By Sandra Davie, Senior Writer
THE latest move to offer more polytechnic students access to a local university education has been a long time coming and is to be applauded. But detractors are asking: Is it too little, too late and will it close the gap between polytechnic and junior college students in terms of university participation rates?
To be sure, the expansion of university places in the last few years has helped to narrow the gap. But figures show that there is still a significant gap: 70 per cent of A-level school leavers go on to study in one of the three local universities compared to only 15 per cent of polytechnic students who manage to do so. Of the 15,000 university places on offer at the three universities this year, only one-fifth - or about 3,000 - will go to polytechnic graduates. This is despite the fact that the difference in the O-level grades of students who go to polytechnics and those who go to JCs has been closing over the years.
This year, over 20,000 O-level school-leavers were posted to the five polytechnics here. About 11,500 headed for the junior colleges and Millenia Institute, which runs a three-year A-level course.
Upon graduation, many polytechnic students, shut out of the local universities, will head overseas. In previous years, about 4,000 polytechnic graduates left for overseas thus. Many parents clean out their retirement savings and go into debt just so as to give their children a university education abroad - at about $100,000 over two years in Britain and $70,000 in Australia.
This was one reason why the announcements last week on the expansion of the polytechnic-foreign university tie-ups was very good news. As Education Minister Ng Eng Hen said, bringing in more foreign universities to run degree courses tailored for polytechnic students would raise the poly cohort participation rate in universities from the current 15 per cent to 20 per cent.
With eight to 10 foreign universities here offering two-year degree courses, it is hoped that up to 2,000 more poly students will enrol in university courses as full-time students. Another 1,500 places will be made available to those who want to study part-time.
But will this be enough? Is a 20 per cent university participation rate for polytechnic students adequate? How far will that go to stem the outflow to overseas universities? Wouldn't even more polytechnic graduates benefiting from a university education here be an asset to the Singapore economy?
Judging by the calibre and aspirations of polytechnic students, the answer has to be a resounding yes. In recent years, the polytechnic route has gained such popularity that one-third of its entrants qualified for JC. This figure looks likely to go up further to 40 per cent or even 50 per cent over the next few years, as polytechnics launch courses such as games design and film, sound and video that have increasingly drawn students away from the conventional JC path.
As one student who switched from a top junior college to a polytechnic to study film said: 'I know what I want to do with my life and the polytechnics provide training for it. In a JC, I will be stuck doing Chemistry, Physics and Maths.'
One can make the case that with polytechnic students becoming better, many more of them deserve a shot at university education here. The performance of those who head overseas after failing to win places locally attest to this.
Going by the records kept by the polytechnics, a few hundreds of their students who went overseas in recent years have gained first class and second upper degrees. Many make it to top-flight universities like Imperial College London and Manchester University. A few have even won places at Stanford University, Carnegie Mellon University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Widening polytechnic students' access to a university education here would also help fulfil Singapore's desire for a 'mountain range of talents', to use a phrase Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong used in his 2005 National Day Rally Speech.
The Education Ministry is on the right track in providing a differentiated university track for polytechnic students - one that is hands-on, practice-oriented and geared to problem-solving. A survey done by this newspaper seven years ago showed that employers appreciated the special attributes of workers who came through the poly-university route.
The survey asked 319 public-listed companies if they preferred university graduates who came through junior colleges or through polytechnics. About half the respondents said they had no preference. But 35 per cent said they preferred graduates who took the polytechnic route and only 10 per cent said they preferred those who went through two-year junior colleges.
Employers said graduates who had attended a polytechnic tended to be more practical, more down-to-earth and not afraid to roll up their sleeves on the factory floor. They had more 'entrepreneurial spirit' than JC goers.
Of course, employers did say that those who went through the JC route were more able to see the big picture and were better planners and more analytical. But at the end of the day, as one employer said, he goes for the 'right mix' of both, as they complement each other and help his business grow.
Singapore too needs a 'right mix'. And to achieve such a 'mix', surely a poly-cohort participation rate of just 20 per cent would be too modest.
After all, as PM Lee said memorably in that National Day Rally Speech: 'We are aiming for a mountain range, not a pinnacle. We want many routes up, many ways to succeed.'
This article was first published in The Straits Times.