With initiatives such as the ASPIRE Committee and the Continuous Education and Training masterplan – which according to the Ministry of Education (MOE) signal the importance of “looking beyond academic qualifications” as well as the development of skills – it is convenient to dismiss the narratives of students choosing polytechnics over juniors colleges (ST, Jan. 11 and 12), despite meeting the requirements of the latter, as mere anecdotes. To claim that mindsets have shifted would be an exaggeration, though the distinction between the institutes of higher learning has certainly blurred. Unlike perceptions in the past, the junior college is not definitively superior because of the lower scores or fewer years required.
Students now make more informed decisions. Career counsellors, for instance, give good advice based on different ambitions. What is more encouraging is the flexibility to switch pathways. The MOE describes this as “porosity”, to take the most suitable path to realise potentials. What used to be frowned upon as “indecision”, “a waste of time and money”, or even “failure” has turned into recognition that trial-and-error and deliberation can be good.
The diversity is refreshing, and the cited statistics complement these observations. More students switch from a junior college to a polytechnic than the other way round: 400 to 500 versus 50 to 60 students respectively. On the other hand, the number of individuals entering junior colleges has not fallen, staying at around 16,000 each year.
There could still be some fixation that students are still choosing what is best for their future, instead of what makes them happy, but that is just nit-picking (besides, they are not mutually exclusive). As an aspiring veterinarian mused, “I had my heart set on becoming a vet … So I thought, might as well enrol in a course that is directly relevant to the field I want to enter”. She also volunteers at the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Notwithstanding the eagerness of the government to push its agenda, even the harshest critic must concede that the improvements are constructive. Above all, it should be impressed upon students that desire counts for little, unless it is backed by industry and eventual excellence. Almost every student interviewed was doing their utmost to excel. Regardless of the pathway they choose – junior college or polytechnic, university or not – and with so much competition, success goes to those with an insatiable desire for knowledge and skills.
A version of this article was published in The Straits Times.