April 25, 2017

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By Bertha Henson

WHY are people getting so upset with the news of school mergers, especially at the junior college (JC) level? It’s a no-brainer right? If junior colleges are emptying out, then might as well close them now or merge. It’s such a rational, efficient thing to do. Reading the reactions, the unhappiness boils down to these nine questions.

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1. How is it that our so-efficient G can misjudge birth rates?

Well, the G keeps saying that it is based on information available at that time – and probably thought that its pro-baby policies will work. The last two JCs built were Innova which was founded in 2005 and Eunoia which opened its doors this year. So maybe if you look at the birth rate of the cohort that would enter Innova in its first year, it still looks like it can be filled. Except that later on, Singapore couples didn’t cooperate. Tsk. Tsk.

2. But that doesn’t explain Eunoia, does it?

Ah. But that’s a special JC that caters to the cohort studying in Catholic High School, Singapore Chinese Girls’ School, and CHIJ St Nicholas Girls’ School. They will move to the JC as part of the Integrated Programme (IP).

Okay, Eunoia could have waited until next year and moved into one of the JCs’ vacated premises. Could have saved money. But it could be location as well. Eunoia is in Mount Sinai, and will move to its Bishan premises in 2019. Oh wait. Maybe it could still move into an empty campus before money is spent on yet another set of buildings…

3. So, the JCs that will be merged all don’t have IP feeder schools? What does this mean? I have to make sure my kid gets into a secondary school with IP so that they can progress right through to JC and university?

Oooh. Looks like that’s the best bet. Because JC is usually seen as the next step into university, unless your kid is a very bright polytechnic student. Through-train you know… even if this means less choice…

4. How did MOE pick the eight JCs anyway? Just because no IP?

Hmm. It says “geographical’’ distribution. So it’s about spreading them out equally. Like Meridian JC, which is in Pasir Ris, and Tampines JC. So they’re getting stuck together at the newer Meridian campus. Don’t forget that Temasek and Victoria JC are also in the east.

Then there’s Innova JC and Yishun JC merging to be on Yishun grounds. MOE said Yishun was picked because it’s more “accessible’’ than Innova, although Innova is newer. Maybe it also has to do with cut-off points. Innova is at the bottom of all 19 JCs, as reported by The Straits Times. MOE isn’t saying anything about it.

5. Wait a minute, why should cut-off points have anything to do with whether a JC disappears?

Hmmm. Guess MOE thinks there’s no point in having such poor performing JCs. Seven of the eight JCs that are merging are actually clustered at the bottom of the ladder, which means that their students aren’t, ah, as good as the rest. Elitist, but perfectly rational. Okay, there’s something to be said about preserving the school’s heritage and making alumni happy but you know what is said about “scarce’’ resources and so forth.

6. But if it is a matter of geography, Hwa Chong Institution and National JC are right across the road…

They’re IP and good performers and probably with strong alumnus that will kpkb . Just disregard what MOE said about geography, it doesn’t know how to spin doctor.

7. Why so sudden anyway? Some of the kids are already looking forward to entering JCs of their choice, especially those near their homes. Quite demoralising isn’t it?

The G will probably say that there’s never a good time to make such an announcement. If the mergers are delayed, then what are the chances that parents will allow their kids to apply for a JC that’s going to be closed? Rather than sound the death knell, just kill it off quickly.

8. That’s heartless when you think about the people who have been to the schools and have fond memories.

True. But hard truths.. hard truths.

9. Has it got to do with the G changing its mind about having more people going into university?

Well, it said it’s aiming for 40 per cent of the cohort by 2020, but it’s a declining cohort so the absolute numbers will probably remain about the same as now. Although it’s likely that when it came up with that figure, it didn’t think about the birth rate then. Or maybe it figured that the polytechnic route would also yield more university graduates. Then again, polytechnics are facing declining enrollments too. Are you thinking that this will have a knock-on effect on the capacity of our universities? That something will be done about polytechnics too?

 

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by Suhaile Md

CALL it a foot in the door of her career. Ms Allina Loke is chalking up work experience and building industry relationships while pursuing her education. While in the past it was taxing, and sometimes impossible to juggle a full-time job and study, balancing the demands of the workplace and the pursuit of formal qualifications has become a lot easier after SkillsFuture Singapore introduced the SkillsFuture Earn and Learn Programme (ELP).

So it’s a good thing that SkillsFuture expanded its ELP offerings from 40 to 60 last month (Mar 29). It’s a work-learn programme for Institute of Technical Education (ITE) and polytechnic graduates that leads to both full-time employment and higher qualifications. Participants draw a salary – not a stipend – and undergo a “structured training programme” between 12 and 18 months. Basically, you acquire experience while studying.

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The aim is to give fresh graduates more post-graduation opportunities as well as to “support their transition to the workforce”, said Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say soon after its launch in early 2015. Which is why the programmes are designed in consultation with industry and education partners like the local polytechnics.

The ELPs support the Industry Transformation Maps (ITMs) announced by Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat in March last year. As the name suggests, the ITMs are all about making selected industries more competitive. The 23 industries chosen, make up 80 per cent of Singapore’s economy. Industries include precision engineering, retail, and hospitality, among many others.

In short, ELP participants will be getting a head start in industries earmarked for growth – better jobs and higher pay anyone?

But what is it like to earn and learn? “It’s intense,” said Ms Allina Loke.

She works four days a week at Grand Hyatt Singapore as a Management Trainee. Wednesdays are a fixed day-off for her to attend classes scheduled from 9am to 7pm at Republic Polytechnic. Fortunately for her, classes end at 5.30pm most of the time, and the remaining lessons are delivered through e-learning, which she completes in her own time.

“What we learn is exactly the same as the other poly students”, said the 20-year-old. What other students cover in a week’s worth of classes, she covers in a day. It “can be stressful” balancing work and study. So, interest is important. Otherwise, it’s hard to stay motivated. That was something a handful of her peers realised. They dropped out of the programme a few months in because it is “something they were not interested in”.

Ms Loke, though, is determined “to finish” the 18-month-long ELP in Hospitality Management because she recognises certain advantages. Her schoolmates, most of whom are not enrolled in ELP, will graduate with little to no work experience. “What they are only doing, is study.”

On the other hand, she is being groomed to be on “captain duty” in five months. This means she will be in-charge of smaller events at the hotel with staff to manage. She started in October last year. Basically, she’s picking up industry-relevant skills and work experience while studying – unlike her peers.

That said, at the end of 18 months, she will be awarded with modular certificates, not the full diploma. For that, she needs to study for another year, in her own time. In total, two and a half years. Which is shorter than the three year diploma, including a six month industrial attachment, her peers need to complete.

More importantly, she’s gaining valuable experience while her peers are not. For the hospitality industry, “a lot of it is hands-on experience and job skills,” said Ms Peh Ai Pheng, Learning Manager at Grand Hyatt Singapore.

Diploma graduates with no experience would make $1,500 a month. Someone with 18 months experience in the industry will command “competitive salaries” ranging from $1,800 to $2,500 depending on the role and depth of work experience.

When asked to choose between an ELP graduate from another hotel – but no diploma – and a fresh diploma graduate for the same entry level job, Ms Peh said she would go with the candidate who completed the ELP. That’s “assuming same attitude, same personality… ultimately, you need experience dealing with guests, and hotel systems”.

Which is why participants “go through a structured on-the-job-training programme” designed to develop “relevant work skills and provide an edge over those not on the ELP.”

This point was raised last year when the first batch of hospitality ELP participants signed up, reported ST. “They are very focused, enthusiastic and forthcoming in their suggestions and pick things up faster as they’ve done it before,” said Ms Isis Ong, director of learning at the Singapore Marriott Tang Plaza Hotel.

Financially, Ms Loke is better off too. Her course fees are covered, bond free, by the G and Grand Hyatt during the ELP. All participants also get a $5,000 sign-on bonus when they join the ELP.

Plus, she’s earning $1,800 a month now. This does not include overtime pay, incentives, and other staff perks like health and insurance benefits. “The company takes care of us,” she said. Both Human Resources and her manager also check up on her to ensure she’s learning and progressing well.

Grand Hyatt Singapore, said Ms Peh, decided to participate in ELP because it “helps in attracting Singaporeans to the industry”.  It’s also “to support the national movement in” developing and providing opportunities for Singaporeans.

Currently, the company has five ELP participants, with five more expected to join in May. All are management trainees.

Ms Loke was part of the first batch to join the ELP. She graduated with a Higher Nitec in events management last April. Her 3.0 grade point average (GPA) had easily surpassed the 2.0 GPA requirement to be part of the ELP.

Along with her, 47 other participants joined the hospitality ELP. Over 50 hotels participated last year, including Intercontinental Singapore, Marina Bay Sands and Shangri-La Hotel Singapore amongst others.

There are ELPs in other sectors too, like the infocomm technology and logistics industries. Last year, over 500 graduates joined the ELP, said Parliamentary Secretary for Education Faishal Ibrahim in Parliament earlier this year (Feb 28).

 

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

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by Ong Lip Hua
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THE trends are clear: We’re headed for a future where full-time employment is going to be a smaller slice of the pie, and where skills, both hard and soft, will bear more fruit over a career than the qualification you graduate with.
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A recent JobsDB report on how more than 10,000 respondents from seven Asian countries think that promotions are based mostly on your “supervisor liking you” and “leadership ability” tells of the need for soft skills in all types of employment. Job performance was also high up on the list from both employee and employer perspectives, especially in Singapore.
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Most Singaporean parents see studying and academics as their children’s job specialisation and invest heavily to this end. In some families, other childhood experiences, even basic life-skills like housekeeping, cooking and carrying your own bag, are subcontracted to a maid, grandparent or parent, who picks up after the kids. In exchange, the children are expected to deliver stellar academic results in school.
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And while good grades might set you up for a good start in a career, at what point does sacrificing other areas of development in favour of better grades begin to hurt a person? Would it make sense then to gear our children’s education so specifically towards grades?
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This approach has been hotly debated for the last few years, even as the G has begun to call for change through initiatives like Skillsfuture.
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It reminds me of how Major Motoko Kusanagi, in the 1995 Ghost in the Shell movie, described the diversity of her team in a high-tech future: “If we all reacted the same way, we’d be predictable, and there’s always more than one way to view a situation. What’s true for the group is also true for the individual. It’s simple: Over-specialise, and you breed in weakness. It’s slow death.”
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But what future are we preparing our children for? Would stellar but narrow academic performances be sufficient, or even give a competitive edge as we think it would? Would it be good for the individual and for society, or do we court Kusanagi’s “slow death”?
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HRinasia cited a February 2016 Willis Towers Watson 2016 Global Talent Management and Rewards Study that measured employers in Singapore expecting a three per cent drop in full time employment over the next three years, and a 59 per cent increase in contingent workers in Singapore, compared to 25 per cent globally, over the same three year period. NTUC expects the 200,000-strong freelancer pool to grow in the years to come. These reports seem to say that our children have to be prepared for periods of non-full time employment.
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This points to the need to have a trade skill to participate in the contingent economy. The need to “bid” and “win” contracts would also require large doses of communication and inter-personal skills for effective networking. Yet these skills are not properly taught in the classroom, and perhaps they can never be.
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When Australia, one of the world’s education powerhouses, finds that skills are insufficient in its education system and that collaboration is increasingly more important than competition, we need to take heed.
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While tuition centres are abundant in Singapore, information on non-academic training, both in schools and by private trainers, is scarce. It is perhaps due to the lack of awareness and hence demand (and budget) that such services remain either a peripheral or the domain of the more well-off.
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But the real solution is simpler – help our kids balance their in-school learning with real-life application: temporary and part-time jobs, apprenticeships and internships, non-curricular activities and engagements and hands-on work at home. Make more holistic university choices and take in basic lessons from the army like making your bed in the morning.
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Ong Lip Hua was in University Admissions for a decade and being passionate about the career of students he admits, decided to pursue a career in HR Recruitment. He was a minor partner in a recruitment firm before going in-house. He is still crazy about providing education and career advice.
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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:

 

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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.

 

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Photo by Shawn Danker. Shared Copyright.
A corridor at the campus of NUS Yale.

by Ong Lip Hua

UNIVERSITY admissions season looms again, and as a university admissions professional with over a decade of work experience (in NUS and SIT), I get plied with questions from would-be students and their parents.

What I’ve come to realise is that the questions that potential students ask are usually off the mark. Perhaps it has to do with the media’s fascination with rankings (which reflect research, not teaching quality), graduate pay, and employment numbers.

While these may form a part of the answer to the question “why should I choose this university”, most of us go to the university to pave the way for a future career and the career prospects of a graduate are not sufficiently represented by these metrics.

A successful career is sustained more through a university’s “after sales” service, which most applicants are not aware of. This “after sales” service is performed by several offices in the university that often go overlooked.

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Here’s what else you might want to ask about at the next admissions talk:

The Placement Office: This is the department that organises career fairs, gives you job advice, and teaches you how to write your resume. They are known by many other names. How strong is the University’s Placement Office? Which sector do they have hiring partners in? What type and amount of assistance does the Placement Office provide?

Internship programmes: The Faculty Office or Placement Office typically handles internship placements. There is only so much you can learn about the working world and an industry from the safe confines of a lecture hall or tutorial room. Before we graduate, we need to be “inserted” into the industry network. An early foray into the environment where you’ll be spending the next 40 years of your life can pay off more than an impressive Grade Point Average.

Internships get you into the network and industry lingo so you can better know what and why is that thing on page 1905 of the reference source number AI76. Great internships put you in the same office as industry leaders and key personalities: distinguish yourself there and you’ll have the makings of a priceless industry network.

The Alumni Office: Getting our first job is only the first step in what we hope will be a long career. Good pay prospects and employment ratios are good to have, but the more important question is: where do I go from there?

Strong Alumni Offices are also good after-sales service centers. They provide you with the network to get into higher level positions, make business connections for you to start or expand your businesses, and can give you access to ideas, funds and links for your project or research break-through.

How active or strong are the university’s Alumni Offices? What events or activities are held? How committed is the alumni community? What are this office’s beliefs and objectives?

One more question: What is your student profile? This is a question especially for universities abroad, or for locally-awarded degrees from overseas institutions. This tells you who you get to network with while you are in school. If you can’t get a straight answer, spend some time roaming the campus talking to, or observing current students.

At some point in life, co-operation becomes much more valuable than competition. The friends and frenemies you have made during your school years can translate into doors that are open or shut to you later in life.

These “after sales” functions of universities will become increasingly important as the world churns out even more graduates, as work/jobs become more transnational, as technology, mergers and acquisitions reduce number of jobs and increase competition.

So at your next university admissions talk or open house, don’t just ask about cut-off points, or why this course is better than another. Ask questions that span 40 years into your future, because that’s probably what you are getting an education for.

Ong Lip Hua was in University Admissions for a decade and being passionate about the career of students he admits, decided to pursue a career in HR Recruitment. He was a minor partner in a recruitment firm before going in-house. He is still crazy about providing education and career advice.

 

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

Featured image by Shawn Danker.

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by Bertha Henson

THE Direct School Admission (DSA) programme is doing away with its general academic ability tests.

People are going hurrah because it means that their non-Gifted kid can make it into their school of choice because they have another talent that is not exam-smarts.

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That is, if they clear the talent competition for entry. That is, if the school nurturing the specific talent pool is not on the other side of the island. That is, if the school nurturing said talent and achieving non-academic awards do not ignore Ah Boy’s academic work in the process.

That is, if Ah Boy clears his PSLE in the first place. If he doesn’t make the DSA cut-off point, will he be booted out?

Parents of Gifted children have been told their kid will always get a place based on their results. But the DSA isn’t about getting a secondary school place but a guaranteed, booked-in-advance, choped-already programme. That means, no need to worry about how PSLE results turn out, got place already. So, they will still go for the DSA route.

Parents of “ordinary kids’’ will be looking at the niche programmes and wondering if their kids have the requisite talent for, say, robotics or soccer. If not, they will think about sending the kid to enrichment programmes or a sports academy so they can ace whatever interview or competitive process. It’s a different kind of tuition.

Principals of ordinary schools will be wondering if they can even fill the 20 per cent DSA quota space. They’re not top in any sport or talent but merely struggling to bring all its students up to speed. These would be the garden-variety type of schools which, by the way, is still a good school although not the best. So shy if they can’t fill the space…

Parents and principals will be wondering if schools really have the teachers for these niche programmes. Are they experts or have at least mastered some aspects of the programme or are they themselves learning along with the kids? Does the National Institute of Education prepare teachers for such programmes? If principals decide to bring in outside experts, can these experts actually teach?

This is not to pour cold water on the Education Ministry’s changes to the DSA. It’s to show that people, especially parents, will view changes differently depending on their perspective and their knowledge of their childrens’ abilities. Change always leads to more questions.

We just have to be careful about not starting a different kind of rat race.

 

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by Wan Ting Koh

MORE pathways are opening up for students who want to get through the education system via talent rather than grades, but with kiasu and kiasi attitudes still largely driving the education system here, will mindsets change?

In the debate on his ministry’s budget today (Mar 7), Education Minister (Schools) Ng Chee Meng outlined several enhancements to existing schemes that show the G’s efforts to shift away from a grade-centric education system.

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First up is the Subject-Based Banding (SBB) initiative that was first implemented in 12 prototype secondary schools in 2014 for lower secondary students. SBB lets students from the Normal (Academic) and Normal (Technical) streams take subjects that they are stronger in at a higher academic level. For example, a student who is in the Normal (Academic) stream, but scored an A for Mathematics in his Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), can take Mathematics at the Express level under SBB.

By 2018, the G aims to roll out SBB to all schools which are offering Normal (Academic) and Normal (Technical) courses at the lower secondary level. The SBB has been in place for upper secondary school students since 2003.

Mr Ng said that this approach would help students “deepen their learning in areas of strengths”, build their confidence and “opens up new post-secondary possibilities for them”.

Through an enhancement in the DSA scheme, the G will also be increasing opportunities for primary school students to get into secondary schools through their strengths and achievements rather than academic aptitude.

From 2018, all secondary schools will be able to admit up to 20 per cent of their Secondary 1 intake through the Direct School Admission (DSA) scheme. First introduced in 2004, DSA is meant to recognise students’ achievements in non-academic areas, such as sports and the arts. It offers Primary 6 pupils places in secondary schools before they sit for PSLE.

Currently, only Independent schools have a 20 per cent allowance on students they accept through DSA. Autonomous schools have a 10 per cent cap while schools with distinctive programmes can admit up to 5 per cent of its students through DSA. The general academic tests that students have to sit for as part of the DSA selection criteria will also be scrapped by 2018. While these tests allow for a comparison of students’ abilities, they “inadvertently put undue focus on general academic abilities”, said Mr Ng.

In any case, students with strong general academic abilities would already be able to qualify for secondary schools with the PSLE results, he added.

On what secondary schools could use to assess entrants, Mr Ng said: “Schools can conduct their selection via a range of assessment tools including interviews, trials, auditions and subject tests. They will also consider the applicant’s overall portfolio and achievements.”

One other change applies to the tertiary front. Polytechnics will be increasing their intake allowance for students who go in through the Early Admissions Exercise (EAE) scheme, which, similar to DSA, admits students based on their interest and aptitude, rather than academic performance.

This scheme was introduced in 2016 for Academic Year 2017, and allowed polytechnics up to 12.5 per cent intake through EAE. However, from Academic Year 2018, the allowance would be increased to 15 per cent.

What’s new is also the expansion of the scheme to Institute of Technical Education (ITE) so that ITEs will be able to admit up to 15 per cent of their Academic Year intake through the ITE EAE.

While the G is taking tangible steps to expand the education system’s focus beyond academics, mindsets will take a longer time to catch up. This problem was flagged by Member of Parliament (MP) Denise Phua, who asked what could be done to change mindsets that are geared towards grades.

Mr Ng said that while academic excellence is “a key strength of our system, it should not be over-emphasised, at the expense of other meaningful activities”.

But whether the G’s push towards a more holistic education can genuinely change mindsets remains to be seen.

 

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WHENEVER there’s money to be given out, you can bet somebody will find a way to get hold of it via dubious means. Remember how companies took advantage of Productivity and Innovation Credit schemes to get cash? Now, that $500 SkillsFuture credit dangling in front of each adult Singaporeans is too tempting for some.

Some people – about 4,400 people – decided to pluck such tempting fruit by submitting false claims for a SkillsFuture course they didn’t attend. It’s intriguing because they all went to the same course by the same service provider – which remains un-named. MSM reported how the scam was uncovered because of data analytics which flagged a sudden spike in claims. The total amount claimed: $2.2 million.

Now the question is whether the system worked before – or after – the claims have been processed and money given out. Well, some 4,400 people are richer by $500 each, more than a GST voucher for most. The G has sent the people letters to return the money in 30 days, but it didn’t say what will happen to those who don’t.

SkillsFuture Singapore said its course directory and claims process were designed to be simple, inclusive and user-friendly, to encourage usage. “It is regrettable that some individuals have abused the system and submitted false claims,” the agency said.

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Investigations are still going on but it’s a wonder how 4,400 people can somehow be making claims for the same course. Was there a mastermind or did they somehow get wind of money to be made this way? If so, how did they get the supporting documents, like receipts for the course fees, to make the claims?

The other theory of course is that they have been unwitting accomplices who had their names used without their consent. If so, no one came forward to say so. Cash in hand is not to be sniffed at?

According to TODAY, SkillsFuture Singapore was asked if there is a risk of the claims system. Its reply: “The SkillsFuture Credit System has never been compromised … SSG’s enforcement system involves data analytics to detect anomalies, regular audits of training providers, and manual audits of individual claims. These measures have allowed SSG to uncover false SkillsFuture Credit claims. We will continue to strengthen the sensitivity of our data analytics system in flagging out anomalies.”

What a thing to say! If giving out $2.2m is not a compromise of the claims system, then what is it?

Still on training – but something that doesn’t look like it can be abused: two universities here are offering work-study degree programmes for its students. The Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) and SIM University have 65 such places which integrate work and training.

Did your eyes glaze over because you’ve heard about such programmes before? The difference is that the students will be spending a lot more time in a hands-on job, like up to four days a week, than in class. Free labour for companies? Nope. They will be contract staff and it will be for employers to decide if they should be given permanent positions after their graduation.

Minister for Higher Education Ong Ye Kung who announced this yesterday noted that with more people getting into universities, “employers need to ensure a good match between talents and skills of the graduates they hire and organisational needs.”

In other words, when the Singapore graduate cohort hits 40 per cent, employers need to be able to tell one grad from another and this scheme will give some students a cutting edge. The universities are beginning to look like polytechnics, aren’t they? It will be more so when the other universities add this scheme to their current internship and exchange programmes.

What sorts of courses are being offered? They include information security, software engineering, hospitality business, electrical power engineering, civil engineering and finance and business analytics.

Now why would anyone want an arts and social science degree?

 

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YOU’D think these were graduates from two different countries, so starkly different were the headlines about the 2016 graduate employment survey in Singapore’s main English dailies. ST decided to lead with how “most grads find jobs in 6 months” and the “new high” starting median salary of $3,360, while TODAY highlighted the 2.9 per cent drop in the number of graduates who found permanent jobs within six months of graduation, the lowest ever for the survey.

Another sobering statistic that TODAY noted was that the rate of salary increase has slowed from 3 per cent last year to 1.8 per cent.

All in all, it’s a slower year for graduates, with SMU leading NUS and NTU in terms of median salary and employability. SIT and SUTD conduct their surveys in February and March.

So what’s all this say in the context of Singapore’s ongoing SkillsFuture initiative? It seems that relevant coursework and experience win out for grads, and university rankings don’t mean very much to employers.

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The tension between Malaysia and North Korea over the assassination of Kim Jong Nam is escalating. KL has named a North Korean diplomat as someone they sought to question for the case, but the North Korean Embassy refused, citing diplomatic privilege.

Another North Korean who works for North Korean national carrier Air Koryo is also being sought for questioning. KL has threatened to issue arrest warrants for the duo, but a warrant is unlikely to be effective in securing the diplomat. Four other North Korean suspects and one North Korean person of interest remain at large.

The embassy also made a startling demand for all suspects to be released, including the “innocent females”. Apart from the two women, a Malaysian man and a North Korean man are being held in remand for the killing.

And then, someone tried to break into the morgue in KL, where Mr Kim’s body lay. Who did it? KL police simply said, “We know who you are. There is no need for me to tell you.”

Someone’s done a smear job on Sam’s Early Learning Centre, it seems. Photos of the centre and its students posted on Chinese social media service WeChat seem to have been taken out of context, and surprise checks and interviews by the Early Childhood Development Agency have turned up no issues at the centre.

Who could have done the deed? Centre director Mrs Samia El-Ibiary says it was the work of a disgruntled former employee who has since returned to China. The WeChat post claimed there was abuse, neglect and waste at the centre.

Where do you go if you want to buy a ship? How about Taobao? Singapore-flagged crude oil tanker Varada Blessing, of late owned by Singapore firm Varada One, was sold for $16.7 million after 19 bids were made by six parties. The Varada Blessing had fallen into an “admiralty dispute” and was then auctioned off. These are bad times for oil tankers, and Taobao is gaining popularity as a place to offload toxic assets. So… does that Taobao purchase come with free shipping?

 

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