Is it time to rethink tertiary education?

Workplace qualities: Someone may be excellent in their studies yet find it hard to communicate with others, as this photo from the movie Revenge Of The Nerds suggests.

What universities teach may not be what the real-life workplace needs. 

It must be easy hiring if you’re Google. Everybody knows how to get in touch with them and ask for a job, while showing off their impressive paper qualifications.

Except Laszlo Bock, senior vice president for people operations at Google, who said last year, “GPA’s (Grade Point Averages) are worthless as a criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless.”

Yet this is something anybody who has worked in Human Resources understands: there can be a big gap between those who have good academic results and those who work well for your company.

That is why the interview is such an important part of the process. I know of an aerospace company who interviewed a student who had a tremendous academic record. She studied aeronautics in university and did her industrial internship working on the same planes that the company specialised in.

However, when it came to the verbal interview, she was a mess. She hardly spoke and when asked to solve a problem, she froze and became unresponsive.

In fact, many companies in Malaysia have said that, when hiring local university graduates, they prefer somebody who achieved a solid upper second class than one who earned a first class degree. The reason is because people with top academic degrees worked so hard to get them that they don’t have much of a life beyond their studies. They may find it hard to communicate with other workers, and trying to get them to work as part of team would definitely be challenging.

Google is suggesting something more radical. Their experience evaluating employee performance has resulted in the proportion of people without any college education whatsoever at Google increasing over time. However, what was unsaid was that finding these individuals would be very hard.

The assumption is that somebody with a university degree would do a better job than one who doesn’t. Statistics from the United States show that somebody with a master’s degree will earn twice as much money in their lifetime as somebody who only has a high-school diploma.

Although we know there are people without university degrees who could be good workers, it’s hard to find them – and most people don’t even bother. Google manages to find and hire these talents, but that’s as much about Google’s efforts as it is talent knocking on their door because Google is attractive.

Perhaps the lesson we should take away from this is that the skills most people need to thrive in the average workplace are not those on the university curriculum.

Of course, this may not be surprising given studies from the US suggesting that about half of all people do not work in a job related to their field of study, and about third never do so throughout their career. So it doesn’t matter if what you study for is relevant or not.

Yet, even if graduates do find an appropriate job, things are not so clear-cut. Companies in Malaysia give feedback that engineering graduates still need at least two years of on-the-job training after leaving college to get them up to speed in electrical or engineering work.

Clearly there needs to be better coordination between industry and education. The meet-them-halfway solution is to have industrial internships in sandwich courses, or to have industry send their experts to universities to teach, giving students a peek at what real-life work is like.

In the US, this has already filtered down to the high school level. IBM together with schools and state education departments in New York, Chicago and Connecticut have created a programme that extends high school by an extra two years, with industry giving an input to the curriculum, as well as providing mentors for the students. As a result, IBM is confident of the skills students will possess when they leave, and is guaranteeing qualified graduates job interviews.

It must be noted that apart from technical skills, the curriculum also puts an emphasis on soft skills, such as being able to work independently and yet contribute meaningfully to a team, while stepping up to lead when necessary.

In fact, if you think about it, what companies do to evaluate job candidates is very different from what these job seekers do to graduate from university, so it makes sense to have industry involved in the curriculum. I have often wondered why it is that universities don’t amend their assessment criteria from being purely knowledge-based, to one that also evaluates the character of the student as a whole.

If universities don’t get better at doing this, there is a strong chance that they may become less relevant in the future. There will come a point when companies will hit upon the idea of being education providers themselves. At the moment, the supply of on-the-job learning (in the form of internships) is low, because companies have to pay people who work for them.

But what if a company sets up its own educational institution? In fact, these corporate universities already exist. McDonalds set up their Hamburger University in 1961 to train its restaurant managers and operators, while companies such as Pixar and Apple have their own internal “universities”.

So, here’s my idea: Google should make their own university. Not the set of online programming courses that they have now, but a fully-fledged place for people to learn how to work at Google.

Imagine how many people would line up to join “Google University”, and imagine how much money they’d pay to do so. And after a few years of training, Google can have the pick of the best to continue working for them.

And if you like this idea, Google, you know how to get in touch with me ...

Logic is the antithesis of emotion but mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi’s theory is that people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions. Speak to him at

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