Thursday, March 08, 2007

Polytechnic issues: Part 1

I wanted to write something regarding the local polytechnic education for a while, and a letter published in the ST Forum today provided an opportunity. In her letter, Ms K. Mathiyazhaki was concerned that the poly route is shut for an average student who scored 20 aggregate points. My sympathies to her daughter. It must be a horrible heartbreak to be rejected by all nine courses she applied for. But the following points must be made:

1) The cutoff points for the respective courses are not state secrets. If you drop in at the polytechnics today, you will see a list of cutoff points put up somewhere. I am not working in a polytechnic now, so I do not have the numbers handy, but I suspect the cutoff points for the more popular courses in any year are around 18 to 19 points. Especially since the figures are not published in some booklet or form, she should put in that extra effort to find out from the existing students and lecturers in her preferred courses during, say, the open house. If she does not know even the basics such as cutoff points, it is questionable if she knows how well the courses would suit her. I know it is a hard decision for 16 year olds, but way too many polytechnic students adhere to herd instinct when applying for courses, stampeding to the flavour of the day, which brought them nothing but three years of painful misery, if they can endure that long.

2) With 20 points, Ms Mathiyazhaki's daughter is just below average and should have included a few less popular course in her choices. She simply lacks the bargaining power with the more popular courses. I am sure she qualifies for plenty of other unpopular and unglamorous courses, like say, engineering. But to say that the poly route is shut for average student is simply untrue. The lecturer's ultimate nightmare are the 30-pointers - ie those who average a C6 in all five of their 'O' level subjects, and somehow still managed to qualify for a polytechnic place.

3) If she cannot qualify for her preferred course, and do not want to compromise by taking up a course she has no interest in, then perhaps the best course of action is to retake her 'O' levels. Polytechnics do not discriminate against older students. In fact, I find it questionable sometimes that post-ITE post-NS students in their 20s are mingling with 16 year olds, but I shall not stray into that.

4) 11 pointers are barely JC material. JC application require SIX subjects, not the five for polytechnics, which could bloat an 11 pointers aggregate to, say 17 points if the sixth best subject is only a C6, which is absolutely bottom scraping these days. Why be the bottom of the pile of a JC with virtually no hope of qualifying for NUS/NTU/SMU when you can be king in a polytechnic? Despite many underdog stories, most of the time, polytechnic scores are strongly correlated to the 'O' level scores, just as they are in the JCs.

Post Secondary education used to be straightforward - the best 20% or so goes to 'A' levels, while the next 20% goes to polytechnics, and the remainder will go to the ITEs. 'A' level candidates are protected from competition from poly grads in the admission to local universities because the 'A' level education is meant to be an academic extension to their secondary education, while poly grads are considered to have received a fully subsidised tertiary education and thus is considered a waste to taxpayer funds for them to receive another round of subsidised tertiary education.

And in the "good old days", the government was not the least interested in catering for the preferences of the poly students; polytechnics are first and foremost, a place to train less academically inclined students who do not mind getting their hands dirty for frontline factory work. Even today, the mainstay of all polytechnics are still the engineering courses, even though Singapore is no longer the manufacturing hub with an insatiable appetite for diploma level engineers and technicians.

Couple that with the increased aspirations of Singaporeans, the polytechnics find that nearly 50% of their school leavers end up taking a degree course immediately upon graduation, mostly overseas. The polytechnics have no choice but to adapt, and change from a hands on technician perspective to a pseudo overseas university prep school. The courses today are more influenced by the popular Australian universities via their grant of advanced standing (which allows one to skip certain courses and thus shorten the time to a degree), than by the demands of the local job market.

To put it simply, local polytechnics have lost their sense of purpose and are desperately grasping for a new identity.