“Polytechnics and universities will admit more students based on their talents and interests as they widen the focus from academic grades alone” (Polys, Unis To Take More With Talents And Interests, Calvin Yang).
Commitments by the polytechnics and universities to “admit more students based on their talents and interests” (ST, Apr. 9) – “with abilities and interests in a specific course, as well as those with talents in other areas, such as sports and community service” – is encouraging. There have been longstanding calls for schools to move beyond academic yardsticks in their admission exercises, and therefore broadening the criteria for prospective students should – in theory – create greater diversity, allow more to develop deep specialisations, and in the words of Acting Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung, “make [a subject] a lifetime pursuit [to] achieve mastery”.
Yet in practice, these schools should be cognisant of the opportunity gap between different households. In general, it would be reasonable to posit that students from more well-to-do families will have been privileged with more resources and options to pursue these aforementioned “abilities and interests”, whereas their counterparts from less-well-to-do families will not have enjoyed the same flexibility or time to take advantage of the opportunities. In this vein, an unintended consequence of taking in students through aptitude-based admissions – without factoring in the circumstances individuals may have been embedded in – could unfairly filter out those with such struggles.
A point was made during a recent discussion about Singapore’s education system – when the attention turned to university graduates who were looking for jobs – that employers, for instance, were looking beyond academic performance in their recruitment processes. As such many of these employers are expecting their applicants to be involved in a broad range of commitments too, beyond the classroom. But what if undergraduates had to take up part-time or contract work after school hours or over the summer holidays to support their families or to pay off loans, and as a result cannot afford to participate in university activities, assume leadership positions in clubs or for school events, or apply for low-paying internships within their course-related industries. Is it then fair to expect students to necessarily possess these “abilities and interests” for the future?
Perhaps the middle ground would be to introduce a tad more flexibility in these processes, both in the schools and at the workplace. Well-crafted essay assignments or interview sessions can help admission or human resources officers tease out these nuances, to determine – for instance – whether applicants has had to overcome various obstacles throughout their lives. Such deliberation may require more resources, especially from the polytechnics and universities, yet the equity which follows should justify the commitment.
A version of this article was published in The Straits Times.