Polytechnic or junior college? Few parents in the past would have favoured a polytechnic education for their children, but perceptions have changed.
“A few decades ago, JCs provided the sole entry route to local universities, but over time, that has begun to change quite a bit. We’ve seen local universities admit increasing numbers of poly graduates,” said Jason Tan, an associate professor at the National Institute of Education. “And we are seeing more and more students who have done well in the O-Levels deliberately choosing the polytechnic path instead.”
In 2015, one in three university students admitted was a polytechnic graduate.
Currently, it would not be unusual to find parents encouraging their teens to consider the polytechnic route. However, some students may be hesitant to do so, and one reason could be that they feel overwhelmed by the sheer variety of options available—230 courses were offered by the country’s five polytechnics this year. Several of these courses will be discontinued over the next two to three years, as they have been deemed overly specific, but it is still a lot to take in for a student who is unsure about his or her career interests.
To help teens keep an open mind about their polytechnic options, make time to attend the open house events together.
Together with your child, discuss the differences between a polytechnic and junior college education, and think about which might be more suited to your child.
“One key difference is the mode of learning. In JCs, there is more emphasis on understanding theoretical concepts while in polys, the emphasis is on building industry-relevant skills through applied learning,” wrote Nanyang Polytechnic principal Jeanne Liew in a Straits Times open letter. “As such, poly courses are oriented towards specific careers while JC ones tend to be more broad-based and academic.”
Another difference is in the depth of learning: junior college students study a few core subjects over their two-year course, while polytechnic students take five to seven modules per semester (or up to 14 modules per year) over a three-year period.
In terms of assessments, junior college students work towards the GCE A-Levels, whereas polytechnic students are given grades for each module, which count towards a cumulative grade point average.
One question to ask your child, suggests Liew, is whether your child prefers hands-on learning or a more academic approach towards learning. Another factor to consider is if your child already has a clear inclination about his or her career direction. A student who wishes to keep his or her career options open may prefer to opt for the junior college route instead.
How To Prepare For The Poly Open House
Help teens discover their strengths and interests. Ask your teens about their favourite subjects in school, and why they enjoy these subjects. Ask if there are other topics that they enjoy finding out more about, through books, articles, or documentaries. To help them think ahead, let them know what you and your loved ones do for a living, and see if they are interested to find out more about these careers.
A local resource that you can refer to is the MySkillsFuture website, where students have access to games, videos, and articles to help them explore different career pathways. The site also includes an industry landscape section, where students can find out how many professionals are currently employed in a local industry, what it contributes to the economy, and how the industry might be relevant in the future. To log in, you will need your teen’s IC number (user ID) as well as a password—available from your teen’s school or the MySkillsFuture helpdesk.
In addition, all secondary schools now have education and career counsellors assigned to them. These counsellors are not based in the schools, but instead, they are attached to several schools on a roving arrangement. If your teen needs further advice, enquire with your teen’s secondary school to make use of this service. (For more tips, read our article on career resources for kids and teens.)
Make a list of interesting polytechnic courses. Together with your teen, browse each polytechnic’s website to shortlist courses that might suit your teen. Nanyang Polytechnic principal Jeanne Liew recommends looking at “course clusters” to begin with:
“There are nine main clusters: engineering, built environment, maritime studies, health sciences, applied sciences, information and digital technologies, media and design, business management, and humanities… Think about which subjects you are passionate about and tend to do well in. For example, if you are very strong in mathematics and physics and you like making or fixing things, you may want to look at the engineering and built environment clusters… After identifying the relevant clusters, shortlist the courses of interest within the cluster.”
For each course, go beyond reading the module titles; read the module descriptions as well, and make a list of questions to find out more about the compulsory modules, or the modules that interest your teen most. Research the course lecturers as well—their LinkedIn profiles might be helpful.
Be sure to sign up for the relevant guided tours and course seminars with your teen, as this will give you both a chance to pose questions to the course coordinators and lecturers.
Talk to alumni. It’s useful to talk to polytechnic alumni at various stages of their careers to find out if they felt their courses had real value out in the working world. You can also ask them about the educational path that they took after graduating from the polytechnic.
For instance, a mother and editorial professional in her 40s says that while her polytechnic communications course provided some of her “happiest school memories” as well as a taster of media jobs, it was her MA in literature that offered a much-needed perspective on writing with depth. Note that each individual’s experience will vary based on their personality and initiative to learn, so don’t let one negative account sway your decision.
If you don’t know anyone personally who can help, seek advice on our forum.
Ask questions at the Open House. Here’s a tried-and-tested Open House tip: Spend more time getting to know a school’s current students instead of the teaching staff. It is the students who will show you if a school’s environment and teaching methods have been conducive for learning and development.
Below are some questions that you can ask existing polytechnic students:
What does it take to do well in this course?
What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced in pursuing this course?
What challenges did you face in your first year?
What do you love most about this course?
What internship or development programmes are there for students, and are they open to all students or just a select few?
What is your daily schedule like?
Are you coping well with the deadlines?
Within the course, what are the most popular modules?
Who are the most popular lecturers, and why?
Are the lecturers easily available if you need support?
What are some of the projects that you’ve worked on?
What is the student culture like?
Discuss other possible questions with your teen as well—and be ready to open up and find out as much as you can during the Open House.