askST: Is there a quota on university places for polytechnic graduates?

With the expansion of university places, many more polytechnic graduates now make it to the local universities.
With the expansion of university places, many more polytechnic graduates now make it to the local universities.ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

SINGAPORE - In this first of the askST series on university education, senior education correspondent Sandra Davie of The Straits Times responds to questions on university places for this year and the chances of polytechnic graduates getting into university

Q: My son was supposed to go to Australia to study, but we decided against it because the courses are being delivered online. Will there be more places offered by the local universities this year, as was the case last year?

A: Education Minister Lawrence Wong told The Straits Times in an interview earlier this year that the six local universities offered around 1,000 extra places last year, on account of the disruption caused by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic which forced students to readjust their plans.

Some of the additional places went to Singaporeans like your son who had planned to study overseas, but switched to local universities when their plans were disrupted.

Others went to polytechnic diploma holders who opted to study instead of joining a weak job market.

So, all in, 17,500 places were given out. This extra enrolment pushed the student participation rate in universities beyond the stated target of 40 per cent for every cohort by 2020 to 42 per cent.

For the 2021 academic year, the Ministry of Education (MOE) will start by planning for 40 per cent of the age cohort. But as Mr Wong said, MOE is prepared to offer additional places this year, if the pandemic situation does not change.

Q: My daughter is a polytechnic graduate in business, but she is interested in robotics, which is a very popular field. I am worried she will not be able to get a place in the local universities. Is there a quota on university places for polytechnic graduates?

A: There is no quota on the number of places given to polytechnic graduates.

But it is true that, traditionally, the junior college is seen as the more secure route to a degree as a much higher proportion of junior college students - over 70 per cent - go on to university. In the past, only about 20 per cent of polytechnic graduates got a place in the local universities.

The good news is that, in recent years, with the expansion of university places, many more polytechnic graduates now make it to the local universities.

When the Government announced the expansion of university places in 2012, only 20 per cent of polytechnic graduates made it to the local universities. Last year, 30 per cent of polytechnic graduates - almost one in three - made it to one of the six local universities.

This means most of the new university places created over the last seven years, including at the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS) and Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT), went to polytechnic diploma holders.

SIT and SUSS cater more to polytechnic graduates, not just in their applied learning approach, but also in their degree programmes.

SIT was established in 2009 as an initiative by MOE to provide upgrading opportunities, primarily for polytechnic graduates. Hence many of its degree courses are aligned with the diploma courses found in the polytechnics.

Last year, it took in about 2,900 undergraduates, of which about 90 per cent were poly graduates. It says it will be admitting a similar number of students for the 2021 academic year, which starts in September.

Many of its degree programmes are also targeted at growth sectors of the economy.

You mentioned your daughter, like many of her peers, has an interest in robotics. The new degree SIT is offering this year is in robotics.

SIT officials say this is a fast-growing sector as robots are no longer just operating on the factory shop floor, but are also required to work for and alongside humans in other fields such as hospitality and healthcare. The degree course aims to fulfil the anticipated demand for robotics engineers to develop and maintain these robots.

Beyond requiring a certain level of academic capability needed for university education, applicants are interviewed by SIT to determine their level of interest in the courses they have applied for.

SIT - like SUSS, Singapore University of Technology and Design as well as Singapore Management University - uses a holistic admission process for applicants, where it looks beyond grades, and at aptitude and talent.

Again, this benefits polytechnic graduates, who may not have top-line grades, but who have aptitude in an area.

SIT's provost Professor Chua Kee Chaing has this advice on how to ace aptitude-based admissions: "We prioritise passion for the profession over pure grades.

"So, to ace our aptitude-based admissions, you should prepare to let us know why you should be admitted into the course of your first choice, what you have done to prepare yourself for the course, in terms of work experience and relevant projects if any."

Q: I failed three years ago to get a place in SIT, so I went to work. Should I try again?

A: SIT's Prof Chua says: "Oh yes, definitely. We've had such first-time unsuccessful applicants, who reapplied after going out to work for a couple of years.

"The second time they applied, they had accumulated relevant experience and could really demonstrate to us their passion in their fields of interest. In fact, some of these second-time applicants have been given SIT scholarships."