The road to education city may be rough if you don’t make the right call. Text by Kenneth Cheong for hype.

For the majority of 16-year-olds, life after the O-Levels boils down to two choices: the junior college (JC) or Polytechnic route.

Which is the smoother route to university?

Many appear confounded by that decision.

Miss Celine Loi, 33, a private tutor, mentioned on her blog that after the O-Levels, a number of her ex-students kept asking her the same question repeatedly.

Which is the better choice? A junior college or a polytechnic?

Why polytechnics are better

While junior colleges are traditionally believed to be favoured because of the better likelihood of entry into a university, the difficulties of studying in one may deter those who do not have an academic bent.

To 20-year-old Evangeline Lim, a second-year Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering undergraduate at Nanyang Technical University (NTU), JC had a “rigorous curriculum” that was a “gruelling uphill struggle” for her.

“My results weren’t all that fantastic even with intensive tuition and hard work, which was quite disappointing,” the Meridian JC graduate recalled.

“Nothing in JC prepared me for school life here at NTU! There are no tutors to push us, no fixed tutorial groups, long laboratory sessions and no answers to past year papers. It’s like an entirely new ball game, “ she groused.

Given Evangline’s experience, it’s understandable why many students have been opting for the three-year polytechnic alternative in recent years.

According to figures from the Singapore Yearbook of Statistics 2008, 72,379 students were enrolled in polytechnic courses in 2007. That’s more than twice the figure of 31,627 students that enrolled in pre-university courses, which included JCs and the three-year Millennia Institute.

Glenn Ong, 17, a first-year Banking & Finance student at Ngee Ann Polytechnic, scored an average of eight points for his O-Levels.

He had the opportunity to enter a JC, but applied for polytechnic instead.

Glenn wasn’t bothered by how hard JC potentially was during his short three-month exposure to the system.

Having gone through the O-Levels system, he was more concerned about the relevance of the science or arts syllabi to him.

He also felt that there was a lack of focus on the soft skills that he felt was necessary to enter the workforce in the future.

Mr Royston Cheong, 26, a second-year Electrical & Electronic Engineering student at NTU, shared that view.

Having graduated from Catholic JC and Singapore Polytechnic, he felt it was his years in polytechnic (which got him a place at NTU) that had better prepped him for a university education.

“The modules that I took in polytechnic were based closely on those at university. This affiliation makes my current curve less steep.

“Comparatively, the things learnt in JC are generalised, and doesn’t help in a smooth transition, although what I learnt allowed for more freedom of choice in the selection of courses,” he noted.

He was perturbed by the “one-track system” he encountered in JC, where the ultimate objective of getting into university made for “a maddening adrenaline rush” during the A-Level examinations.

But the found the laid-back mentality and slower pack of learning at polytechnic more suited to him.

Why junior colleges are better

However, Evangeline insisted that it was wrong to completely rule in favour of polytechnic education. She highlighted that age also factored in her decision – at 16, she was “too young to make decisions that would affect [her] career.”

JCs also appeared to be structured in a manner similar to secondary schools, something that she had grown accustomed to over time.

That aside, Evangeline pointed out that while polytechnic students were more individualistic, her experiences in a JC environment made for closer-knit relationships with her schoolmates.

“Going to school everyday was something to look forward to, as I knew my friends were there to study, talk and laugh together with me. This sense of bonding greatly aided my learning and motivated me whenever times were tough,” she said.

The past forming the reality as we now see it

Despite heavy criticism, the JC system allows for so much more of its student population into local universities, but things are changing slowly but surely.

For instance, Singapore’s Ministry of Education promised that “15 percent of the poly cohort will make it to the three local universities by 2010”, as reported in The Straits Times in 2007.

So why aren’t more spaces being allocated for the seemingly larger population of polytechnic students?

The answer lies in the origins of the Cambridge examination system, a framework set in place from as early as 1891, during British colonial rule.

Over the years, it had become the one standard for progression to further studies. Then, the only ticket to university was through taking the A-Level examinations.

This “superiority” of the JC system was deeply rooted in the minds of teachers teaching at these levels, even up till Mr Cheong’s secondary school days, sometime during the 1990s.

It was also only during this time that local universities began to slowly open their doors to polytechnic students.

“Still, back then, our teachers made it clear that students from polytechnics were second-class material.”

“Since I was in a SAP (Special Assistance Plan) school, many of us were capable of entering JC, so most ended up blindly following the crowd without really considering whether the system actually fit us appropriately,” he explained.

Mr Cheong was adamant that while the JC “wasn’t exactly something to avoid”, the “brainwashing” and negative sentiments towards a polytechnic education must stop.

“Times have changed. The cream of the crop (in secondary schools) and their teachers ought to heave realised that by now,” he said.

So, JC or Polytechnic?

Just as Mr Cheong and Miss Loi have mentioned, the solution does not lie in the game of endless comparisons. Rather, it is in making “informed decisions”.

The tutor brought up a concept of “finding your calling” in life; that is, uncovering one’s likes or dislikes through experiences in the workforce. This, she believes, should aid students in making the right choice as to whether a generalised JC or hands-on polytechnic education really allows for one to excel in his or her passions.

Mr Bernard Phee, a successful entrepreneur who set up his business with only a secondary school education, commented, “It takes hard work for anyone to reach the pinnacles of success.”

“Likewise, students shouldn’t think that there will be an ‘easier way out’ of the different routes we all have to choose at points in time.”

At the end of the day, there’s really no model answer to this conundrum. Working hard is, and will remain the mantra for that ticket to university.

Still not sure? Here’s a checklist for you

A Junior College education is preferably for students:

  • Who are unable to make a decision on what they want to do subsequently in life, BUT
  • Who are mentally prepared to be determined to consistently work hard – The JC curriculum is often a crammed one with little room for breaks
  • Who are eventually targeting for a place in University – The ‘A’ Level certificate will not get you anywhere in the workforce!
  • Who prefer the familiarity of a proper and closer-knit classroom environment – i.e. Having classmates who will be in the same class as you for lectures and tutorials throughout
  • With better academic abilities – i.e. Better at understanding and applying theories into school assignments and projects
  • With time constraints – A JC education is relatively shorter, being at two years as compared to three years in Polytechnic
  • With financial constraints – School fees in most JCs, with the exception of independent ones like Hwa Chong Institution and Raffles Institution JC, are subsidised by the government (about $10-20 per month)

On the other hand, a Polytechnic education may be better for students:

  • Who are very clear as to what work they would like to get into later in life – i.e. Journalism, Engineering, Business, Design, etc.
  • Who prefer a more relaxed environment with ample time for breaks in between semesters (about two months), BUT
  • Who can be independent enough to motivate oneself to study, AND
  • Who have more time to spare (Singaporean males, remember there’s still two years of National Service after that!)
  • Who prefer a more practical/hands-on approach to learning
  • Who are looking to enter the workforce quickly – The diploma is a considered a decent qualification for entering the workforce
  • Who are more financial equipped to handle the costs of a Polytechnic education – School fees, even after subsidises for locals can still range from $1,000 to $1,500 per semester. That is exclusive of printing costs for notes and assignments, and also that of a laptop, often made a mandatory item that students must purchase