All aboard? Education is on the move

Mar 31, 2017 07.00PM |
 

by Daniel Yap

I CAN feel the massive ship turning ever so slightly. A raft of changes to the education system signals a shift in the balance, and even a cynic cannot help but wonder how far it will go.

The Polytechnics’ Early Admissions Exercise (EAE), which weighs student interest and aptitude in addition to grades, will now admit up to 15 per cent of the cohort, up from 12.5 per cent last year and 2.5 per cent the year before. The Institutes of Technical Education will also be admitting 15 per cent of the next cohort on these terms.

And then NUS, NTU and SMU will increase the proportion of discretionary admissions from 10 to 15 per cent. It’s the G’s realisation that the best lawyers and engineers aren’t only the ones with straight As. It’s an awakening to the fact that some have been “gaming” the system with academic hothousing, and that students with a headful of knowledge may be pursuing courses of study and careers that fail to light a fire in their hearts.

And then there’s the Skillsfuture Earn and Learn programme, which is as close a programme to an apprenticeship that Singapore has right now. It covers 23 sectors, and the number of takers this year is expected to double to 1,000 which is still only a fraction of the student cohort. But its key takeaway is that the best way to learn a job is by doing it – something that the tertiary education system in Singapore has previously tried to do too much of from within the classroom.

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The civil service has done away with the division system that puts a false ceiling on those without academic qualifications. Teachers and those in the uniformed services now have unified career paths for polytechnic and university graduates.

What more is to come? The Straits Times recently published an op-ed calling for 100 per cent aptitude-based admissions to universities – will Singapore go the distance? Will we be able to push deeper “apprenticeships”, whatever form they may take? Can we break down the walls between work and training into one seamless system of organic but structured self-improvement?

Can we do away with the current “scholarship” system that all but guarantees career paths (and sometimes goes out of the way to ensure the paths are followed) and find another way to develop and attract top talent?

But even in the midst of change, there are fears that the tide is against us. The greatest risk is that parents, employers, students and even workers themselves have ingrained mindsets that will not change. But a ship is made to cut through the waves and push against the forces of nature whereas our port of call will not come to us by itself.

There is hope for this skills-and-aptitude-favouring trend to accelerate if Singaporeans get on board. For one, there has been very little public pushback against these changes. Criticisms about this trend are often a product of a lack of faith in the ability to change rather than unhappiness with the proposed changes.

The majority of Singaporeans seem to, jadedly, acknowledge that all these are good changes, but they think like passengers rather than sailors – unsure of what their role is in helping to move the ship towards their too-distant destination.

When we shrug and keep our heads down, we miss out on the changing view. Parents miss out on their key role in helping their children navigate their education and career options based on their strengths and interests so that their children will be able to make informed choices. If you’ve already decided from the day of his or her birth that your child shall be a doctor/lawyer/banker, then you will be neglecting the most precious parts of your child’s personality.

Pushing your child to get the best grades they can is important, but so is helping them to discover their strengths, make a positive impact in society and find heartfelt satisfaction in life.

Students must be going to school with the long-term view that one day, all these studying will end and the transition to working life is going to be a question of skills and applied knowledge – rather than a test of grades. They need to learn to chart their own career path and understand how to continuously work on walking down that path.

Parents, as today’s workers, need to show their children that they too are constantly learning on the job and outside of it, and that learning is fulfilling and is part of a deliberate plan to better oneself.

The ship of education, of work, of learning, is turning, and everyone on board will inevitably turn too. But how fast we turn and how quickly we move depends on how many of us are sailors, and how many of us are merely passengers.

 

This article is part of a series on SkillsFuture, in collaboration with MOE and SSG. Read the other pieces here:

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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