Aptitude-based admission

Be mindful of opportunity gap among students

Students studying at the National University of Singapore (NUS) University Town (UTown).
Students studying at the National University of Singapore (NUS) University Town (UTown). PHOTO: ST FILE

Commitment by polytechnics and universities to admit more students based on their abilities and interests in a specific course, as well as those with talents in other areas, such as sports and community service, is encouraging ("Polys, unis to take more with talents and interests"; last Saturday).

There have been longstanding calls for schools to move beyond academic yardsticks in their admission exercises.

Therefore, broadening the criteria for prospective students should - in theory - create greater diversity, allow more to develop deep specialisations and, in the words of Acting Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung, "make (a subject) a lifetime pursuit (to) achieve mastery".

Yet, in practice, these schools should be cognisant of the opportunity gap between different households.

In general, it would be reasonable to posit that students from more well-to-do families would have been privileged with more resources and options to pursue these "abilities and interests", whereas their counterparts from less well-to-do families would not have enjoyed the same flexibility or time to take advantage of the opportunities.

What if undergraduates had to take up part-time or contract work after school or during holidays to support their families or to pay off loans? As a result, they may not be able to participate in university activities, assume leadership positions in clubs or for school events, or take on internships.

In this vein, an unintended consequence of taking in students through aptitude-based admissions - without factoring in the circumstances individuals may have been embedded in - could unfairly filter out those with such struggles.

A point was made during a recent discussion about Singapore's education system - when the attention turned to university graduates who were looking for jobs - that employers, for instance, were looking beyond academic performance in their recruitment processes.

Thus, many of these employers expect their applicants to be involved in a broad range of commitments too, beyond the classroom.

But what if undergraduates had to take up part-time or contract work after school or during holidays to support their families or to pay off loans?

As a result, they may not be able to participate in university activities, assume leadership positions in clubs or for school events, or take on internships within their course-related industries.

Is it then fair to expect students to necessarily possess these "abilities and interests" for the future?

Perhaps, the middle ground would be to introduce more flexibility in these processes, both in the schools and at the workplace.

Well-crafted essay assignments or interview sessions can help admission or human resource officers tease out these nuances, to determine, for instance, whether applicants had to overcome obstacles throughout their lives.

Such deliberation may require more resources, yet, the equity which follows should justify the commitment.

Kwan Jin Yao

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 12, 2016, with the headline 'Be mindful of opportunity gap among students'. Print Edition | Subscribe