Some of Minister Ong Ye Kung’s recent comments at the St. Gallen Symposium in Switzerland and also in Parliament (read them here) created quite a buzz in certain sections of the online community. A cap on the number of university graduates in each cohort? Only allowing the university cohort participation rate (CPR), currently at 35%, to reach 40% by 2020? Does that mean that only 4 out of every 10 students will be allowed a university place? How can this be? Everyone should deserve a chance – or should they?
A closer look at Minister Ong’s comments reveals that the concept of a university CPR has actually been around for a while. In fact, the CPR was way lower in the year 2000, with only 20% of each schooling cohort being able to progress to NUS and NTU. So the government has actually been taking measures over the years to provide more opportunities for students to enter our universities, rather than limiting them!
But tossing all these numbers about isn’t very helpful unless we know exactly what they mean. Let’s try and examine this issue from two key angles: what do these percentages really mean, and what does this mean for JC students aspiring to go to a publicly-funded university?
Let’s start by stating the obvious – a 100% university CPR (effectively the same as no CPR) is not possible due to capacity constraints at our local universities. More importantly, what if we view the university CPR as part of the government’s plans for a healthy, balanced economy with the right mix of professionals, supervisors, and supporting technical expertise? Think of it this way – if every student was given the opportunity to enter a local university and graduate with a degree, who will take up the jobs that degree holders don’t want to do? Do we as a society want to rely on a foreign worker underclass?
Alternatively, if so many graduates enter the workforce each year, some of the less glamorous jobs are inevitably going to be filled by degree holders, who are probably not going to be very pleased with that situation. Anyway, what is important in this entire discussion is not the number of university places available for Singaporean students, but the number of good jobs in the economy.
Now, what does the 40% university CPR mean for JC students aspiring to university? Most JC students would probably expect that the minimum outcome of two years of slogging away at academic subjects would land them a university place, if not one of their choice. But if only 4 out of every 10 students in each Primary 1 cohort are going to get a place, does that mean that JC students will have to compete with their peers, even those in the polytechnics, for one of those places?
Firstly, according to MOE’s statistics, only 28% of each cohort go to JC by virtue of their secondary school results1. Going by these numbers, there should be a place available for every JC student who successfully navigates their GCE A Level examinations, albeit not necessarily in the course of their choice. This should hopefully provide some assurance in terms of probabilities.
However, given that we are a meritocratic society, competition for places is real and still fierce for those who wish to have a say in what they would be studying in university. After all, JC students not only have to distinguish themselves among their classmates, but also stand out academically from their peers in the polytechnics and the IB programme in order to get into a course that they like. JC students should therefore start by seeking to stay on top of their academic game, not just within their schools, but also across their cohort.
A failsafe approach is to study well and secure the necessary grades for admission. But studying well does not necessarily mean studying hard, or ‘mugging’ as we like to call it. Studying well can also mean making smart choices in your education, including seeking out the right tuition options, especially in popular but tough-to-score-A subjects like A Level Chemistry, where a bit of professional guidance can go a long way towards moving up a grade or two.
JC students should also remember that their A Level grades are calibrated on a bell-curve and not a straight rubric scale. This means that they not only have to do well, but in fact have to do better than their peers in order to stand out. The quality of answers does matter when it comes to differentiating a top exam script from an above-average script. This is the reason why many JC students have been going for tuition in qualitative reasoning subjects like A Level Chemistry, to sharpen their understanding of concepts and leaving nothing to chance.
By Julian Chemistry
1 Education Statistics Digest 2016, Ministry of Education