“There is no reason why the same principle cannot be applied to admission to universities and polytechnics, where work experience could count along with the traditional dependence on past academic results” (Making Higher Education More Inclusive, The Straits Times Editorial).
The Straits Times’s proposition to make entry into universities more inclusive is well-intentioned, but falls short when it comes to the actual, specific recommendations (“Making Higher Education More Inclusive”, September 14, 2013). Furthermore the subsequent argument that “[t]he obvious caveat is that broadening admission should not lead to lowering of standards” seems ironic and fallacious, because it implies that one’s examination results – the primary assessment criteria at the moment – necessarily determines his or her eventual performance in a university. Therefore, it is not only important to increase accessibility to these schools, but also crucial to diversify the way students are selected.
The need to go beyond grades per se is certainly gaining traction.
At present, the National University of Singapore explains that an applicant’s admission depends on his or her “academic standing, course selection, and competition amongst applicants”. Other accomplishments and work experience will only feature in “exceptional cases”. The heavy emphasis on one’s examination transcript is also illustrated by the pedantic Indicative Grade Profile (IGP), which reflects the test results of the 10th and 90th percentile of undergraduates from the previous year.
So, how exactly should these institutions of higher learning stay true to “the pursuit of excellence”, “while allowing more students to embark on that journey”? A proportional approach could mean different components taking varying weights from the get-go: 70 per cent for the A-Levels or the Grade Point Average, 15 per cent for co-curricular activities, and 15 per cent for leadership and practical experience. A more holistic evaluation of the individual, in other words. Nevertheless, the need for objective comparisons means quantification could be a problem. How does a community service commitment stack up against a sporting or musical achievement? Already, questions have been raised over the perceived inconsistency between the junior colleges and the polytechnics.
The worry is that the status quo precludes those who might have performed unsatisfactorily in a single high-stakes testing, but have excelled elsewhere.
Qualitative methods – in the form of personal statements, essays, and interviews – can be contemplated. In fact, for particular colleges and courses, the administrators have customised their selection processes and tests accordingly. The obvious opposition is that widespread adoption of these practices will not be administratively practical or efficient, and will correspondingly come at heightened expenses to the universities (and, supposedly, passed on to the applicants). But if we accept that the stereotypical mould of a college undergraduate or graduate has to be broken ever-so-slightly, these costs may be well worth it.
A version of this article was published in The Straits Times.