Sunday 22 December 2013

Polys can get even better

Singapore's polytechnics have done well in producing practical-minded graduates attuned to the needs of business. But they can do much more.
By Sandra Davie, The Straits Times, 19 Dec 2013

WHEN the Singapore Polytechnic was set up in 1954, the Government had a specific role in mind for the pioneering institution.

As the late Senior Minister of State for Education Tay Eng Soon put it in an interview in 1993: "Polytechnics fill a very important middle section - sub-degrees but producing competent and confident people who can do their jobs immediately upon graduation."

The reality today is that the lot and aspirations of polytechnic students have changed.

Those who take the polytechnic route are not necessarily junior college rejects. In fact, Education Ministry figures show that a third of the 25,000 students who enter the five polytechnics qualify for a junior college. The latter have a higher cut-off entry score than the polytechnics in terms of O-level results.

When they graduate with a diploma after three years, polytechnic graduates are no longer content with their "sub-degrees" and filling the "middle section" in industry. At the first opportunity, many head to universities here and abroad, notably Britain and Australia.

The top students usually aim for the local universities. In recent years, increasing numbers have been applying for the more competitive courses such as business, law and medicine, and have successfully gained entry.

Those who cannot afford the cost will look to private schools such as the Singapore Institute of Management.

Those whose financial circumstances require them to work will turn to SIM University to study part-time.

Five years ago, the estimate was that more than half of all polytechnic graduates go on to secure a university degree within five years. These days, polytechnic officials estimate that the figure is probably closer to 80 per cent.

Several thousand also head out into the job market, where their skills are valued.

Employers appreciate those who have come through the polytechnic route, saying they tend to be job-ready, practical-minded and willing to roll up their sleeves to get the job done.

But there is also a growing recognition that polytechnic education has to evolve with the times, to match the growing aspirations of young Singaporeans as well as to continue to support the Singapore economy.

It is timely then that the Government is undertaking a review of polytechnic education along with the Institutes of Technical Education (ITEs). The Education Ministry has been short on details, only saying that the review committee led by Senior Minister of State for Education Indranee Rajah will look at how studies at the ITEs and polytechnics can better connect classroom lessons to the working world.

I have always admired how the polytechnics are able to cater to a big cohort of students and yet provide courses that suit their individual talents. One suggestion, then, is to build on this.

Combine work and study

THE polytechnics should consider offering a route combining work and study, similar to the cooperative education provided in some American universities.

In many ways, this approach is also similar to the highly-prized apprenticeship scheme in countries such as Germany and Switzerland, which turn out master tradesmen and certified professionals in different areas,

But as Republic Polytechnic principal Yeo Li Pheow cautions, it would not do to call the proposal an "apprenticeship scheme" because of the negative associations the term has locally. Apprenticeship schemes are seen to be for students who are weak academically.

A better term to use would be "professional certification". If students on these routes are going to alternate between work and study, then the course has to be longer - maybe extended to four or five years.

On top of earning a diploma, in the course of the five years they can also earn various professional certifications. These would be professional qualifications, recognising the holder as a specialist in a particular field. This is already done in some areas. There are licensed aircraft maintenance engineers, for example, who take courses and acquire a series of certifications.

But the idea need not apply to the science or technology-related fields alone. It can also be done in a range of other areas, including nursing, psychology, physiotherapy and computer programming.

But of course this would require companies coming on board to see themselves as training partners. This is because the kind of jobs that a student is tasked with while on work stints would have to build on what they were learning in the polytechnics. Similarly the polytechnics would have to ensure that what was taught in their courses was industry-relevant.

Social economists such as Phillip Brown, Hugh Lauder and David Ashton, who wrote the book, The Global Auction: The Broken Promises Of Education, Jobs And Incomes, have argued that class distinctions among graduate workers are emerging. At the top, there will be a cadre of thinkers and decision-makers - perhaps 10 per cent or 15 per cent of the total. The remainder will perform routine functions for modest wages.

Mr David Leong of People Worldwide Consulting, who recently visited Germany, says remuneration has to follow. Local companies have to be willing to pay a premium for those with good skills, similar to the high salaries they offer to those with impressive academic qualifications. "At the moment, although they want highly skilled workers, they are not necessarily willing to pay them well. That has to change."

New teaching approach

ANOTHER way in which polytechnic education can be improved is in the area of communication skills.

The polytechnics run communication modules and require their students to write and present project reports. This goes some way towards nurturing communication skills. But as many employers and universities would argue, more needs to be done to shore up the spoken and written skills of polytechnic graduates.

A general studies programme that would nurture critical thinking skills, independent thinking and the proficient use of language is worth considering.

It should cover world affairs and the pressing issues of today, such as poverty and pollution, to give students a better understanding of the world they live in and Singapore's place in it.

They should also be given an understanding of how knowledge is attained in the various disciplines and taught to see an inter- relationship of ideas across disciplines.

Case studies

A SEASONED polytechnic lecturer at one of Singapore's leading polytechnics said he presents his economics students with a case study of an actual struggling business. He then asks them to act as business consultants to come up with a plan to save the business.

Alternatively, he would ask students to explain why the richest people in Singapore tend to live in the Bukit Timah/Holland Road belt, and why is it that you cannot get a taxi in Singapore when you need one the most.

This way, not only is the learning of economic concepts or world issues made more interesting, but it also becomes more relevant to Singapore and to their lives.

Polytechnics have come a long way since the first one was set up in the 1950s. And their graduates are making their mark both in further education and the job market.

Now is the time for the Government to enlarge the role of polytechnics. It should build on their known strengths for nurturing hands-on workers, attuned to the practical needs of industry and business.

Preparing graduates who understand world affairs, and who have premium skills and knowledge in specialised fields, will ensure that a polytechnic education continues, over time, to produce positive outcomes in terms of pay and opportunities as well as bolster the Singapore economy.

Polytechnics give engineering a new face
Marrying subject with others has attracted more top students
By Amelia Teng, The Straits Times, 19 Dec 2013

WHAT does a kangaroo have to do with aeroplanes? Enough to inspire Singapore Polytechnic student Bryan Lim into making a "bendable" landing system to help aircraft land more smoothly.

"Kangaroos' muscles compress as they jump, reducing the landing impact," said the 17-year-old, after being taught during his engineering systems classes how to apply animal movement in product design.

He is one of 40 pioneer students taking the new diploma programme, which merges social science and management with engineering. This is just one of the latest "hybrid" courses introduced by Singapore's polytechnics to change the face of engineering, long seen as "boring".

These multi-disciplinary programmes, which marry engineering with business studies or the life sciences, are also altering the make-up of engineering students.

While engineering courses used to draw those with poorer O-level scores of 18 points and more, students with aggregate scores as low as nine points are flocking to these new courses.

Said Bryan, who scored 11 points for five subjects in his O levels: "I chose the course because of its multi-disciplinary nature and we also get to learn how we affect society with products."

Dr Thian Boon Meng, who oversees the new Singapore Poly (SP) course, said: "Students prefer to study engineering alongside other areas. That's why more hybrid courses are sprouting."

At Ngee Ann Poly, for instance, its Engineering with Business Management programme has about 200 students now, up from 160 in 2010 when it was launched.

"Students enjoy the flexibility. They can use the financial management and marketing skills in engineering companies," said the school's deputy principal Mah Wee Beng.

Nanyang Polytechnic will start a similar diploma next year.

The introduction of hybrid courses is just one of the measures polys here are taking to stop a brain drain which has seen top students eschew engineering for more lucrative or interesting diplomas in business, media studies and the life sciences.

While engineering courses linked to the growing aviation industry, like aeronautical engineering and aerospace electronics, continue to attract high-calibre students, "traditional" courses like electrical and electronic engineering remain less popular.

Cut-off points for these diplomas range from 22 to 26, said Mr Mah, who heads a committee set up by the polys in 2004 to revive students' interest in engineering.

Polys are paying greater attention to this problem, he added, explaining that this is a global issue, with fewer students opting for science, technology, engineering and mathematics degrees.

"Interest is key, and students find it difficult to relate to such 'hard-core' topics as they require a lot of mathematics," said Mr Mah.

That is why all polys, starting with Ngee Ann in 2005, allow students to take modules from various engineering disciplines for a year before deciding on a speciality.

Poly representatives in Mr Mah's committee also organise campus workshops and industry visits for secondary school students and teachers to better understand the engineering profession.

Raising awareness of the field is a continuing challenge, admitted Mr Mah.

He added that for students to get excited about engineering, "they must believe they can make an impact with their work".

Multi-disciplinary learning

SEVERAL of the "hybrid" courses offered by polytechnics:


Engineering with business management:

Business modules on marketing and financial management make up about a quarter of the curriculum.

Engineering science:

Bridges the gap between engineering and theoretical science by exposing students to research and development in universities.



By combining engineering with life sciences, students are trained to come up with innovative biomedical devices and equipment.

Engineering systems:

Students are taught management skills and social sciences, allowing them to apply social and economic patterns when designing projects.

Energy systems and management:

Students design energy-efficient systems in buildings and power generators, and clean energy technology, like solar panels and electric vehicles.


Media and communication technology:

Equips students to handle technology in the fields of communications, digital media and broadcasting.

N-level stars get head start in poly
Year-long foundation course prepares them for direct entry into diploma programme
By Pearl Lee, The Sunday Times, 22 Dec 2013

Seventeen-year-old Rachel Chan is well on her way to realising her goal of studying biotechnology at Temasek Polytechnic (TP) next year - even though she did not sit the O-level examination this year.

In fact, she is already a TP student, having been accepted under a new through-train programme started this year to help prepare top Normal (Academic) students for direct entry to polytechnics.

All Rachel has to do now is pass the year-long foundation course she is enrolled in, to progress to the first year of the diploma course.

The foundation course is one of two through-train programmes introduced last year for the top performers of the Normal (Academic) cohort, allowing them to skip Secondary 5 after their N levels.

So, when Rachel scored nine points in the N-level exam last year, she knew right then she wanted to apply for the programme, which gains her entrance to a polytechnic with just a Normal (Academic) certificate.

"If I were to progress on to Sec 5 and take the O-level exam, there is a slim chance I will be able to secure a spot in my desired course, which is biotechnology in Temasek Polytechnic," said the former Bedok South Secondary student.

Rachel was one of about 1,100 students who applied for the polytechnic foundation course, open only to Normal (Academic) students who have obtained 11 points or below for the N-level exam.

The Ministry of Education said about 80 per cent of applicants received provisional places in their chosen diploma courses, and began the foundation programme in April. It will take in its second batch of students next month.

Those who do not qualify for the foundation programme but obtained a score of 19 points and below can opt for the second direct-entry route, which allows about 1,000 Normal (Academic) students to enter the Higher Nitec course at the Institute of Technical Education. If students who choose this route obtain the qualifying grades, they can gain entrance to the first or second year of a polytechnic in a related course.

The foundation courses offered at polytechnics include preparatory modules and compulsory modules such as English and mathematics.

Students have to indicate the diploma course they are interested in before starting the programme.

Most polytechnics offer foundation-year students a wide range of diploma courses to choose from. At TP, students in the foundation year can choose from 48 out of the 51 diploma courses offered.

They are then grouped into 10 clusters, such as applied science, business and design, according to their chosen course, said Mr Lee Han Young, who manages the programme at TP. The polytechnic in Tampines now has about 210 foundation-year students. It can admit up to 240 students next year.

Republic Polytechnic (RP) in Woodlands offers foundation students all 38 of its diploma courses. Students are assessed continuously throughout the year, and also on a final exam. "If the student fails that exam, they can take a supplementary exam paper. But if they fail that, then they have to leave the poly," said Dr Soh Thian Ping, who chairs RP's foundation programme.

To help students manage, RP conducts holiday camps and additional consultation hours for weaker students. "The assurance from the school is, if they work hard, they can make it," said Dr Soh.

Ngee Ann Polytechnic also consulted some secondary schools when developing the course curriculum, to better understand the needs of students.

A spokesman said that lecturers teaching the foundation course "are well positioned to teach students transiting from secondary school to the polytechnic", as they have previously taught enrichment programmes in secondary schools.

Students doing the foundation courses like RP student Jerry Ye, 17, say they like the practical approach of the programme.

Singapore Polytechnic student Victoria Tan, 17, said the foundation year "gives us a head start in poly education, and we have the chance to explore the poly lifestyle and have fun".

Victoria, who scored nine points at the N levels, said she had initially considered taking the O levels and applying to go to junior college. "I eventually chose this route because I wanted the lifestyle of being able to pursue other hobbies and interests even as I study."

TP student Chew Harris Rezal, 17, added: "The foundation year better prepares us for the diploma course we are taking, and we may even be better prepared than other first-year poly students."

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