Stressed-out varsity applicant? Check.

March 15, 2008 at 11:02 pm 4 comments

March 15, 2008
Sportswoman? Check. Do-gooder? Check. School leader? Check. Intern? Check. Straight-A student? Check

Applicants vastly outnumbered available places last year at the three publicly funded universities here. To get a shot at a coveted slot, students are beefing up their CVs any way they can.
By Sandra Davie

JUST before the start of the annual university application season in March, more young Singaporeans are suddenly overcome with compassion for the less fortunate.

Hospices and homes for the aged contacted by The Straits Times note that during the December to March period, there is a gush of 18- to 20-year-olds applying to be volunteers.

The homes run by volunteer organisations are only too glad to have extra helping hands. Their elderly or sick residents are cheered by the company of young, energetic teens.

But this sudden spurt in volunteerism is short-lived. Usually after three months, once the home administrators write the eager do-gooders a testimonial for their university application – poof! – the young volunteers are never seen again.

One of the home administrators, who declined to be named, says: ‘I can recognise the kind. They are shocked when you tell them that their duties may include accompanying the residents to the toilet, or handling bedpans.

‘One wanted to take his maid along to do the menial tasks set for him, saying that he can be of more use with administrative tasks.’

Still, the administrator sympathises with the young ones. She herself has a niece who asked to do a stint at the home, just before she went off on a community service expedition to build a library for an orphanage in Laos.

The 18-year-old, who gave her name as Susan, is now back working in a free clinic. All this so that she could improve her chances of getting into the National University of Singapore (NUS) medical faculty.

But the articulate teen who just scored seven As in her A levels defended her actions. ‘My results are the minimum must-have for medicine. Now the admissions people want to know what else you have to offer. I was too busy during the school year studying – to make sure I get the As – that’s why this frenzied period of community service now.’

She adds: ‘I am not the only one. Everyone in my class is doing it as well. I don’t know what I would do if I don’t get a place to study medicine. I think I would just die.’

Numbers game

WELCOME to the university application season in Singapore – described as ‘hell’ by the 18- to 20-year-olds pouring out in ever-increasing numbers from the polytechnics, junior colleges and private schools.

University admissions officials say they have never seen this level of tension and competition before. It is evident in the increasing number of students going all out to embellish their co-curricular activities record. And the essays that seem just a little too polished and sleekly written.

Just four weeks ago, there was a posting from a student on the online chat forum Hardwarezone, offering to pay anyone who would write a winning university application essay. When The Straits Times reporter responded, a fee exceeding $1,000 was proposed.

The tension is derived partly from numbers. There are simply more university applicants here than ever before.

Last year, the NUS received a total of about 34,000 applications for around 6,600 places; Nanyang Technological University (NTU) received 35,000 applications for 5,850 places; while the Singapore Management University (SMU) received about 12,900 applications for 1,500 places.

Compare that to the application figures just two years before that. In 2005, another record year, NUS received 25,500 applicants for its 6,500 places, NTU received more than 20,000 applicants for its 5,000 places, and SMU, 9,400 applications for its 1,100 places.

Last year’s Dragon Year babies had a small part to play in the dramatic increase. Admissions deans of universities reckon the Dragon Year batch beefed up the number of A-level applicants by over 2,000. The rest of the surge came from the ever-increasing number of polytechnic graduates trying for university places here.

To cope with the flood of applications, all three universities have expanded their admissions departments. Faculties have roped in professors to read application essays and sit in on the interview panel.

A must-have

THERE is no relief in sight. This year, admissions officials from the NUS, NTU and SMU are bracing themselves for yet another record year.

NUS vice-provost Tan Thiam Soon, who oversees admissions, says early indications from polytechnic students already show a marked increase from last year.

The university held an admissions exercise for polytechnic graduates last month, and already this year’s applications total 8,444, up from 6,900 last year.

NTU’s figures for the polytechnic group are even higher. It received 11,800 applications, almost 2,000 more than last year.

All this elbowing and shoving for a university place does not surprise SMU’s admissions director Alan Goh. As a parent of two daughters in tertiary institutions, he says a university degree is now seen to be the minimum for survival in the new economy.

Polytechnic officials confirm his thinking. They reckon that an overwhelming 70 to 80 per cent of their students want degrees and more. If these students cannot land a place locally, they head overseas, where they are welcomed with open arms.

The better private schools, such as the Singapore Institute of Management and the Management Development Institute of Singapore, say some of their graduating diploma students also jostle for places at the local universities.

Even Institute of Technical Education (ITE) students want a piece of the action.

Mr Christopher Leow, 33, who is manager of student development at ITE College Central, notes that when he was a student in the ITE in the early 1990s, his classmates aspired only to good-paying jobs.

A small 20 per cent aimed to upgrade to a polytechnic diploma. Only a few like him, who did well in the polytechnics, went on to do a degree overseas.

Mr Leow, who came back with a first-class honours degree in mechanical engineering from Loughborough University in 1999, says half of any ITE class now shoot for polytechnic qualifications and beyond.

In a knowledge economy, a university education is more than ever seen as a passport to prosperity. Parents, having lived through recessions and layoffs, see a degree – preferably a prestigious one – as the way to secure their children’s future.

A Ministry of Manpower study released last year showed the exact value of a university degree in the new economy.

Based on 2004 salary figures, if a worker with A levels earning $1,200 a month is able to enrol and graduate with a university degree, he stood to boost his income to $2,382.

The study also showed that the rates of return from a university education have improved in recent years, while those from a primary, secondary and diploma education have either declined or remained unchanged.

Associate Professor Shandre M. Thangavelu, director of the Singapore Centre for Applied and Policy Economics at NUS, explains: ‘As we move to a higher-value economy, the market is more willing to give more to better-educated workers.’

Another thing the study showed: Not all university degrees yield the same level of returns. This explains the feverish demand for places in professional and specialised degree courses such as law, accountancy and health sciences, which boast higher rates of return.

Most rewarding of all is a law degree, which boasts a 25.2 per cent increase in wages with each year of study, while more general degrees such as mass communications and information science offer only a 15.2 per cent hike.

Local v foreign

NOW that it has been established that a degree is needed, the question is how to get one without breaking the bank.

For most Singaporean parents, a local institution – which costs up to $30,000 over four years – is all they can afford. Sending their children overseas to cheaper study destinations such as Australia will set them back at least $150,000.

Besides, many consider the three local institutions more prestigious than many overseas institutions. Many parents are able to cite NUS’s world 33rd placing by the Times Higher Education Supplement, which beat a good majority of Australian and British universities.

That’s why there was a collective sigh of relief when the Government announced it was looking at increasing the number of university places here.

In his National Day Rally speech last year, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong promised places in the local universities for 30 per cent of every Primary 1 cohort, which translates to about 17,000 university places annually – about 3,000 places more than this year.

The committee set up to look into these additional places recently announced that the fourth publicly funded university will be ready within the next few years and will enrol 2,500 to 3,000 students each year.

The new university will take a different inter-disciplinary approach, likely focusing on the interplay between the fields of design, engineering and business, to better kit its undergraduates for the new economy.

Sounds exciting, but many young people – especially those coming from the polytechnics – pragmatically expect that with the intensifying paper chase, the fourth university will not be able to absorb them all.

The remaining recourse is going overseas, where they can complete their degree in double-quick time, in one or two years. For those without the means to raise the $50,000 to $100,000 needed, the only other avenue is the private schools.

The bigger private school players such as the Singapore Institute of Management, Management Development Institute of Singapore and Stansfield have in recent years seen a boom in locals enrolling for their degree courses.

But many private school students, like Ms Annie Tan, 21, worry that their degrees will be seen as second rate, compared to NUS, NTU and SMU degrees.

The A-level holder, who scored A, B, E and a B for General Paper, failed to qualify to read business at NUS, NTU and SMU last year, due to fierce competition. She was accepted by several Australian and British universities but has applied to take up a business degree course at SIM.

‘Only my mum is working and I have two other school-going siblings. I can’t be selfish and insist on wiping out their savings to go overseas. So I am settling for a course at SIM. But, of course, my constant worry is whether my degree will be recognised by employers,’ she says.

The articulate teenager, who attended brand-name schools and one of Singapore’s top junior colleges, says she is ‘miffed’ with the Government for not providing for her higher education.

‘They keep going on about how human talent is Singapore’s only resource and yet don’t provide for a basic education to those who deserve it. I worked hard all my life to get into a good secondary school and a good JC.

‘I believe my A-level results show that I am deserving of a place in university. So I don’t understand why I don’t get to have a shot at it right here at home,’ she says.

Her father, Mr Ron Tan, 56, a retired businessman, says Singaporeans have come to expect that the Government will provide a high-quality university education that is affordable.

He says: ‘Singapore needs a more educated workforce as well. The Government must look into providing more places.’

sandra@sph.com.sg

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Entry filed under: education, RJC, scholarship, Singapore.

When outstanding is just average Govt gestures mean a lot to S’poreans abroad

4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Frankly, I don’t see the point « l’oiseau rebelle  |  March 16, 2008 at 1:41 am

    […] Frankly, I don’t see the point Published March 15, 2008 Singapore After living, for nearly two years, in a state where the few Singaporeans go on to great things despite being labeled Failed Dregs of Society, turn down the likes of Harvard and Stanford to attend universities unknown to the general populace of Singapore, served scholarship bonds before landing good jobs here, came twenty years ago to climb mountains, spending a winter *ahem* working at a ski resort before heading back to Singapore for the long-term, it is sometimes difficult to remember or understand this worldview. […]

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  • 2. Daily SG: 18 Mar 2008 « The Singapore Daily  |  March 17, 2008 at 11:30 pm

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