In my introductory class to sociology, I was told that back in the 1960s, one needed higher grades to pursue an Arts/Social Sciences degree than a Law degree. Law? LOL are you kidding me? It drew gasps all around. I had no way to verify it, but basic sociological reasoning informs me that grade requirements can easily change in response to larger economic demands.
The reason, as stated in the article, is the increasing demand for IT expertise. This I do not doubt, considering the number of job/internship offerings I’ve seen asking for such skills. More students with computing backgrounds will find it practical to pursue such degrees, thus driving the grades up. I personally find this a promising trend with much social value, though it’ll admittedly make entering the job market more challenging than I envisaged it to be.
Today, the (first) local news headline went: NUS computing courses on par with law, medicine and business studies. Within 3 years – not enough for most to graduate (and not counting the 2-year delay for guys) – the Indicative Grade Profile (IGP) has changed drastically. The 10th percentile profile (i.e. grades of 90th-ranked student of 100) has rose from BBC/C to AAA/A for 3 H2 and 1 H1 A-Level subjects. This is quite remarkable.
But the IGP profile is obviously dependent on another factor: intake size. How many students are admitted into the course? This varies year-on-year, but there must be faculty projections. The deliberations are likely complex and beyond me, but I will try. Why do some courses welcome BBB/B students, while some reject non-AAA/A students? And why not adjust the intakes so that the IGP profiles are more consistent?
One explanation is that courses like Law and Medicine require intense intellectual commitment. Hence it’s valid to use grades as a stringent preliminary indicator of readiness (alongside interviews, etc.). And using the 10th percentile profile, CCC/B can get you into the Nursing profession. But this logic is not consistent elsewhere. One needs AAA/C to do Business Admin in NUS, but only BBB/B to do Philosophy (part of FASS). With nothing against Business Admin students, who dares to say Philosophy is anything but intense?
Perhaps it’s down to the margin for vocational error. This would explain the less stringent requirements for Arts students, whose courseworks are most detached from vocational constraints, and (Social) Sciences students, whose errors are contained within the domain of their research, and do not (easily) threaten members of the public or larger institutions (e.g. companies, for Business). But this is still a stretch, not least because… of Computing. Considering the demand, will they accept more students, thus lowering the IGP to where it should be?
These are 2 basic hypotheses I came up with in the process of writing, so they should be perceived in that light. The purpose is to think more about the things shaping our views of the world. And IGP profiles, abstract as they may be, do have that power.
These letters affect us not only in a practical sense, of knowing what it takes to pursue a course we desire. They also contain symbolic value, as a form of social prestige. Parents aspiring for doctor or lawyer kids is a cliché, but still applies. Nursing is (mistakenly) regarded as a low-skilled job, not just by the government but also by members of public whose eyebrows may knit at the sight of male nurses.
Is there anything we can do about it?
Nothing much, really. We can’t just change the IGP outcomes, change the job market, or change the wages of different occupations. Universities will act at their discretions. Arts students must mostly submit to a more limited range of vocations. Nurses will get paid less than doctors.
What we can do is to question our own assumptions. When such news headlines pop up, how do we react? Do we thus judge a degree as offering more or less? On the practical side, we are bound to do so. Yet it’s erroneous to extrapolate it as judgments on the value of degrees and quality of students.As the idiom goes, 行行出状元 (or every trade has its master). In this case, every course has its master. You might ask, is every course worth mastering? Well, you’ll have to ask the people studying and teaching it, and not put them down before listening to them.
On my part, I thank Sociology for really deepening my interest in and understanding of society. Not just as an abstraction of external forces, but as very much intertwined with our private lives.