinkedIn to erase all doubt about their quality.

Another words, NTU can't outsmart the industry by simply relabelling their product.

I'm also going to burst a couple of bubbles on this blog :

a) The silly idea that your degree classification only matters for your first job.

This is completely untrue from personal experience. If it only matters for one job, no one would regret getting average grades in university, go ask the middle aged uncles my age. In practice, when you submit your resume, you include your job experience AND YOUR GRADES so your interviewer will look at your candidacy IN TOTALITY.

You might have solid grades but if you did your work in a less inspiring setting, grades can save your career. Like my short 1.5 years stint in Government, you might find yourself in a position with no solid contribution to write about in your resume after you leave (Even my 11 months with NTUC netted me one data centre move). In reality, some work is just BAU (Business As Usual) work. You don't get rewarded when things work, but shit really hits the fan when things fail, so if you have done a perfect job, there's nothing to rave about to your interviewer.

Worse, in many cases, the sexier work is just farmed out to the folks with better grades.

In any case, it is highly dishonest to lie about grades or university being unimportant after your first job.

b) The lie that we are moving towards a skill driven society.

This is so dishonest I think we need to install a new hell to folks who are spreading this lie. The move towards a skill based society is not a motherhood statement that is bandied about to make the weak and mediocre feel good about themselves. Degrees contains two sources of value, one comes from skills development and another component comes from signalling.

The signalling value of a degree qualification is quantified by the salary difference between a person who comes from a better university and a person who comes from a less prestigious institution but is equipped with the same skills.

You can shoot your mouth off and say that we're moving to a skills driven society when this salary gap narrows and when employers have decided to pay for skills instead of branded paper qualifications. Until then, Singapore overwhelmingly pays based on the talent and potential of a graduate that is divorced from actual skill-sets picked up from school because MNCs can train their own employees better to give them the skills they need.

In fact, I would even argue that the gap has widened and is widening further because we no longer belong to a society where 20% have degrees and instead are moving to a society where 40% have degrees. Grades will matter even more in a society full of degrees. HR has KPIs to meet as well and don't like to be kept in the dark about what kind of guys they are putting on payroll.

So if local universities really want to make grades matter less, the solution is not relabelling. It's not even better teaching. The solution is to do the politically incorrect thing and limit the number of graduates in Singapore society by limiting their intake. This move must be coupled by a strong apprenticeship system that allows Polytechnic graduates to gain access to the middle class with good jobs that, in turn, allow them to raise families without running away to Australia to get a degree. These polytechnic graduates can then, based on personal circumstances, learn their way towards better jobs through part-time studies.

I think with university graduates being capped at a smaller number, we can have a society where skills matter more !












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