Falling birth rate hits home with news of JCs merging

SINGAPORE - I recall covering the big news in August 2001, when the Ministry of Education announced its plans to open four new junior colleges and a fifth polytechnic by 2005.

Then the new institutions were being built to cater to the increasing number of students who qualified for post-secondary education.

MOE also had to cater to the bumper crop of 53,000 dragon year babies, born in 1988, who were due to enter the JCs and polys in 2005.

Fast forward 16 years from that big news and Singapore is faced with a different scenario because of the decline in the birth rate.

MOE on Thursday (April 20) announced that, due to shrinking school cohorts, it will merge 28 schools in 2019. For the first time, this will involve junior colleges.

Serangoon, Tampines, Innova and Jurong JCs will be absorbed into Anderson, Meridian, Yishun and Pioneer respectively, cutting the number of JCs from 23 to 19.

Three pairs of secondary schools and seven pairs of primary schools will also be merged.

Declining birth rates have had a knock-on effect - first on primary schools, then secondary schools and now junior college enrolments. JC intake is now expected to drop by a fifth, going from 16,000 in 2010 to 12,800 in 2019.

Past and present students are likely to ask if the smaller cohort of pupils could just have translated into smaller schools, instead of fewer schools.

However, as MOE explained, schools need a certain critical mass to be able to offer a good range of educational programmes and co-curricular activities. As MOE pointed out, for some of the affected JCs, enrolments could have fallen to as low as 200 to 300 students within the next few years - and this is simply untenable.

Still, the mergers will disappoint some alumni.

Jurong JC has a long history. The ninth JC to be established, it took in its first students in 1981. And it has since developed a rich heritage. It is is hailed as one of the birthplaces of xinyao, the music movement of Mandarin Singapore songs during the 1980s.

Merged schools will have a heritage space to display their past links.

But it is small consolation to some alumni who are already calling for their school names to be incorporated into the new school names. MOE said the names of the merged schools will be announced at a later date.

It is important to recognise the sense of attachment that students and teachers feel, and look at how these bonds can be preserved as these are among the many links that give Singaporeans a sense of belonging.

Ideally, one would want mergers to be kept to the minimum but in the face of declining birth rates, the best one can hope for is  for the mergers to be carried out with minimum disruption. This latest merger drives home the reality of declining birth rates and the knock-on effects. It will eventually impact the tertiary institutions, but perhaps they may be buffered by the SkillsFuture movement which encourages Singaporeans to head back to the universities and polytechnics to upgrade their skills and knowledge.

On the other hand, the emphasis on skills may mean that some could give junior colleges and university education a miss altogether.

The falling birth rate may not be an immediate concern for Singaporeans caught up with the concerns of daily living.

But its impact is bound to be felt when one's alma mater has to be closed, while more hospitals and nursing homes for the aged are being opened. But as the opening lines of Jurong JC's schools song says:

"The road unwinds before us

And we must venture on..."