SINGAPORE: At a crossroads after his O-levels – whether to go to a junior college (JC) or a polytechnic – Kenneth Gwee deferred to his mother’s opinion that the JC route was the most direct route to university.
But at the end of his first year at Jurong JC, the 17-year-old came to rue that decision – he had failed most of his subjects in year 1, and would have to repeat the year.
Worse, his mother was called to the principal’s office. “She cried in front of the principal. To me, that was the most shocking point - it was one of the few times that I have seen my mother cry,” said Mr Gwee, now 23.
“That hit me hard."
Deciding to take control of his life and his goal of becoming a doctor, he took the bold step of switching from JC to Republic Polytechnic, to pursue a diploma in biomedical sciences.
It paid off. Mr Gwee graduated with a near-perfect GPA (grade point average), and is now a second-year student at the NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine.
Like Mr Gwee, about 1 per cent of students switch to a polytechnic after starting JC, compared to the 0.5 per cent who go the other way, according of Education Ministry figures.
The recent news that MOE will close four JCs by 2019 has sparked discussion online about the relevance of JCs today – given that there are more routes to getting a degree today. The current affairs programme Talking Point picked up on this debate recently (watch the episode here).
WANTED: MORE THAN CLASSROOM KNOW-HOW
MOE had explained that the closure and merger of the JCs were primarily due to falling birth rates. It noted that polytechnics too have been affected, with student enrolment dropping by a fifth from a few years ago.
But experts question the relevance of a JC education today and point out that the jobs and industries of the future – such as cyber security, engineering and IT – require specific skills that go beyond a regular classroom education.
Mr Erman Tan, president of the Singapore Human Resources Institute, said: “Typically, (companies) would like somebody who has a more specific skill set or specialised training with deep capabilities. This means that the diploma graduate tends to stand out better compared to A-level students.”
On average, a JC graduate can expect a starting pay of about S$1,300. A poly graduate will earn nearly S$900 more.
“A diploma programme offers applications as well as specialised training that meets the industrial needs better. Hence, employers are prepared to pay better,” said Mr Tan.
More than 90 per cent of poly graduates are able to find jobs within six months of leaving school. But if one’s ultimate goal is to enroll in a university, does taking the A-level route or the polytechnic route make more economical sense?
NUS economics lecturer Kelvin Seah, whose research focuses on the economics of education, said the two-year JC route is obviously a faster option to a university education. He added:
But of course if you don’t actually make it to the university, then what are you stuck with? An A-level certificate which is not highly regarded by employers, just because they might prefer a poly graduate who has more hands-on working experience and practical skills.
1 IN 3 NEW UNI STUDENTS FROM POLY
And these days, the A-Level certificate is no longer seen as the only way to get into university.
Associate Professor Jason Tan (policy & leadership studies) from the National Institute of Education said: “A few decades ago, JCs provided the sole entry route to local universities, but over time, that has begun to change quite a bit. We’ve seen local universities admit increasing numbers of poly graduates.
“And we are seeing more and more students who have done well in the O-Levels deliberately choosing the polytechnic path instead.”
In fact, one in three local university students admitted in 2015 is a polytechnic graduate, said MOE.
The ministry revealed that the 2015 intake at the six local universities had the highest ever proportion of polytechnic graduates at nearly 34 per cent, up from 24.7 per cent in 2011.
But this is not the death knell for JCs yet.
Dr Seah said that the belief that JCs are more elite is still common. There is a sense among parents that a JC education is more prestigious, compared to poly education.
“It’s a selectivity problem. We all know that admission to a JC requires better academic results than admission to poly and because of this, the students admitted to a JC typically score better grades than the poly students.
“And so stereotypes develop – parents sort of think that JC students are more capable,” he said.
POLY ENVIRONMENT ‘WASN’T RIGHT FOR ME’
And there are students like Ong Ting Yong who struggled in a polytechnic and switched to a JC midway.
Mr Ong chose to study banking and financial services in Ngee Ann Polytechnic after his O-Levels, but he just couldn’t adapt to the culture. “I felt that the study environment wasn’t suitable for me," he said.
I think at that age, I was still not mature enough to have the discipline to sit down and do more independent learning. So, I ended up procrastinating most of the time.
Mr Ong left for Jurong JC, where he adjusted better. “I definitely prefer the teaching style in JC because we get more attention from the teachers, and it’s easier to get help from them as well.
“That’s the main reason I made it to university in the end,” said Mr Ong, who is 25 now.
Experts advise students to cast their nets wide, in view of the increasingly diverse range of education options.
Mr Tan said: “I think it’s vital for all secondary school students to equip themselves with the ways in which the (education) landscape has changed, to get to know more about their options.
“They could, for example, attend open houses, or talk to friends or relatives who have studied in JCs or polys, to find out more about what their courses are like.”
Watch this episode of Talking Point now on Toggle. Catch new episodes every Thursday, 9.30pm on Mediacorp Channel 5.