When people talk about the cost or price of getting an education we always think in dollar terms of how much studying costs. School fees and tuition fees are what we think of. Many parents spare no expense with hopes and dreams for their kids to have a good education. Many even go into debt for it. Beyond upfront fees, is there a true cost of education?
Studying mantra from a young age
I believe we have all heard the same advice before in some way or another; Study hard and get a good job. This was the advice given to me from a young age worded as “study hard so you can get good grades and the government will send you to UK for further studies!” So throughout my adolescent and teenage life, that was my goal: To study in the UK! Truthfully, I was really tunnel-visioning and all that matters was this end game.
I wasn’t some genius tier student but I had a kiasu (Hokkien for “scared to lose”) attitude and a certain level of competitiveness. I studied just enough to get by into top 5 in class but never enough become first place. My A Levels didn’t have any A’s at all; but I was able to secure a place in a UK university (by the skin of my teeth, no less). And somehow survived the Ministry of Education’s scholarship interviews. So at long last, I’m here! In the place promised to come if I studied hard enough! After 4 years, I finished off my Masters and came back to Brunei. And here’s the kicker: I never thought of anything beyond “Study in UK”; all I knew was I needed to get a “job”. The end game, surprise, surprise, wasn’t the end.
So what now after gaining your education?
It was a realisation slowly sinking in that I had no idea what I wanted to achieve as a career let alone in life. I was always envious of people with a sense of direction or purpose; medical students would become doctors and engineering students would work for Brunei Shell Petroleum. And me? I’m just some whippersnapper fresh out of university with a certificate.
One of the poor assumptions I made was that the Brunei Government would hand me a job on a silver platter. This was what was always repeated by family and friends alike and, unsurprisingly, I believed it. But the reality is way harsher to fathom: coming back, many graduates were and still are facing unemployment and skills are sorely underutilised. I was up against hundreds of others, trying to vie for one position or another and worse still, against those from families with strong connections. Over months and eventually a year, I became bitter and my outlook in life was skewed towards negativity.
All these years of studying and now I’m here, with a one year old certificate and nothing to show for. I began questioning…
Is my Education worth nothing?
Have you have ever lost your way before? If so, you have tasted the “oh sh*t” moment where you felt a loss of control. But when you lose your way in life (as I would imagine), that’s a rocky road to travel. The sense of despair and hopelessness I felt would lose translation when coming out; Often portrayed as anger and frustration. I’ve mentioned to my then-girlfriend once that I went through the 5 stages of grief in my searching for employment in Brunei.
Then in 2012, having nothing better to do and reading that volunteering helps with job seeking, I volunteered at an Oil and Gas job fair. There I met quite a few students, graduates and others who were in the same boat as me. The most important contact was when (I think) the deputy minister of the Energy Department of the Prime Minister’s Office (EDPMO) talked to us. On the first floor foyer overlooking the Bridex floor, we stood around him. He said something to us that took me by surprise and have never forgotten.
He said, “Your degree is just a piece of paper. All it tells people is that you were able to consistently put out work of a certain quality.”
I don’t remember anything else from that time striking me as strongly as what he said. How could this be? This piece of paper which I’ve worked for 3 to 4 years held little meaning beyond opening avenues for conversation. These conversations we call “interviews” sometimes led to employment and other opportunities.
In a way, this was true. When you put your degree into your CV, all it does is tell the readers you’ve been there and done that. It does not tell them what skills you gained and all your experiences; that would have been way too long for a CV.
Result of perseverance
It wasn’t until almost 2 years later when I landed my first full time job. That’s 2 years with countless applications and at least 15 rejection letters and who knows how many “silent responses” under my belt. Up until then I was doing a few part time work. The pay offered to me was beyond what I expected so, of course, I jumped on it. Only 4 months later, I received a call from a public sector job I’ve applied and jumped through the hoops for. I was reluctant to leave after only 4 months but family had swayed me to take the plunge. The mentality in Brunei is that public sector jobs are the “Golden Rice Bowl”; meaning the most secure and reliable form of employment. From experience, this is true. In fact, it is too secure to the point that even bad employees are retained.
So what did I learn from this ordeal of transitioning from student to working class? That education is what kept me afloat during all the hard times; both formal and informal. And from that grew a glimmer of hope and the ability to persevere. I’ll share with you:
The True Cost of Education
At the end of the day, what was my education worth?
1. Upfront cost
I was a scholar of the Ministry of Education. I wore that proudly when I introduced myself to my foreign counterparts. When my degree ended, I was summoned to the Brunei Student Unit in London. There a lady officer sat me down and showed me how much the Government spent on me. It was about £200,000 if I remember correctly. I never got the figure for my Master’s year but it should have added £100,000 to it.
Cost of education = £300,000
Price to pay = 5 years bond to government
As we know, there’s no free lunch. And as such, I was to serve the country for 5 years. I did, however, obtain a bond release due to having no luck with Government jobs after a year or so. But I was required to work in Brunei albeit any sector was fair game.
One of the biggest payoffs of having specialised knowledge is your market value goes up. You don’t even need tertiary education sometimes but it usually helps to get your foot in the door for higher positions. Brunei public sector salary is a modest $2,500-ish per month for Division II scale if I remember correctly. And usually one of the requirements for these is tertiary education; a degree of some sort.
Salary per annum (including 1 month bonus) = $2,500 x 13 = $32,500
Honestly, without getting as far in my studies, I would probably have secured less in any employment. Taking a $1,500 salary as example, the cost of education would have been a whopping $1,000 per month!
What if I didn’t go into the University route?
I sometimes wondered what would have been if I never went to University. If you’ve played the board game “Game of Life” you can relate to the starting points: Education + debt vs starting career without tertiary education. While initial pay may not be high, there’s a lot of room to grow over the years.
I think it is possible to achieve without formal education. Great business owners, for one, have strong street smarts, perseverance and are always looking to improve. It is this trait of continuous learning and adapting which separates the average and the great. And this is true whether you have a degree or not.
3. Unemployment phase
Yes, I was fortunate to secure employment in a market which “difficult” was an understatement. But before that, a lot of odd jobs and emotional turmoil took hold. I did stints in teaching and insurance (both I wasn’t particularly good at) and self-degrading thoughts came frequently.
One good thing that came out of it was that this was the time I developed a budgeting habit. Without this, I probably wouldn’t have survived 2 years with only $1,000 to my name.
In the end, the cost of my education came to:
- 5 year bond or over £300,000 owed if broken.
- $1,500 – $2,000 starting market value. At least $1,000 less without knowledge of any kind.
- 4 years of life in University.
- 2 years of life looking for employment.
- Social and emotional stress of unemployment.
This was the price I reckon I’ve paid for tertiary education and the rewards came more in terms of potential earnings. This meant that I, like many others, was and still am at the mercy of market demand. The thing to bear in mind is if your education ends when you get the cert and toss the hat, you’ll be in harder times down the road. Unless, of course, you’re only interested in living to work to pay to live.
Therefore the biggest lesson I learned through this is if you don’t try to better yourself, you might not get to where you want to be. After all,
Your degree is just a piece of paper. All it tells people is that you were able to consistently put out work of a certain quality.
– Deputy Minister EDPMO, Brunei