Sunday, March 13, 2022

Garbage IT professionals and Institutes of Continuous Learning


Recently, a highly regarded professor of Computer Science that I greatly admire commented that the Computer Science department had low cut off scores and basically had a Garbage In Garbage Out problem. IT professionals who studied just enough to get a paper qualification so did not make a consequential impact on the industry.  

Actually, I would have been proud to come from a garbage faculty, but Engineering was quite decent during my time and I was AAA/B and the Dean of Engineering told me that Honours classification was generous for my batch of electrical engineers because it had students with fairly good A level grades. I understood quite deeply the tradeoff of studying Computer Science during my time. I was a Computer Science A level student and even spent time (as the dumbest guy) in the IOI Olympiad training team in NUS, but we were very concerned about our employment prospects and most of us then would not choose a Science degree over an Engineering degree 25 years ago.  

The consequence is that NUS did graduate CS grads who I felt, were a joke, the Honours class was excellent and can hold their own, but there plenty of jokers who thought coding was hard. I did two modules on Information Systems there and some CS students actually felt database programming was challenging.  The stories of girls who took CS was particularly unflattering. A pal from CS who was quite good said his grades were excellent because he basically had to tutor his girlfriend so he did every programming assignment twice. The girl even dumped him after graduation.

The NUS CS folks now have a few "outstanding" alumni. In particular, someone from their much admired Talent Development Program and Honours class is now a prominent enabler for "intelligent vaxxers" in Singapore and has had some run-ins against the law at the moment, providing hours of entertainment on the mainstream news.

 Anyway, I hope folks will not cancel this professor. Sometimes, we benefit from candid truths. Even if you do not agree with him, we should not scare elites into clamming up so that I can't read their mind. 

We should be asking ourselves what are the ramifications if the professor is right?  

In my generation, only 25% of my cohort went to a local university. Those who got into CS in the past are not the worst from my batch. These days, we happily admit 40% with the education minister trying to push it up to 50% with Institutes of Continuous learning. From this understanding, there's a lot of garbage floating around in this country if the professor is right. 

If anything, I think the professor is censuring himself because he did not share what he thinks about students from other NUS faculties or the newer universities, some with a primary Poly intake. It is not too difficult to use the Pareto principle when looking at each cohort. As economies become more specialised, volatile and knowledge-driven, 20% of the cohort contribute to 80% innovation and growth. In the future, we can end up with something more extreme, where 10% contribute to 90%.

What happens then?

The education minister has a huge problem in his hands. He thinks that we can maintain our employability with micro-credentials. 

I see some obstacles in his way :

a) HR departments will not change their practices.  

HR departments will still use the first degree as a signalling mechanism to hire staff. The best MNCs function as schools so they prefer aptitude and malleability, they can provide the training.  

The most competitive jobs will still go to the local uni grads with the best grades. Unless there is a gap in the labour market, I don't expect this to change. HR professionals are human beings, they will use a filter if only to reduce their workload.  

Personally, I do the same for stocks, I won't even look at the stock if there are no dividends. Of course, I miss out on growth, but I leave that to other investors. 

b) The top students of each degree program will grab all the best certifications

I think once folks understand that they are not built to learn stuff, the last thing they want is to learn more stuff and stay longer in school. Top students who have high morale from their academic pursuits will end up pursuing micro-credentials the most aggressively because it was a place they are used to winning in. I don't even need a resume anymore and I still pursue courses on Coursera!

The professor has already predicted what will happen. Some folks will do the minimum micro-credentials and use the paper to get a professional job. After a while, HR departments begin to flag folks with micro-credentials as garbage-in-garbage-out. 

Micro-credentials will then become the new private degree certificates.

There are a couple ways for policymakers to make Institutes of Continuous Learning work.

One approach is to cut down the intake for first degrees drastically. Down to 30% of the intake, so the industry must confront students who have ICL micro-credentials. This will reduce the stigma attached to studying in ICLs when the student can be top 31st percentile. This will be politically painful as I expect SIM, SIT, SUTD and SUSS to be shutdown or combined to form a mega-ICL. 

Another approach is for the civil service to eat their own cooking and hire ICL grads and put them on the same track as degree holders. Hiring criteria may be a basic degree or a specific microcredential. If I'm still a public servant today, I will definitely sign up for courses on balls-carrying and ring-fencing of work which is the real micro-credential we all need!

Finally, micro-credentials can be relevant if they come with a ridiculously high failure rate. The CFA, Cisco Certified Internet Expert of the 1990s, the Part A bar exam are all highly sought after because so many fail taking it. If you have enough folks in the industry who attempted it and failed it before, the credential will automatically be respected.  



  1. I would say in the last couple of years, those entering CS are in fact the better A level & poly students, simply becoz of the buzz & perceived big bucks i.e. tech entrepreneurs, or more realistically, IT positions in big banks or big govt.

    Non IT-heavy engineering has been suffering for decades, usually getting those that can't get into Biz related courses or (more recently) IT related courses, but still better than those relegated to social sciences, arts & humanities.

    In the distant past, when people got into engineering only becoz they couldn't get into medicine or law, a lot of the 1st & 2nd Uppers went straight into big banks' management associate programmes after graduation.

    Everything is a means (signalling) to an end (the good life).

  2. Exactly. What policy makers should avoid is that these micro-credentials end up negatively signalling value. Apparently qualifications like ACTA are not respected here. These days if you are a Toastmaster, you are considered a bullshitter.

    1. Just get your courses WSQ accredited first. It'll widen your potential market & access (skills future credits). Of course you'll have to deal with students who may not have the mental makeup for investing.

      ACTA & ACLP are BS signalers that can come later.

  3. SUTD is not ICL but it is a small IHL and hence, the risk of consolidation into a larger IHL is true.
    But if consolidation happens, it will likely be to one of the other U's - e.g. SMU (closer in philosophy of industry-centricity / non-traditional, and similarly small and so benefitting from consolidation) or the others (NUS, NTU).
    Hence, SUTD not meant to be lumped with SIM, SIT, SUSS. (Probably the S in front caused the confusion)