Monday, October 24, 2011
On Singapore's Long Term Economic Viability: Tertiary Education in Science and Engineering
(This rant was published in edited form at New Asia Republic on 4th Nov 2011.)
The key to the long term economic viability of Singapore is not government prescience in selection of the next big thing. Rather, the "key driver" will be the quality of education our young receive. A series of knowledgeable and well-educated cohorts will be able to identify opportunities and innovate to grasp those opportunities. I would like to focus on science and engineering graduates as these are the necessary "skilled inputs" required for a healthy high-value-added economy.
It is disappointing that the quality of output from our universities is not exactly up to scratch. Most are not capable of independent application of what they have learnt or should have learnt in school. Few are willing to learn new/subsidiary skills and even fewer have the breadth and depth of knowledge to make their learning process efficient.
Many will disagree with me. Most will be part of the group I am referring to. Sadly, many employers will probably agree with me. In addition, I believe that a number of local university professors will agree with me. I did my undergraduate studies at NUS and one of my professors told me, some time ago, that "the quality of Singapore engineering has fallen." (He presently holds a high appointment in the school, and naming him may do him a big disservice.) From my previous interactions with university professors and people who assess potential hires for technical ability, most do not expect much from fresh graduates and seem pleasantly surprised when a one exhibits knowledge and demonstrates capability.
I wouldn't blame the faculty. The incentives present in society rewards middlemen who have constructed a system where they oversea financial flows and take a fraction of the financial flux as a cut. As such, many who choose to read science and engineering look to a career in financial intermediation, "connecting financial supply to demand". Intermediaries are useful to have -- money itself, which makes transactions convenient, is an intermediary. However, with the arguably incorrect reward system, the rush into finance is impoverishing the world due to the fall in creation of real economic value. Furthermore, textbook supply and demand does not work due to monopoly effects: there is basically one financial system (... and this should change so the free market can kick in). With that background, many science and engineering students primarily seek only to obtain a paper qualification that indicates some quantitative training and at the same time gives them license to apply for a technology job. What this causes is a lack of interest in coursework and eventual lack of knowledge retained after graduation.
Many engineering graduates lack the confidence or ability to do engineering. Most of those who do take up engineering jobs take on sales roles or roles that previously would have been done by non-graduate technicians. The booming of the financial services industry has been a boon to many who take on sales jobs and work on basic quantitative analysis. Most do not even know how to properly price a financial derivative and end up selling products that they themselves do not understand. (Insurance policies are in essence financial derivatives too.)
(In fact, I have even met "scholars", including those who studied overseas, who cannot describe even in a cursory manner what they did in their final year projects not 5 years ago. Can one reasonably forget work that one recently spent a year or half a year on? This hints at a larger problem in new and upcoming members of the workforce.)
This is a sorry state of affairs and does not bode well for long term economic viability. Without going into what I see as consequences of this, I would like to propose a measure to ameliorate this. I believe that local universities should raise the bar substantially and only allow students who have demonstrated a good level of proficiency to pass courses (and hence, graduate). Universities should not be afraid of failing students who are not yet competent in their coursework.
Why do this? I believe that in science and engineering, most of the value is created by those who have at least some threshold level of knowledge and capability. I do not refer to "the talented tenth" or any notion that hints at a top X%, what I mean is that some approximate level of knowledge and capability that generates network effects of knowledge, making the individuals within which such a dynamic exists proficient value generators. Now, rising waters lifts all boats, but does not leave all intact. Competency levels will be raised, but some will not be able to graduate. That is fine, in my opinion, those people would not have made good scientists or engineers anyway and would definitely have trouble on their own in the job market.
What may not be easy to predict is whether even more would like to pursue quantitative finance (as opposed to sales roles) as a career given the raised capability levels. I do not think I can address this issue here.
In the short term, the value of a science/engineering degree will be raised, and new graduates will be able to find good jobs more easily with employers having greater confidence in the technical competency of job applicants. Graduates will also have been equipped with a good level of knowledge and facility with that knowledge to confidently do their work effectively and pursue new knowledge when the need arises.
On the flip side, this will cause a dip in the number of science and engineering graduates with those who are unwilling or unable to handle the rigour. However, I would argue that the number of engineering graduates should be raised not by lowering standards, but rather through the force of personal aspiration on the part of students. We should not play with our nation's long term economic viability to raise a KPI in the short term.
Operationally, this will demand a greater focus on teaching in universities, meaning more staff will be needed and changes in remuneration policy will be required rigorously assessed projects are not practical from the standpoint of manpower, a shift to high stakes examinations will take place. While the benefits of high stakes examinations is debatable at the primary and secondary levels are debatable, sound reasons exist for institutionalizing them at the tertiary level. To argue by example, building a bridge is a high stakes project, and the skills that go towards building that bridge should be rigorously ensured. If these skills are not demonstrated through (rigorously assessed) project work, challenging examinations will have to serve as a proxy.
Notably, with high stakes examinations, professors will be hit more often with the "annoyance" of students griping about grades. I would argue that greater transparency in marking would be a solution. By allowing students access to their marked papers and the marking guide, fewer frivolous requests for review will take place. (Papers could be scanned and the images made available to students.) Furthermore, releasing marked transcripts and revealing marking guides might turn out to be a useful post examination review with high pedagogical value.
I believe that raising standards at local universities will be necessary for long term economic viability. This will involve potentially expensive operational changes, but the net effects will be well worth our while. What I am certain about is, we cannot continue this way or future Singapore will be largely populated by port workers servicing ships making brief refuelling stopovers.