The road to flexibility in changing majors

NUS and NTU more stringent on transfers; SUTD, Yale-NUS let students specialise later

Visitors checking out the various courses available at the inaugural SkillsFuture roadshow at Westgate mall, on Jan 9, 2016.
Visitors checking out the various courses available at the inaugural SkillsFuture roadshow at Westgate mall, on Jan 9, 2016. PHOTO: ST PHOTO

SkillsFuture and lifelong learning are now buzzwords in the higher education landscape, with universities revamping their courses to have bite-size offerings to cater to adult learners.

But at the undergraduate level, is there also enough flexibility built into the university curriculum to accommodate those who may have discovered new passions midway through their programme?

At a forum in March, Singapore Management University's board of trustees' chairman Ho Kwon Ping made a call for more flexibility in Singapore's university system.

Given that most universities here follow the British system of requiring students to decide on their major when they apply to school, Singapore's system has an "inbuilt inflexibility" that may not be productive for the economy, and students have to decide at too young an age what they want to do for the rest of their adult life, he pointed out. In the American system however, students declare their major one or two years into their undergraduate programme.

A check by The Straits Times found that universities here do have some form of provision for students who wish to change their course of study midway into their education.

Older, bigger universities such as the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU) are more stringent. However, two newer and smaller institutions that were established in collaboration with American counterparts - Yale-NUS College and the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) - only require students to choose their course of study at the end of their first or second year.

Students at SUTD have to declare their specialisations only at the end of their first year, after taking common modules in subjects such as design, science and mathematics. At Yale-NUS College, most students have to declare their majors only at the end of their second year.

  • 420 Average number of Nanyang Technological University students who apply to change their major each academic year.

    170 Rough number of students who succeed in doing so every year, from the average 420 who apply.

    24k NTU's current undergraduate population.

SUTD's director of admissions Lim Su Fang said that such an approach allows students to make more informed decisions, so that they can pursue further education "in the areas which they are really passionate or interested in". It is something that works well for SUTD, going by the number of students who change their minds about their course of study.

More than three in 10 students in SUTD's past few cohorts end up choosing a specialisation at the end of their first year that differed from their initial preference when they applied to the school, said Ms Lim, though students are not encouraged to switch specialisations after that. Only two or three students have done so since 2012.

There is greater flexibility at Yale-NUS College, where students are allowed to change their major up till the end of the second instructional week in their graduating year. This is because major requirements make up only about a third of the Yale-NUS curriculum, said the university's executive vice-president of academic affairs Steven Bernasek. About a fifth of Yale-NUS' pioneer batch of students who had to declare majors switched their majors, while 8 per cent of Yale-NUS' current batch of graduating students who had to declare majors did the same.

It is a slightly different picture at NUS and NTU, where a smaller proportion of students successfully switched their course of study midway through their programme. An average of 420 NTU students in each academic year have applied to change their major over the past few years. Out of these students, about 170 are successful in doing so every year, or less than 1 per cent of NTU's current undergraduate population of about 24,000.

At NUS, only about 2 per cent of eligible students successfully changed their major or programme in the last academic year.

Such applications to NUS and NTU for a transfer are assessed on a case-by-case basis, and subject to approval by the university.

Over the last two years, several faculties at NUS have revised their undergraduate curricula to allow students to pursue double-major or major-minor combinations that allow them to pursue other interests and disciplines without having to push back their graduation date, said NUS' vice-provost of undergraduate education and student life Bernard Tan. The university now offers more than 90 structured double-major and major-minor combinations.

Ms Bernadette Chin, 25, initially majored in industrial and systems engineering at NUS in 2010. At the end of her second year, she applied to NUS for a transfer to major in philosophy instead, which was initially her minor.

In order to do that, she had to extend her time at NUS by another two years, as mapping her existing academic credits over to the new programme would pose problems. She topped her Bachelor of Arts cohort when she graduated last year, for which she received the Lee Kuan Yew Gold Medal, and is now pursuing a Master of Philosophy at NUS.

While it would have made things easier for her if she had been able to transfer across programmes without having to start her new programme on a clean slate, Ms Chin said that she is aware the flexibility comes with its own set of logistical issues. "It sounds nice in theory, but some courses may have enrolment limits, and students may also have problems meeting the requirements of the course (that they want to transfer to)."

National Institute of Education don Jason Tan said that the local university system has been "gradually evolving" towards greater flexibility, and suggested that career counselling can be stepped up to complement this. But he noted that a balance needs to be struck with practical considerations, such as making sure that degrees awarded meet the accreditation requirements of external professional bodies.

"You can't get away with studying fewer modules," he added.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 03, 2017, with the headline 'The road to flexibility in changing majors'. Subscribe