Why It Matters

Changing face of education

Fifteen years ago, I wrote several articles to highlight the plight of polytechnic graduates shut out of the local universities. Back then, less than 10 per cent of the polytechnic cohort won a berth in the local universities. Many went to Britain and Australia, though it was expensive business and some families had to downgrade their flats to send their children overseas.

The scene was very different at the recent pre-departure briefings held by the British Council for students leaving for their studies in Britain over the next two months.

The institutions that took up booths at the event were among the top-ranked British universities - the likes of Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial, University College London and the London School of Economics. There were also associations representing Singaporeans studying law and medicine in British universities. And the majority of the students were A-level students. In fact, of the 18 students I interviewed at the event, only two had come through the polytechnic route.

What was also different was that several of the students had top grades and had been offered places in the local universities. But they felt that a degree from a top-notch university overseas would give them an edge over their peers. Their parents, who were footing the bill amounting to a minimum of $200,000, also had the same reasoning. They felt that an education at a top-notch university would give their children a head start.

As National Institute of Education professor Jason Tan pointed out, this is just another example of "parentocracy" at play. Parents have the means to help their children succeed.

First, they pay thousands of dollars for their children to have access to the best tutors. Then they take it to another level by paying for a place in brand-name universities.

Once, some parents paid because they had no choice. Now, they are spoilt for choice.

How times have changed.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 11, 2015, with the headline 'Changing face of education'. Subscribe