SINGAPORE — Secondary 4 student Varsha Venkataraman, 16, wants to go to a junior college (JC) to sit the A levels because she believes that is the best way of getting into university.
She intends to take mathematics, physics and computing at a higher level, and offer geography as her contrasting subject, with the goal of getting into the computer science course at Nanyang Technological University, a course that in 2022 needed at least two A grades for entry.
But competition is fierce, and Varsha worries that even with changes to the A-level system – long regarded as the route to clinch the most sought-after university places such as law and medicine – it will not let up.
She said: “I think the new scoring system reduces stress only to a certain extent because at the end of the day, I will still be taking the same number of subjects.
“For me to get into university, I wouldn’t want to take any chances relying on a few subjects to get in.”
Changes to the system, announced by Education Minister Chan Chun Sing during the debate on his ministry’s budget on March 1, mean that students like Varsha will not have to sit mid-year examinations in junior college from 2024.
This is in line with the scrapping of such exams at the primary and secondary levels by 2023.
From 2026, JC and Millennia Institute students will not need to count their fourth content-based subject in their university admissions, unless it improves their score, and Project Work – a subject involving group research and presentation – will be scored as a pass or fail instead of by letter grades.
The changes are meant to give students more leeway to pursue their interests without worrying about results, said Mr Chan.
While prospective and former A-level students welcomed the moves, some spoke of a culture of competition among students that may not let up, even under the new rules.
Part of changes across the system
Associate Professor Jason Tan of the National Institute of Education told The Straits Times that the changes are expected, and follow on the heels of similar adjustments at the primary and secondary levels.
He said: “We had, in 2018, the Ministry of Education’s (MOE) announcement that the number of tests and exams would be reduced, and a new PSLE scoring system. We will also have a new secondary-level terminal exam in 2027.
“It is not surprising that the pre-university sector has also been changed. I see policy continuity and a similar rationale at work.”
The reduction in the number of tests and exams was supposed to reduce academic stress and encourage the “joy of learning”, he added, with moves across the board to reduce stress associated with high-stakes exams and encourage students to think more about personal interests and less about their chances of scoring well.
The A levels, out of all the national exams, also seem to carry the highest stakes.
Prof Tan said: “They determine eligibility for university entry, not only general entry, but also competitive entry to preferred programmes.”
Expanding pathways, but some are still stressed
On the surface, these changes, taken along with the tremendous expansion of university enrolment rates over the past few decades, should be reducing academic stress in students, said Prof Tan.
He pointed to how the percentage of each cohort that enters university has grown from around 5 per cent in the 1980s to about 50 per cent for MOE-funded degree programmes today. “It appears to be somewhat paradoxical – why would this expansion of university places not be accompanied by a reduction in academic stress levels?”
It may be that together with the expansion of such opportunities comes added pressure to distinguish oneself from other candidates, Prof Tan said.
“Students now feel they have to do many other things to round out their portfolios with leadership positions and community involvement, to stand out and gain access to preferred programmes amid an increased number of applicants.”
University undergraduate Ning Chionh, 19, who sat her A levels in 2022, agrees that this is a factor in the pressure she faced to do well for Project Work and get an A grade, even though the subject is designed to foster collaboration.
The change to grading Project Work with a pass or fail will take some pressure off students, she said, as many of her peers were worried about getting a B for the subject, where students are put into groups to execute a project and present it.
The former Eunoia JC student, who is studying literature at University College London, said: “Project Work being counted in our university admissions score meant that many people were stressed about not getting an A, because it meant they could not get the perfect score of 90.”
Many students believed this would damage their chances of getting into top courses or getting scholarships, she added.
Dr Leong Chan-Hoong, head of policy development, evaluation and data analytics at consultancy Kantar Public, said that despite moves to soften the importance of exams, the education system can be unforgiving.
Dr Leong, a social psychologist who studies cultural values and identities, said: “The definition of success is still very narrow, and many outcomes which are seen as desirable, like scholarships, are still tied to academic achievement.”
This goes back to the fundamentals of Singapore society, he said, where one’s social standing has been very much tied to income and occupation. These are, in turn, tied to academic results like the A levels, which determine students’ entry into high-income jobs and professions.
Today, the median starting salary for university graduates is about twice that of Institute of Technical Education graduates and about 1½ times that of polytechnic graduates, figures that Singapore is working to address.
In his speech on March 1, for example, Mr Chan said there needs to be a mindset shift among parents when it comes to school selection, adding that there is no need to rush to front-load education.
In 2022, Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong said Singapore places too much of a premium on intellectual “head” work, and does not sufficiently value “hands-on” technical jobs or “heart” work such as community care roles, leading to some kinds of workers being paid more than others.
Dr Leong said: “A broader definition of success has to come from the top, in the form of celebration of differences and things beyond high income or a well-respected job.”