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The Straits Times

Beware The Opportunity Gap

Polytechnics and universities will admit more students based on their talents and interests as they widen the focus from academic grades alone” (Polys, Unis To Take More With Talents And Interests, Calvin Yang).

Taken from http://www.sp.edu.sg/wps/wcm/connect/b5da45804cc2e225b490b4a7af6bfcaa/t11square.jpg?MOD=AJPERES&CACHEID=b5da45804cc2e225b490b4a7af6bfcaa.

But what if undergraduates had to take up part-time or contract work after school hours or over the summer holidays to support their families or to pay off loans, and as a result cannot afford to participate in university activities, assume leadership positions in clubs or for school events, or apply for low-paying internships within their course-related industries.

Commitments by the polytechnics and universities to “admit more students based on their talents and interests” (ST, Apr. 9) – “with abilities and interests in a specific course, as well as those with talents in other areas, such as sports and community service” – is encouraging. There have been longstanding calls for schools to move beyond academic yardsticks in their admission exercises, and therefore broadening the criteria for prospective students should – in theory – create greater diversity, allow more to develop deep specialisations, and in the words of Acting Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung, “make [a subject] a lifetime pursuit [to] achieve mastery”.

Yet in practice, these schools should be cognisant of the opportunity gap between different households. In general, it would be reasonable to posit that students from more well-to-do families will have been privileged with more resources and options to pursue these aforementioned “abilities and interests”, whereas their counterparts from less-well-to-do families will not have enjoyed the same flexibility or time to take advantage of the opportunities. In this vein, an unintended consequence of taking in students through aptitude-based admissions – without factoring in the circumstances individuals may have been embedded in – could unfairly filter out those with such struggles.

A point was made during a recent discussion about Singapore’s education system – when the attention turned to university graduates who were looking for jobs – that employers, for instance, were looking beyond academic performance in their recruitment processes. As such many of these employers are expecting their applicants to be involved in a broad range of commitments too, beyond the classroom. But what if undergraduates had to take up part-time or contract work after school hours or over the summer holidays to support their families or to pay off loans, and as a result cannot afford to participate in university activities, assume leadership positions in clubs or for school events, or apply for low-paying internships within their course-related industries. Is it then fair to expect students to necessarily possess these “abilities and interests” for the future?

Perhaps the middle ground would be to introduce a tad more flexibility in these processes, both in the schools and at the workplace. Well-crafted essay assignments or interview sessions can help admission or human resources officers tease out these nuances, to determine – for instance – whether applicants has had to overcome various obstacles throughout their lives. Such deliberation may require more resources, especially from the polytechnics and universities, yet the equity which follows should justify the commitment.

A version of this article was published in The Straits Times.

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About guanyinmiao

A man of knowledge lives by acting, not by thinking about acting. Carlos Castaneda.

Discussion

9 thoughts on “Beware The Opportunity Gap

  1. Actually many employers are impressed by graduates who juggle part-time work and studies, and can still get relatively good grades.

    The problem is for those going from secondary school to JC / polytechnic, or from JC to Uni. Or those applying for scholarships. Till today the focus is almost always on good scholastic results / CCA achievements, regardless of background situation.

    That’s why you see big majority of govt & industry scholarships going to upper middle income & rich classes. Whereas a poor student working weekends and evenings, and still get B-average grades may actually be the more capable one in life, but still lose out to scholarship selection process.

    Posted by sinkie | April 19, 2016, 10:30 am
    • I agree. Changes have been promised within the public sector / prior to entry into the public sector, but unless there is a deliberate attempt to find out more or consider one’s background these gaps or inequalities will persist (or even worsen).

      Jin Yao

      Posted by guanyinmiao | April 19, 2016, 10:59 am
  2. I think I get your intention, and agree too that it will be much better endeavor to take, however the efforts required, to consider whether “applicants has had to overcome various obstacles throughout their lives” versus “Commitments by the polytechnics and universities to “admit more students based on their talents and interests with abilities and interests in a specific course, as well as those with talents in other areas, such as sports and community service””.

    However, somehow this came to mind. Being idealistic here, I’m not so sure that any efforts (some examples which you have mentioned) wouldn’t still perpetuate the zero-sum game, that there is always only that one better position leading to the so-called better future to fight.
    Why does there need be a stake in a phase where one should simply be learning and exploring?

    Posted by KenS | April 27, 2016, 11:07 pm
    • I think this goes back to more fundamental questions about meritocracy and the effect of socio-economic inequality on the equality of opportunities in Singapore, and coincidentally I just wrote a piece about it, haha (in response to Professor Kenneth Paul Tan’s recent article): http://themiddleground.sg/2016/04/28/tweaks-will-not-fix-singapores-meritocracy/.

      It is going to take more resources to differentiate between applicants, and inequities of different forms will persist, so I think a broader discourse on meritocracy and perhaps even notions of egalitarianism will be useful for the future.

      Jin Yao

      Posted by guanyinmiao | April 28, 2016, 11:18 am
  3. Interesting. What are the chances of such a discourse? If I could follow the eventuality of meritocracy, the people who promotes such an political philosophy will be people in positions of power, and would hence, in their views, believe the goodness and continue to hold the resources and power to curtail or sidetrack any sort of discourse that might upset or contravene their beliefs and efforts?
    Perhaps could then guess the beliefs and motivations of the writer who wrote the puzzling argument in response to your letter.

    Posted by KenS | April 28, 2016, 4:06 pm
    • Wouldn’t speculate, haha, but think it would be interesting to hear first-hand perspectives. You’re right to point out that incentives matter, so those in positions of power – perhaps having been advantaged by the system – may view institutions and their arrangements a little differently.

      Jin Yao

      Posted by guanyinmiao | April 28, 2016, 5:24 pm

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