Wednesday 9 March 2016

NUS Law School to give out more first class honours to reflect rising quality of students

More students can earn first class honours from NUS Law
Industry players and students cheer landmark policy revision that will start with cohort graduating in June
By K.C. Vijayan, Senior Law Correspondent and Ng Keng Gene, The Straits Times, 8 Mar 2016

The National University of Singapore (NUS) Law school is doubling the number of students eligible for the first class honours degree to the top 10 per cent of each cohort, up from 5 per cent, in a move hailed by industry players and students alike.

The landmark policy revision, the first in a decade, will start with students graduating in June this year.

The review will also see more students awarded the second class (upper division) honours degree, expected to be the top 65 per cent to 68 per cent of each cohort, up from the current 50 per cent.

With the latest revision, in a cohort of 240 students, for example, up to 24 could be awarded first class honours while the next 156 students at 65 per cent could attain the second class (upper division) honours degree.

NUS Law Faculty dean Simon Chesterman said in a letter to the students yesterday that the honours policy revision will bring NUS closer to comparable universities in Britain and Australia.

He wrote: "Other top law schools with a comparable cohort size, such as Oxford, London School of Economics and University College London, are awarding first class honours in the range of 12 per cent to 24 per cent, and second class (upper division) honours degree in the range of 67 per cent to 82 per cent.

"In view of the high quality of our students, NUS finds it timely to bring its honours awards closer to its peers."

The NUS system differs from that at Singapore Management University (SMU), where students, including those studying law, graduate with distinctions based on a cumulative grade point average (GPA). Those with a GPA of 3.8 and above get the highest distinction, summa cum laude.

"As long as a student achieves a given GPA, he/she gets the class of award accordingly. This essentially means that standards are generally maintained over time and do not vary with the quality of students in that cohort," said director of SMU's office of registrar Tan Lee Chuan.

Yesterday, past and present NUS Law students cheered the changes.

Drew & Napier trainee lawyer Benjamin Foo, 26, who graduated last year with first class honours, said: "During my time, I knew of many deserving students who fell just short of being in the top 5 per cent."

Fourth-year law student Hairul Hakkim, 25, who has been on the Dean's List every year, said he and his peers welcomed the move to give "deserved recognition to students who have worked hard for it".

Also welcoming the changes, second-year law student Rachel Tan, 27, said the increase should not be seen as a "dilution of the class of honours as NUS will still award a lower proportion of first and second upper class honours degrees compared with other universities".

Professor Chesterman told The Straits Times: "The quality of the students coming in is so good that we think it is unfair to say to almost half of them - 'you are going to graduate with a lower second honours' - which makes them look like they didn't work as hard as their peers when it is just a function of mathematics."

He said the changes recognised the students' quality and the work they did but stressed the university does not guarantee anyone a grade.

He added: "If you get an average grade of A minus or higher across all of your degree modules, or if you are in the top 10 per cent, then you get first class honours. If you get a B average or above and you are not in the first class honours, then you are in the upper second."

The increase, however, was still seen by some people as "still too small and still not enough", he said.

"The market suggests that we are too stingy... I think it is important that people understand that we will still be giving far fewer first class honours than our peer institutions," said Prof Chesterman.

TSMP Law's joint managing director Stephanie Yuen Thio said: "As an employer, we have hired first class honours (graduates) from foreign universities who do not hold a candle to some of the second uppers from Singapore universities. It's time to level the playing field."

Law Society president Thio Shen Yi said that while the industry "already considers NUS and SMU degrees very favourably, this moves the dial a little more in their favour".

Some big names with NUS Law first class honours
The Straits Times, 8 Mar 2016

TOMMY KOH (CLASS OF 1961) Ambassador-at-Large, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, chairman of the Institute of Policy Studies, and of National Heritage Board

TAN LEE MENG (CLASS OF 1972) Senior Judge, former deputy vice-chancellor and dean of the Faculty of Law, NUS

ANDREW PHANG BOON LEONG (CLASS OF 1982) Judge of Appeal, Supreme Court of Singapore

K. SHANMUGAM (CLASS OF 1984) Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Law


AEDIT ABDULLAH (CLASS OF 1994) Judicial Commissioner, Supreme Court of Singapore

KOH SWEE YEN (CLASS OF 2004) Partner, WongPartnership

Policy change 'unlikely to affect' hiring by law firms
But NUS law school's honours policy revision will raise the competition level, say experts
By K.C. Vijayan, Senior Law Correspondent and Ng Keng Gene, The Straits Times, 10 Mar 2016

While the National University of Singapore (NUS) law school's honours policy revision will heighten the competition for Singapore students from British law schools seeking jobs here, the move is unlikely to affect law firms' hiring policies.

It is estimated that there are now more than 950 students across 19 British universities who can potentially qualify for the Singapore Bar, according to the London-based United Kingdom Singapore Law Students' Society (UKSLSS).

NUS Law School announced on Monday that it will double the number of first class honours degrees to 10 per cent of each cohort and raise the numbers given second class (upper) honours from 50 per cent to between 65 and 68 per cent.

"The move in a way 'ups the ante' for the competing Singaporean law grads from the UK," said Rajah & Tann partner Paul Tan.

He praised the NUS Law School's move to increase the numbers, given the higher number of first class honours given out by peer institutions like Oxford and Cambridge.

UKSLSS president Aakash Sardana called the decision "equitable, principled and sound," adding: "This change does not do much to prosper or harm either group's employment prospects. We look forward to fair competition with Singapore law school graduates.

"Employers have proven themselves to be sensitive to and competent at recognising different assessment standards and methods, be it across universities or jurisdiction."

Mr Aakash noted that degree classifications "are no longer a trump card in recruitment" but are one of the factors considered.

Harry Elias Partnership lawyer Justin Chia, who is on the firm's recruitment committee, said Singaporean law graduates from foreign universities with good results will have the same employment prospects as peers from local universities.

" The type of law which law graduates practise, whether they are from a local or foreign university, is largely dependent on their interests as well as the requirements of their respective employers," he said.

Sharing a similar approach, Global Law Alliance senior director Niru Pillai said the firm pays same starting salaries regardless of whether they graduate here or abroad.

Director David Ang of HR firm Human Capital Singapore believes law graduates with first class honours from British universities fare generally on the same level as their counterparts here but those "from second-tier UK universities have a tougher time".

"They have trouble finding internships," he said. "Some 60 to 70 per cent of those who studied in foreign universities were able to find internships. As it is already difficult to secure an internship, it comes as no surprise that they will encounter some difficulties landing a job upon graduation. In addition, the graduates from the second-tier foreign universities are unlikely to be paid very well during their internships and face stiff competition in job search."

Mr Aakash said the UKSLSS has boosted its partnership with international firms, while working predominantly with Singapore law firms. It is also working with Contact Singapore more closely to connect members to a "myriad of non-law graduate opportunities". Contact Singapore is an alliance of the Economic Development Board and Manpower Ministry to encourage Singaporeans overseas to work, invest and live here.

NUS Law does students justice
By K.C. Vijayan, Senior Law Correspondent, The Straits Times, 10 Mar 2016

When senior lawyer R. S. Wijaya sponsored his 22-year-old son to study at a peer institution in London last year, it was with the knowledge that he had a place at NUS Law School not taken up.

Mr Wijaya, himself a barrister from Gray's Inn, said the compelling reason for this was to give his son - a straight A student - not just a broader exposure but also to significantly better the odds for getting a first class honours or a second class upper.

This explains why the National University of Singapore Law Faculty is doubling the number of first class honours to be awarded to 10 per cent and increased the second class upper to between 65 and 68 per cent of each cohort, starting with the cohort due to graduate this year.

The revised figures are still lower compared with peer law schools like Cambridge, Oxford, London School of Economics (LSE) and University College London, where the proportion of first class honours ranges from 24 per cent at Cambridge to 12 per cent at LSE, according to one set of figures provided by the UK government accessed last September. The same figures show second upper honours awarded to between 67 and 82 per cent of each cohort.

NUS law dean Professor Simon Chesterman said the changes recognised the hard work the students did and their quality. Admission is an indicator.

"The quality of the students coming in is so good that we think it is unfair to say to almost half of them - 'you are going to graduate with a lower second honours' - which makes them look like they didn't work as hard as their peers when it is just a function of mathematics," Prof Chesterman said.

Pegging the figures to peer institutions abroad is one way for the school to continue internationalising its outlook.

"This is the first review that we have done in a decade," said Prof Chesterman.

Perhaps the increased pace of change and globalisation may dictate reviews sooner than another decade.

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