Sunday, September 02, 2007

A “Storm” Is Brewing In NUS…

Ok, I am clearly aware that to most of you all out there that the issue which I will be discussing later in this post will perhaps appear to be a trivial issue to you all, since it is an issue which concerns only NUS students and not a national issue e.g. the proposal to make it mandatory for Singaporeans to buy a lifetime annuity.

However, being a NUS student, I suppose I feel that I am in a way obliged to write about this issue which is, as far as I can see, becoming a rather controversial issue within the NUS student community.

And the issue I am referring to is the ongoing debate over the modification, proposed by the NUS Board of Undergraduate Studies (UGS), to the Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory (S/U) Option policy.

Brief background information about the existing S/U policy

For those of you all who are not from NUS and/or have graduated from it before the S/U policy was implemented, allow me to provide you all with some brief background information on the S/U policy.

Basically, the S/U option is an option which allows NUS students to, during the 6th week of a semester, to decide whether they would like to receive credit for a module which they are taking and which is outside of their faculty, major and/or minor requirements.

For modules graded on an S/U basis, students will receive credit towards the degree only if they attain a ‘Satisfactory’ (S) grade. An ‘S’ grade is assigned if a student receives a ‘C’ grade or above for the module. Conversely, students will receive an ‘U’ if the grade obtained is lower than a ‘C’ grade. The S/U option, once exercised, will be irrevocable for the module.

Also, students are only able to declare the S/U option for up to 12 modular credits i.e. 3 modules during their entire time studying at NUS.

And, if I am not wrong, the rationale behind the implementation of the S/U option is to pursue their intellectual interests, without undue concern that exploring a new subject area may affect adversely their Cumulative Average Point (CAP) [note: CAP is similar to the Grade Point Average, GPA, used in foreign universities and other local universities besides NUS].

Complaints about the existing S/U policy

On the surface, the S/U option policy may appear benevolent but, if I am not wrong, common complaints by NUS students about it are twofold.

One, having to decide whether to exercise the S/U option in the 6th week of a semester and with only one week to decide whether to do so, most students feel that they are somewhat “pressurised” into making a decision when they may still not be fully certain of their aptitude in the modules which they are allowed to exercise the S/U option [note: though lectures in NUS start from the first week of a semester, tutorials usually only start from the third and/or fourth week onwards while the results for most mid-term assessments and/or term assignments are only made known to students after recess week of a semester i.e. the week in which students have to decide whether they want to exercise their S/U option or not]. Thus, the situation is akin to making a stab in dim lighting, if not in the dark. In other words, one could exercise the S/U option, thinking that one would perform badly for a certain module but it could turn out that they excelled in that particular module, thus forfeiting the additional credit which that module could have added to his/her CAP, and vice versa.

Secondly, following from the complaint above, students have complaint that due to the fact that they are unable to know the actual grade of the modules which they have exercised the S/U option for, they are unable to know how well or poorly they have done for those modules and thus, they will not know whether they should continue to take up similar modules or to avoid them.

Controversial proposed modification

Moving on, recently, the NUS Board of UGS, in an effort to perhaps address the two abovementioned complaints of the existing S/U policy, have proposed the following modification to the S/U policy.

For those students who have matriculated in the Academic Year (AY) 2007-2008 and onwards (i.e. the current batch of freshmen and those entering NUS after them), they will be able to exercise their S/U option after the results are announced for any module that permits the S/U option. They will, however, not be allowed to do so for modules taken in their graduating semesters.

In contrast, for those students who matriculated earlier than AY2007-2008 (i.e. senior students), the existing S/U policy will continue to be in effect for them.

The main reason, as relayed in a mass email to the NUS student population through the NUS Students Union (NUSSU) which had a consultation session with the NUS Board of UGS regarding the change in S/U policy, why the Board decided to not extend the option of exercising the S/U option after results are out to the senior students is that they “felt that senior students who have already expended their S/U options may be at a disadvantage when compared to a student from the same cohort who may still have a chance to exercise his/her S/U”.

Criticism of the proposed modification

Expectedly, this proposed modification of the S/U policy has drawn much criticism from the senior students, especially those who have not used up their 3 chances of exercising the S/U option.

As many have pointed out in the internal forum set up by the NUSSU to gather feedback about the issue, it is most unfair, if not discriminatory, to not allow senior students in NUS to also be able to exercise their S/U option after results are out so as to be fair to those senior students whom have already used up their 3 chances of exercising their S/U option. This is akin, as one of those commenting in the abovementioned internal forum has put it, to not allowing those who are watching black & white TV sets to get colour TV sets so as to be fair to those whom have watched black & white TV sets but are no longer alive to get their hands on colour TV sets.

Also, there are those who find it quite presumptuous for the NUS Board of UGS to assume that senior students who have used up their chances of exercising their S/U option will object to extending the proposed modification to all students. Of course, in order to find out where senior students, especially those who have expended their S/U option, stand on the issue, the NUSSU has also created an internal survey for NUS students. I suppose it is the hope of NUSSU that a significant number of senior students who have expended their S/U option will, through the survey, express their non-objection to extending the proposed modification to all students and thus, aid the NUSSU in presenting their case to the NUS Board of UGS.

In addition, it has been pointed out that by allowing the new batch of freshmen (and those entering NUS after them) to exercise their S/U option after results are out while not allowing senior students to do so, senior students will be at a disadvantage when they take up modules which the new batch of freshmen (and those after them) also take up, considering that NUS practices a bell curve assessment system (which is, by the way, in effect for every NUS student, no matter which year they matriculated in).

Furthermore, from what I can observe from the postings in the forum, criticism is also directed at how this proposed modification is perhaps too “一刀切” (literal translation: “one knife cut”; best approximate translation I can come up with: “arbitrary”). This is in contrast with how the Government decided to adopt a staggered approach in their reduction of service term for NS servicemen, in that besides offering the full reduction in service term to only those enlisting for a particular batch and onwards, partial reductions were also made for those in earlier batches.

Suggestions have also been raised that instead of just allowing the new batch of freshmen (and those entering NUS after them) to exercise their S/U option after the results are out, the timeframe for senior students to decide whether they want to exercise their S/U option could be pushed back. This would allow the senior students to be more certain of their aptitude for modules which they can exercise their S/U option for before deciding whether to do so or not. In other words, if it is not possible to allow senior students to make stabs in perfect lighting, at least allow them to make stabs in better lighting.

Proper channels, Petition, Protest or Passivity?

Interestingly, from what I can observe from the many postings in the internal forum set up for this issue, it seems to me that NUS is indeed a microcosm of Singapore. I say this because in the discussion over how best to express the disapproval by the NUS student population of the proposed modification to the NUS Board of UGS, some alternatives have been raised which are rather similar to those used by Singaporeans when they disapprove of a governmental policy.

One alternative that has been suggested is to go through the proper channels i.e. reflect the disapproval of the student population through the NUSSU to the Board. Proponents of this alternative argues that since the NUSSU is, by right, the representative of the NUS student body and the bridge between the student body & the university administration, it will be much more proper and perhaps more effective for the student body to reflect their concerns about the proposed modification to the NUSSU which will then present these concerns as a systematic whole to the university administration.

In contrast, another alternative which has been suggested is that the student body should bypass the NUSSU, which is perceived by some as being rather ineffective in representing the student body in conflicts of interest with the university administration, and instead directly express their disapproval to the university administration through means of either a petition or a protest. Of course, in view of the unsuccessful “wear black” protest against tuition fees hike a few years back, doubt lingers over whether a petition and/or protest by the student body will really achieve any real effect.

And, lastly, though it was not explicitly discussed in the forum, I suppose there are many in the student body who are of the opinion that it is ultimately futile whatever the student body does to express their disapproval, the proposed modification will just still get implemented with token concessions and/or token assurances to be more consultative in the future being made by university administration. Thus, as the proponents of this rather fatalistic viewpoint would most probably argue, instead of wasting time over a policy which will get implemented anyway, NUS students should just concentrate on their own schoolwork and not be distracted by efforts which will most likely not succeed. As proponents of this stance would also argue, even if NUS students vote with their feet and leave NUS for other universities, there are countless numbers of prospective undergraduates who will gladly take their place.

My personal stance on what stance to take? Well, I, while I understand the sentiments behind those who espouse the “Passivity” stance, will not choose it as I feel that it is rather too fatalistic for my liking. I will prefer a combination of both the “Proper Channels” and “Petition” alternatives, as in I am of the opinion that it will perhaps be most effective for the NUS student population to express their concerns in a petition through the NUSSU (which is, despite its supposed flaws, still the rightful/de jure representative body of the NUS student population). As for the option of “Protest”, I think this dramatic option which has an uncertain rate of success should not be lightly taken and if taken, should be taken as last resort.


In the end, the university belongs to those who study in it. Thus, those studying in it should concern themselves with the affairs of the university. Even if it is true that nothing can be changed in the long run, at least efforts to make a difference were made.

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