“Professor Tsui admits that the selection, which will take half a day, is rigorous. But he said the university is serious about looking for students with the five Cs – commitment, consciousness, cognition, creativity and communication” (More Than Good Grades Needed For A Place At UniSIM, Miss Sandra Davie).
The flexibility of the selection process in SIM University (UniSIM) is constructive, and echoes the admission components of the newer universities (More Than Good Grades Needed For A Place At UniSIM, Jan. 6). It recognises that examination results per se do not necessarily reflect a student’s true quality and potential. While one might not be too enthusiastic about UniSIM’s “five Cs” model, for assessors run the risk of pigeon-holing applicants, the school’s four-step model does go beyond the traditional focus on grades.
This should also be a sign for public universities to make higher education more inclusive.
In the National University of Singapore (NUS), undergraduates are admitted based on their “academic standing, course selection and competition among applicants”. If one has performed poorly in a high-stakes assessment, his or her opportunities are severely limited. Other achievements or work experience will only be considered in “exceptional cases”. However, for specialised or competitive courses such as architecture, law, and medicine, individuals would have to go through additional selection tests or interviews.
On the other hand, the application process to the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) includes an essay, interview, co-curricular activities, and other relevant accomplishments. The justification: “we look for who you really are – what inspires you, what are you passionate about, and the values that you hold”. Generally speaking, examinations are a test of one’s competency in rote memorisation and pedantic regurgitation. Hence, such holistic evaluation paints a fairer picture of the person.
Some may deem the comparison to be unfair. After all, SUTD is focused on design education and research, and therefore incoming students have to possess skills or display relevant aptitudes to be suitable for the courses. Courses in NUS may be more steeped in academia and scholastic research. However, admission officers – in NUS for instance – should use existing initiatives as a guide, and instead think about customising appropriate methodologies to choose their prospective undergraduates. Are grades a truly adequate gauge? How should qualitative endeavours be quantified and compared? Results can, and should, still feature. 70 per cent of the weighting can come from that, and the remaining 30 per cent from out-of-the-classroom experiences.
It will become more complicated, but the central tenet is to shake away that rigid obsession with academic abilities. Nonetheless if a department or faculty truly believes that it only needs to use one’s scholastic standing, then it can be explained and justified too.
A good university is a hub for knowledge, and standards should not be compromised. Yet if the admissions process can be calibrated to inject greater diversity, why not? Flexibility in the universities – and its admission process – sets the tone for the rest of the education system; one that is coming to terms with a complex and demanding world where book-smartness is no longer sufficient.
A version of this article was published in The Straits Times.