Sunday, July 30, 2006

Meritocracy... just lip service?

I just had a very good time catching up with an ex-lecturer from University. Given that I had gone to university very late (at the age of 26), he was rather close to me in terms of age.

I found out I had topped my year in one of my subjects... but I never got the top prize.. which was awarded to the person who was 2nd.

I am shocked.

Let me give you the background.

I had graduated from the polytechnic and had worked for a few years before I had been accepted to enter the University. Everybody was surprised... they had told me not to raise my hopes. Anyway, I got in. But I had another problem. I had no money. So, I pulled some strings and got myself a small scholarship. Still... I had to work very hard to go through school; I sold insurance part time, did 2 sets of accounts, and taught tuition to 4-5 children. It was tough. Because of that, my grades suffered. But I was good in ONE subject... the only subject that got me an A+.

Now I found out that I did not receive the top prize for the subject...because I didn't do well in the OTHER subjects.

I'm not upset, but I wonder what would had happened had I received the award; the award that I rightfully deserved? Incidentally, the award for being the BEST in that particular subject was given to another who scored below me, but who was on the DEAN'S LIST. It's hard to be retrospective about this, but knowing myself , I reckon that I would have worked a lot harder than I did... I would have pushed myself more...


And all this talk about Singapore being a meritocratic society... had they bothered to look (which by principle, they needn't had done, because I WAS THE TOP STUDENT), they would have realized that I deserved it... because I had done it in spite of all this difficulty.

All this from a university that proclaims itself as world class...

It's sad, isn't it?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is actually quite common in tertiary institutions here (i'm not sure about overseas). they want the overall top student to look good, and it was unfortunate that you got in the way...

The reason why they don't release your exact exam scores etc is so that they can play around with your scores to fit their agenda.

I know, because i work in such a place.

12:24 pm  
Blogger Mr Wang Says So said...

This is most unfair!

12:51 pm  
Blogger PC said...

Yes. It is indeed unfair... When I wonder what the university could hope to achieve through this manipulation, all I can do is scratch my head...

All this leaves me wondering if there is an undercurrent of eliticism, where academics take care of their own (potential) academics...

The message this is sending is so wrong... Compare this with a speech by the Education Minister at an awards ceremony for Fajar Secondary School :

To all the 150 students and staff who will be receiving awards today, congratulations on your achievements. The award is not only a recognition of your personal achievement but also an encouragement to motivate your peers to strive for excellence.

For this reason, your school has chosen `Celebrating Excellence’ as the theme for today’s event. What is excellence? Excellence is not an outcome. Excellence is a mindset. It is a state of mind that motivates one to continuously strive to do better. It is a never ending urge to progress and a perpetual desire to surpass prior achievements. Singapore’s own history is a good demonstration of what excellence is about.

I think the "educators" need to realize that the awards are meant to motivate... and not just some tool to boast of the quality of the students that they have...

2:08 pm  
Anonymous Lau Min-tsek said...

I will play the devil's advocate here and suggest that it is not unreasonable for NUS to do so.

Their criteria may be a student with consistent work, or maybe an all rounder, or maybe they look at ECA or project work etc.
They are certainly entitled to use criteria other than points.

When I was in a Singapore school, I was consistently top in a certain subject, represented the school in competition etc etc etc until the final exam when I lost out to another student by less than 1 mark. The top student went to the other guy.

When I was in an overseas school, I lost out on points but I was recognised to be the top student at a particular subject. This time, the department felt that though I lost out on marks, I deserved something. They gave me a very nice citation complete with a nice certificate, which they need not have done under the rules.

Of course, I am just guessing what went on in your old school.

My main problem with your story is that if they are going to use some other criteria other than points to determine the prize winner, then they should have said so right from the beginning. Competition for top spot can be very fierce among students, so it is only fair to declare how the top student is to be determined.

I am also surprised that the exact score is not disclosed in NUS. Surely that lacks transparancy. And I am equally surprised that students don't protest at the scores being a secret. Surely they have an interest in having a transparent grading system.

6:24 pm  
Blogger BL said...

Hi PC,

We have heard your side of the story, but it is also important for the University u mentioned to say their side of the story. U mentioned that you top one subjects. What about the rest of the subjects? Did u get the highest marks as well? If so, I will agree that it's most unfair.

On another note, it really does not matter in the long term. It is often said that usually the top prize winners of their schools don't make it big, and it's usually the number two. The senior wranglers in Cambridge (number 1 in maths) rarely win the Fields medal. It's usually the number 2 and number 3 who did the greatest work. In business plan competitions, the winning team never made it big into the real world, and usually it's the 2nd, 3rd or even semi-finalist that made it to big companies in the end. The company which I went for a competition got second, because the judges were biased against what we do. We were pissed off when we were told of how the judges chose the first team. We all got drunk for that night and the next day, we got together and vowed to set up the company and made it to be the best in time to come. In the end, we did better than the company which won first, and even better, we raise the money to start a real business. In simple words, awards are like passing clouds.

You should use this incident to work harder and make a name for yourself to show that you are greater than the award itself. Then the people who did not want to give you the award, will ask themselves why they made this mistake.

Take care and hope that all are well.

8:18 pm  
Blogger PC said...

Hi all

Thanks for your comments... to tell you the truth, I'm not at all sad. I'm now 40, and it would be silly to be depressed over a S$500 I didn't receive some 14 years ago. I have done rather okay for myself, I think... do take a look through my other entries and you'll get a glimpse of my life.

The point of my entry was that I am surprised that the top prize of a particular subject is dependent on how you do in other subjects... I mean, isn't that the purpose of the Dean's List; a list of the top students in a particular faculty?

It's a bit strange to say that it is a top prize for a particular subject if it is not meant for one who displays the most competency in a particular subject. Note that assessment is not via ONE exam along, but taking into consideration the projects, the continual assessments and the final exam.

You will note that I have not named the institution, nor the subject. That's not really important. :o)

8:50 pm  
Blogger Mingde et al said...

I would think that this is also common in overseas tertiary institutions. I won an award once for top score in a subject although I have reasons to suspect that it is my score in another subject that secured the award. I can't be sure since we didn't get our paper back either.

I do think it is strange that the name of the award does not match the criteria but perhaps it is just that that is the most appropriate name. As long as the criteria is declared before evaluating the students, it's a fair game.

9:51 pm  
Blogger jun said...

there isn't really such a thing as a meritocratic society - anywhere in the world.
it just sounds nice to say meritocratic...
this exact same thing happened to me for my GCE A exams too. it doesn't happen only in varsity.
that is why, we never get any numbers (score) for our results but everything is in alphabets.

9:42 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If we were truly a meritocratic society, there would be no such thing as a glass ceiling for non-scholars in the civil service.

1:46 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well...a similar incident happened to me before, I was supposed to be rewarded as the top student of express stream back in secondary 3, only to have my name struck off at the last moment 'cos they told me I took higher chinese, so wasn't eligible for the award. The award went to a girl, whose mum happened to be the daughter of one of the teachers in the school. I was very pissed then, but I got 3rd in standard a year the overall list for the secondary 4 prelims, and the teacher's daughter wasn't on the list at all. I have proven that I am better than what they think, so do not be discouraged...keep fighting and one day your efforts will be recognised.

7:30 pm  

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