What stands in the way of aptitude-based university admissions?

Mar 18, 2017 04.00PM |
 

by Lee Chin Wee

CAN you imagine a Singapore where students aren’t defined wholly by their grades?

ST ran a thought-provoking piece on Mar 16, calling on the G to be bold and take in all students through aptitude-based university admissions. The proposal runs completely against the grain of our grades-centred university admissions model, but that’s the entire point. If we are to be serious about transforming education and skills acquisition in Singapore, it’s time for some sacred cows to be slaughtered.

Many of the world’s top universities have already implemented a holistic, aptitude-based admissions model. Among employers, there is also a growing recognition that academic performance is an insufficient and inaccurate barometer for professional success – Google, for instance, has moved away from hiring based solely on GPAs and IQ tests.  As Senior Education Correspondent Sandra Davie points out in the ST article, “(Imagine) choosing our doctors based on grades alone. Considering how expensive medical training is in terms of taxpayers’ money, wouldn’t society want future doctors to be compassionate and caring?”

As the G seeks to prepare young Singaporeans to face the varied challenges of our future economy, it makes sense to distribute talent to where it can be best developed rather than sort students to universities based on test scores. Why, then, am I not optimistic about change?

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“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”

Our political and civil service leadership are the least likely to take issue with the current model. Why would they, if they have been (and will continue to be) the largest beneficiaries of a highly-intense, elite-tracked, grades-centred education system?

There exists a cognitive effect known as Survivorship Bias. It simply means that, when we are evaluating the success of a policy, there is a tendency to concentrate on the people or things that “survived” the process and inadvertently discount those who did not due to their lack of visibility. Mr Michael Shermer explains this effect in an article written for the Scientific American, where he discussed the public interest in Walter Isaacson’s 2011 best-selling biography of Steve Jobs:
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Want to be the next Steve Jobs and create the next Apple Computer? Drop out of college and start a business with your buddies in the garage of your parents’ home. How many people have followed the Jobs model and failed? Who knows? No one writes books about them and their unsuccessful companies.

.Similarly, no one listens to someone who failed to enter university under a grades-only system. The people who are heard are the survivors: the 21-year-old Public Service Commission scholars who scored perfect grades in their youth and went on to be Deputy Secretaries, Permanent Secretaries, and Ministers.

The simple fact is that there is a lack of educational and academic diversity within the ranks of our top leadership. How many of them studied in polytechnics, or barely made the cut for university? The homogeneity of their experiences may blind them to the harms of a grades-only admissions policy.

 

Parents, social attitudes and the politics of education

Miss Davie admits that she “can already hear the howls of protest from parents paying thousands of dollars to top tutors to ensure that their kids ace the A levels.” And she’s right – Singapore is not called the “Tuition Nation” for nothing. It is estimated that over S$1 billion is spent on tuition each year, with the figure steadily increasing.

Many parents have bought into the Confucian ethos that hard work and good grades will lead to a well-paying job. It is a mantra that the G has reinforced over the years, from aggressive academic streaming that began as early as in primary school (remember the now-discontinued EM1/2/3?) to public sector scholarships awarded to top exam performers at ages 18 and 19.

Particularly for the older generation of Singaporean parents, grades are a non-negotiable aspect of school life. Co-curricular training can be missed, enrichment activities can be skipped, but exams must be passed, if not aced.

It’s more than just the idea of shifting values. Many parents and families have been financially and personally investing into a future-by-the-grades for their children. If they realise that a grades-based future is no longer as good as it used to be, you can expect some outcry.

For the G to overturn this deeply-ingrained orthodoxy is to invite backlash and scepticism – parents want less stress for their children, but they also want a fair and meritocratic university admissions process. It is easy to see how an aptitude-based system, with its numerous interviews, focus on interviews and portfolios, and discretionary admissions policies could be seen as subjective and opaque, even though it need not be.

 

The irritating, but simple, cost argument

A final consideration is that of cost. A 100 per cent aptitude-based admissions system is not going to come cheap – it means expanding the university admissions office, more time spent interviewing prospective candidates, longer hours reviewing each application.

MOE statistics indicate that in 2015 alone, the six autonomous universities in Singapore received a combined 70,000 applications from A-level and polytechnic diploma holders. Assuming that an aptitude-based admissions system increases the time taken to assess each student by 15 minutes (a conservative estimate), that is 17,500 hours of additional work in total.

This subsequently gets priced into university application costs. American colleges, which recruit students on a holistic and broad-based set of criteria, are an example. As someone who applied to a number of American colleges in 2014, I know first-hand how expensive these costs can be – even as a domestic US student, applying for one college costs around US$60 (S$85). Imagine if you applied to six colleges! That’s S$510 down the drain before you even go for any interviews.

Application fees in Singapore are, on the comparative, very cheap. A local student applying to NUS, for example, only need to pay $10. It is entirely possible to apply for all six autonomous universities in Singapore for the price of applying to one or two US colleges.

 

Change is still worthwhile

Such considerations, however, should not prevent us from seeking real change to the university admissions process. While it may mean that change progresses at a slower rate – the quota for discretionary admissions could be gradually increased over a period of 10 years – it should not detract from the key points made by Miss Davie. The world will not wait for Singapore to change. If we continue to drag our heels instead of trying to find new ways to maximise our human capital, then prepare to be left behind.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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