Polytechnics, Junior Colleges, and the Limits of Education Policy

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The perennial question in Singapore’s education landscape had always been “polytechnics or junior colleges?” As a part of this discussion, other uncomfortable topics emerge, such as issues pertaining to social class, elitism, and the relevance of the respective education platforms. No doubt, polytechnics suffer from a long running stigma from being inferior to junior colleges and the universities.

The junior colleges, polytechnics, and universities are part of a traditional division of labour within the education landscape, created in the post-war period to address Singapore’s education and industrial requirements at the time. Moving forward 50 years, they are being pressed into the service of a very different Singapore.

the old question “poly or JC?” is going to become increasingly irrelevant

As a result, this division of labour is increasingly being blurred, and the old question “poly or JC?” is going to become increasingly irrelevant. Education policies in Singapore over the past 10 years have been sensitive to these economic changes. However, the pace of change can only move as fast as the people’s ability to accept it – and I believe that we are still suffering from a hangover from before this systemic transformation. It is this very fact, I believe, that determine the limits of our education policy and how much top-down approaches can achieve.

The Colliding Worlds 

The world of polytechnics and junior colleges are colliding, and have been doing so since the early 2000s. I wish to trace the history and trajectory of these institutions, in order to to show their original purpose and how we have since repurposed them to serve very different roles. Of all the various junior colleges and polytechnics that have existed, I wish to draw our attention to National Junior College and the Singapore Polytechnic. Founded in 1969 and 1954 respectively, they represent the foundational template that all subsequent junior colleges and polytechnics were based upon.

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Fig 1. The 1953 Dobby Report.

The intentions of a polytechnic was as stated in the 1953 report as stated by Professor E. H. G. Dobby:

“An institute teaching many branches of technical and professional knowledge and primarily intended to provide a part-time instruction for employed people who see additional skill in more advanced knowledge of their occupation and certification of their standards and attainments.”[1]

This was furthered in 1958, under the auspices of the first democratically elected government, Singapore Polytechnic was given the explicit purpose of training a workforce to match the requirements of the industrialising Singaporean economy. The purpose of the polytechnics were clear – they were meant to train technicians, not engineers. People who are skilled, but would essentially carry out the processes designed by trained engineers. To that effect, the degree courses in Singapore Polytechnic’s School of Engineering were transferred to the University of Singapore in 1969. Parallel to this, Ngee Ann Technical College’s (precursor to Ngee Ann Polytechnic) degree programmes were also gradually phased out between 1963 and 1969.[2]

Meanwhile, the junior college system was gradually established during the same period, starting with National Junior College in 1969. While it was not the first pre-university institute, it differed from the others in a few ways.

First, all other schools offering the Government Higher Schools Certificate (precursor to the GCE ‘A’-Levels) were secondary schools with a pre-U section – almost like an early period Integrated Programme. Examples of such schools are Victoria School, whose pre-U branch was separated to form Victoria Junior College in 1984, and Raffles Institution, whose pre-university branch was separated to form Raffles Junior College. Second, the junior colleges offered an ‘accelerated’ two year programme, as opposed to a traditional three year pre-university programme, achieved through the provision of a better teacher-student ratio compared to other pre-U centres and a more focused school programme. Given that a two year programme is now the norm, the junior college project is to some extent a success.

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Fig 2. Model of the new University of Singapore Campus at Kent Ridge being prepared in 1972. (Photo credits: Ministry of Education)

The focus of education at the pre-U level was to build a firm academic foundation in order for the student to progress on to a research-based programme at Nanyang University or the University of Singapore. The research focus could be seen from the early offerings of the University of Singapore: apart from two professional degrees, Law and Medicine, there was only one applied degree, Business Administration. All the other programmes were conventional academic subjects such as physics and economics.

The Modern Landscape

It was likely that it was this design of the education system during our post-war period, that led to the perception that polytechnics were inferior to the junior colleges – a case of technicians vs. engineers.

However, today, the education landscape had altered itself greatly, and this distinction is becoming increasingly less relevant. On the one hand, junior colleges are attempting to make themselves more applied and practice-based – through the introduction of subjects such as Theatre Studies, Project Work, and Translation. While on the other hand, our polytechnics are increasingly engaged in research activity as well, with the inclusion of research-based capstone projects.

Furthermore, our universities, which were at one point designed for academic-research programmes, are increasingly focused on application and practice-based courses. This could be seen from both the focus of the courses offered and also through admission criteria for post-graudate programmes that often require a few years of industry experience. This transition towards a more applied university training was made explicit in the 2012 Report by the Committee on University Pathways beyond 2015.

Also, parallel to the expansion of university places, was also the expansion of university opportunity for polytechnic graduates, who today make up 34% percent of students entering the local autonomous universities in 2016, up from 24% in 2011. At the same having university programmes that are better tailored for students from the polytechnics – such as those offered by the Singapore Institute of Technology which will allow diploma-holders to acquire a degree within two, rather than the traditional four, years.

This transformation of a previously stratified education system into a more forgiving one that is porous and allows for greater transition between different paths was a simple and logical reaction to the changing nature of the economy. Jobs are no longer stratified, and many of the work previously performed by skilled and semi-skilled technicians and assistants are disappearing – either through mechanisation or computerisation. My favourite example of this, is the reducing number of financial analysts at Goldman Sachs in New York due to better and faster computer systems and algorithms. As the years go by, an increasingly greater portion of our economy will comprise of jobs that are involved in knowledge-production, rather than mere application.

As we struggle to stay relevant, our education system, previously stratified, is converging again – while it is still early, I believe that the distinction between polytechnic and junior college, and all that debate about elitism and which path to take should soon be irrelevant.

Conclusion: At the Limit of Policy

The above discussion has shown how the question of “polytechnic and junior college education” is in effect, an old question. Rather, what matters now are the skills and make of the individual. However, in many ways, the old distinction between the two types of institutions still exists in our minds – why else would this question continue to dominate education discussions in Singapore? Why else would we think of ‘elite’ junior colleges, but never ‘elite’ polytechnics? Even when the entry score for the most competitive courses stands at an L1R2B2 of between 8 to 10.

(people) have yet to catch on, and continue to perpetuate the mentalities and attitudes that an older Singapore and an older global economy have normalised

I believe that our policies and the education landscape have shifted according to the demands of the time, and in a promising way, towards one with multiple pathways to success. However, the people using this education system have yet to catch on, and continue to perpetuate the mentalities and attitudes that an older Singapore and an older global economy have normalised. We are still creating hierarchies of schools and institutions in an era where these hierarchies are fast vanishing. Employers are still relying on a hierarchy of paper qualifications, rather than an assessment of ability, to determine pay and employment.

The Minister for Education, Mr. Ong, rightly pointed out recently that “degrees don’t earn us a living, and don’t make our dreams come true. We do – our ability to keep pace with the changing needs of the economy is what helps us earn our keep. It is the dedicated pursuit of a discipline that makes dreams come true.”

Our system has been constantly fine-tuned to meet the challenges of the modern era. However what is important now is for our perceptions, prejudices, and pride to keep pace with those changes. The debate will rage on – and it is a good thing, for the more we talk about these, the faster we will move forward.

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See also: Ong Ye Kung: “What matters is ability”. So why the large polytechnic pay gap?

Notes: 

[1] Dobby, E. H. G. Report by the Committee on a Polytechnic Institute for Singapore. Or: The Dobby Report. Singapore: Government Printing Office, 1953.

[2] Ministry of Education, Singapore. Education in Singapore. Singapore: Education Publications Bureau, 1972.

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Author: Lee Ke Lin

I am currently pursuing my graduate studies in 19th century history! :D

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