Friday, October 13, 2006

Worried about IPTS "Grading"

It seems that there are some university administrators out there who are worried about the impending "Grading" of the IPTS by the Ministry of Higher Education. Do you think their worries have any basis? Let's look at some of the responses in this opinion piece by NST reporter Chok Suat Ling.

Part of these worries stem from the fact that the Ministry has not been consistent in message to the private colleges. The NST piece has this to say:

In 2001, it was announced that institutions would be categorised under Grade A, B or C, depending on facilities and lecturers, among other things.

Two years later, the then minister said ratings would be given to IPTS courses from 2005, based on lecturers, curriculums and facilities, and courses would be categorised as "very competitive" and "competitive". This year, the ministry appears to have reverted to its 2001 position.

There was also confusion as to whether the ranking or grading system will be applied to public universities first or to the private colleges. From the same report:

Before this, he says, IPTS were told there would be a ranking, not grading.

"Late last year, the ministry said it was not ready for ranking but would have a rating instead. But the rating will start with the public institutions. Now, suddenly, there is a grading exercise, supposed to start with the private institutions."

The mixed messages being sent is part and parcel of the reality that Ministers in our political system frequently change portfolios. And when these changes occur, the policy direction of the Ministry can and usually will change as well.

While I think that there are good reasons for private colleges to be ranked or graded, I think that it is equally, if not more important, for our public universities to be graded or ranked (I would prefer a ranking system but as long as the method is transparent and the information available to the public, either would be a good start).

In my opinion, any collection and release of such data (faculty-student ratio, library resources, post graduation performance of students etc...) will help parents and students in making their decision as to which college to attend. I believe that such ranking or grading systems, if designed properly, can also help to spur competition among private colleges. I was quoted as saying the following in the same report:

Ong, who co-writes a popular blog on Malaysian education, says, however, that if implemented well, grading can help create more competition among private institutions of higher learning.

"Those in the C cateory will be forced to improve their infrastructure — both hardware and software. Those in the A category would also want to find ways of differentiating themselves from the other institutions in the same category.

"One of the by-products, hopefully, of such a grading report will be more information on student-teacher ratios, the percentage of lecturers with Masters or PhDs, the quality of the library and computer facilities, so that parents can make more informed choices."

Perhaps I'm too influenced by similar grading or ranking systems among secondary schools and junior colleges in Singapore. One of the good things I found in regards to the Singapore schools ranking system was that they separated schools into many categories. One would not be too surprised to find that schools such as Raffles Institution, Raffles Girls School, Chinese High and Dunman were consistently ranked among the top 5 secondary schools in Singapore.

But Singapore's Ministry of Education also recognized the fact that it was not fair to compare a Raffles Institution with a neighborhood school since the entry cohort for RI has a much higher PSLE (Singapore's equivalent of our UPSR) score compared to a neighborhood school. So they added new categories such as the 'value added' contribution of a school in addition to the raw O level scores. This means that neighbourhood schools which produced O level results which were, on average, better than what was expected of that cohort's entry level, were also recognized. This means that teachers and headmasters at these neighborhood schools also were incentivized to get the best out of their students, instead of pleading deference to the likes of RI and RGS.

This was more than 10 years ago. A quick check of the MOE website finds that they've moved on to more holistic ways of defining the 'success' of a school. From this MOE link, Singapore's MOE has made some recent changes in the way it ranks secondary schools:

A shift from ranking on exact academic scores, to banding schools with similar academic performance.

The expansion of the number of domains under which schools' achievements are recognised, so as to provide a broader picture of schools’ performance in various academic and non-academic domains. School Achievement Tables, which replace ranking lists, highlight schools’ achievements in terms of Academic Value-Add, Character Development, and Physical and Aesthetics Achievement.

The introduction of a web-based interactive system to allow parents and students to generate comparative lists of schools based on features they consider important – e.g. schools in a certain geographic vicinity, strength in the arts or sports. Detailed individual profiles for each school are also provided.

The economist in me says that more information is always better than less. Well thought out ways to interpret and present this information is even more important.

We're a long way behind the foresight and experience of Singapore's MOE. While there will be teething problems in the initial "grading" process of our private colleges, I think it is a necessary first step. In the same NST report, I was quoted as saying:

"The ministry, hopefully, will respond to the feedback, give clarifications and improve on its methodology. The ministry would do well to examine ranking systems used in the US and Britain and adopt best practices to suit the local context."

I think that Tok Pa will be open to suggestions as to how the grading system can be improved over time. Hopefully, the "grading" or "ranking" of our public universities is not too far behind. I wouldn't protest too much against the "grading" of our secondary schools as well but I think that would be asking too much at this point in time.


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Wha? Anonymous... Obviously, a college's performance won't be graded/ranked based solely on the fact that it has the most PhD holders.
In fact, HELP UC has a lot to work on... and this is coming from me - I'm a student there.

On to the post.. I'm fairly excited that there will be a grading/ranking system for both our public and private institutions. As you quoted Ong in your post, the competition created from this can help increase the quality of education and facilities provided by these colleges.

However, I also see a problem when it comes to private institutions. Considering it's more or less a business to some people... a ranking/grading system could push those that are within the top percentile to (possibly) capitalize on the given rank, and increase the education fees? It's possible, no? If that happens... I can see it will get harder for certain students (like myself) who can't get into public universities, and instead have to rely on enrolling in a private institution.

Anonymous said...

Instead of focussing on grading, the government just need to force schools to publish data to be judge by the public. The public wants to know firstly is 1) employability of graduates and starting salaries 2) Acceptance grades 3) Facilities etc. Nothing need to be secretive about but put a lot of pressure on the schools. If enough transparency is set, the public can judge for itself. Someone will actually step up and collate and organize the data that parents can buy to make their decision. No need for the government to do any grading and a waste of time because it can't be very good no matter how they do it.