By Sandra Davie, Senior Writer
TO ALL parents worrying whether their children will get a university place here, Professor Tan Chorh Chuan has this assurance: 'We are the National University of Singapore. Singaporeans will always come first.'
Professor Tan, 49, a renal-physician-turned-university-administrator who took over as NUS president this month, expects that with the economic downturn next year, more Singaporeans will be counting on a cheaper university education locally.
'NUS will continue to be fair and objective in admitting students,' he says. 'We don't write off those with borderline grades. As in previous years, we will relook their applications, call them in for an interview to see what else they have to offer.'
This year, the admissions office interviewed 3,700 local applicants. Over 1,000 had borderline grades and wanted to be considered under the discretionary scheme where their other achievements are taken into account.
'Interviews take up a huge amount of time and manpower resources, but we will continue this rigorous process,' he says.
'During the interviews, the panel members score candidates separately, so that one doesn't influence the other.
'Every student we admit we must be sure is deserving of a place over another.'
The hot button issue of university places going to foreigners surfaced earlier this year, with a surge in applications to the local universities from 53,853 last year to 58,606 this year. It provoked debate on whether Singapore should reserve its limited education resources for its own population. Of the 14,700 places at NUS, Singapore Management University (SMU) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU), one-fifth, or up to 2,940, of places went to foreign students.
During the interview at his Kent Ridge office, the soft-spoken Prof Tan, who studied medicine at NUS from 1977 to 1983, stresses: 'Singaporeans come first - first in admissions and first in financial aid'.
The admission bar is set way higher for foreigners.
'When accepting foreign students with international A-level qualifications, NUS demands no less than four As,' he says.
'Many of them are extremely bright and bring with them special talents and different cultural perspectives.'
He cites the examples of a third-year computer engineering student from Vietnam, Cao Thanh Tung, 22, an International Olympiad Informatics silver medallist, and New Zealander Alexandra Jeanne Tourmar, 20, who gave up two scholarships from the University of Auckland and Australian National University to study at NUS.
'They challenge their classmates with their different views and approaches. An important part of the NUS education is to develop students who are able to work with different people, across cultures.'
Having come from a modest family background - his bank-clerk father and housewife mother raised nine children in an HDB home - he says he is mindful of the financial pressures that families will face next year.
'NUS will not budge on its policy of helping every needy student,' he says.
Some years ago, when it was reported that 40 per cent of NUS bursaries went to foreign students, some alumni donors were critical. 'NUS must remember it is the National University of Singapore,' said one, online.
To that, Prof Tan says that local students' applications for financial help are always considered before those of foreigners. Singaporeans on the bursary scheme also receive up to 40 per cent more than foreign students.
In recent years, frustration over the shortage of local university places has led to calls from students and parents for more places to be made available.
But he maintains that rising aspirations of young Singaporeans cannot be met by simply increasing the number of university places.
'Universities cannot be expanded or new ones set up overnight. Not if they are going to be quality institutions that will provide a good university education.'
In some countries, expanding university places too quickly to meet demand has not resulted in high-paying jobs for graduates.
The key to a quality university, he says, is building a first-rate faculty. But it takes time to persuade top-notch professors to come here.
He brings up Professor Artur Ekert, 47, one of the world's leading authorities in quantum information science. NUS started courting the Oxford University professor in the late 1990s when it invited him to spend a few months a year at Kent Ridge as a visiting professor.
It was a coup for the university when he joined it in 2002. He has since drawn outstanding physicists from around the world to collaborate on research here.
What about complaints about the university admission system here being 'unforgivingly selective'? That was how one ST reader described it in a Forum Page letter, citing many who fail to win a place locally but are accepted by reputable universities overseas.
Prof Tan admits it is not a perfect system, but says the admission system is 'fairer' today in that it takes into account students' other qualities and achievements.
'It's not just based on a snapshot of a student - his A-level results.'
He recalls that when he applied for a seat in the NUS medical faculty in 1977, it was a shoo-in. His string of four As was all he needed. 'I don't remember having to go for an interview. Admission was then based solely on results.'
But today, broader criteria are applied to admit students to popular faculties like law and medicine, such as their achievements in sports, the arts or community service. This also applies to the discretionary admission scheme.
He says: 'We are not just looking for achievements but what they tell us about an individual. For someone to excel as a sportsman, you must have a certain level of motivation and ability to focus. We are looking for true passion, an interest in the community and people, and an ability to work with others.'
He is aware that many students do community service just to embellish their co-curricular activities record.
But that is where the interview comes in.
'If a student hoping to study medicine comes in quoting the number of hours he put in helping out at a hospice, we may ask him to name a patient he remembers, what he learnt from the patient, what he learnt about being a doctor,' explains Prof Tan, who was dean of medicine from 1997 to 2000.
'From the answers, you know if a student did the community service for the right reasons and gained something from it.'
But even those who set out to make their CVs look good may have benefited from the community service.
'They may realise that they do have an empathy for people,' he says. 'Or a student who had always wanted to study medicine may discover she is queasy at the sight of blood.'
Still, of the thousands who apply to enter NUS each year, there will be many who will not obtain a place in any course.
For them, Prof Tan has this piece of advice: 'There are many ways to discover where one's interests and aptitude lie and to reach that goal.'
NUS has numerous examples of postgraduate students who arrived via a different route, such as master of nursing student Yap Suk Foon, 35.
She started her nursing career at Alexandra Hospital and became interested in critical care nursing. To go into the field, she took up a diploma in nursing at Nanyang Polytechnic, followed by a Sydney University nursing degree at the Singapore Institute of Management and then back to NYP for an advanced diploma in critical care nursing, before enrolling in the masters programme at NUS.
He also points out the multiple pathways that the Education Ministry has created for students to advance.
For example, polytechnic graduates who want to pursue a specialised degree now have the option of going to top schools, such as Wheelock College (known for preschool education) and Newcastle University (for naval architecture), which have set up here to offer degree courses.
'With the new economy, education becomes a life-long process, where a person goes back to university to reskill and upgrade themselves constantly. A student may be better off going from poly to work, before coming to NUS for a degree.
'Parents and students must not think there is only one set route. There are many paths to the top.'
This article was first published in The Straits Times on 10 Dec, 2008.