Mailbox: Will renaming honours degrees make a difference?

Mailbox: Will renaming honours degrees make a difference?
National University of Singapore (NUS) graduates celebrate during the balloon drop after NUS Commencement 2014

Five years after my retirement from teaching at the National University of Singapore, it is heartening to read about the proposed changes to the requirements for students to qualify for honours studies during their undergraduate course ("NUS lowers grade to let more students qualify for honours"; last Friday).

However, I question whether renaming the categories of honours degrees makes any difference to the true reflection of the students' achievements and potential.

I know of certain faculties that adhere to a strange practice of using statistics (more precisely, the Gaussian distribution) to classify students into different honours categories. No matter how well a student has performed in the honours examination, he risks being downgraded because "statistics" are used to decide that only a certain percentage of students are awarded First Class, Second Upper, Second Lower degrees and so on.

I remember an honours student who deserved a Second Upper degree but was downgraded despite my persistent protests.

He wanted to move on to a professional course of study but met with shut doors because of his Second Lower degree.

Finally, an overseas university accepted him and he went on to top his class almost every year and graduated to pursue a brilliant career.

This event and many other encounters of using this unfair and inappropriate application of statistics to downgrade students make me doubt whether a change of name to the honours degrees will make any difference to recognising the merits of deserving students.

Ho Ting Fei (Dr)

This article was published on July 31 in The Straits Times.

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