Blind pursuit of university degrees taking Hong Kong down the wrong path

Peter Kammerer says our obsession with a tertiary education leads only to job mismatch, unmet expectations and a wasteful use of public funds

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 September, 2015, 12:11pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 September, 2015, 8:28am

It takes a brave parent to let their daughter or son do what they want after secondary school. It is especially so if the international education route has been taken: the price of a Ferrari has gone into tuition fees, after-school lessons and overseas excursions. For some, there will be heated discussion if the choice is a university degree in the arts or humanities; the job prospects and financial rewards are not perceived as being rosy. And what of the child who is a gym rat or world-beating skate-boarder?

Hong Kong's obsession with degrees colours the picture. Graduation, often from the best universities, is needed just to get a job interview . The only guarantees are having done medicine, civil engineering and accounting; if nothing satisfactory is offered, then it's back to school. Even then, the economic circumstances and fact that college qualifications are increasingly ubiquitous means the financial returns are going to be below what they were last year.

There is also a simple reality that governments and universities will never admit to: the majority of jobs do not need a degree. Higher education is a lucrative business for making money from students, which is why there are ever more universities and courses on offer. I've no problem with people wanting to do a degree in Asian or Buddhist studies - such endeavours broaden knowledge and understanding and give intellectual fulfilment. I object, though, to such degrees being subsidised by the public purse.

There is also a simple reality that governments and universities will never admit to: the majority of jobs do not need a degree

A journalism degree is not needed to be a journalist, nor is one in graphic design necessary to be a graphic artist. The same is true for many other professions, from performance art to librarianship to nursing. They are about skills and knowledge, matters that are best learned on the job. A degree-crazy society, egged on by what are essentially certificate mills, has brainwashed us into thinking otherwise.

I began in journalism in Australia at a time when journalism graduates were rare. Life experience, not qualifications, were what it took to write about people. I got a degree only because the company I was working for was supportive of the local university's journalism course. That, now, virtually every tertiary institution offers a journalism or communications degree and is churning out graduates for an industry that is a shadow of its former self, and needs only a fraction of the number, speaks volumes about why a shake-up is necessary. Nor is a degree necessary to be successful. Hong Kong's top tycoons prove that, as do Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and the late Steve Jobs, who all dropped out of college to launch their companies. They didn't need MBAs - all they needed were smart ideas, the will to succeed and faith in their abilities.

Not everyone is a Steve Jobs, of course - most of us are average in intellect. For that reason alone, the idea that there is a need for ever more high-school leavers to go to university at public expense should ring alarm bells. Hong Kong needs doctors, scientists, engineers, financial experts and hi-tech specialists - these are the degrees the government should help fund. All others should be done at personal or family expense.

The late Australian country music legend Slim Dusty nicely summed up my thinking in a song a lifetime ago. "We got the kindies and beginners at the primary school, where the kiddies learn to read and write, we got the colleges and universities for the ones that seem so bright, we got the technical trade school apprentices for those who like to use their hands, then all the rest left over get to sing in a rock and roll band."

It's not cerebral and never won a songwriting award. But in a degree-crazy world, this is the back-to-basics thinking needed to get us back on track.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post