When SMU first kick-started her undergraduate programs, she deservingly received her fair share of plaudits from many quarters. Taking the academic circle in Singapore by storm, even our NUS lecturers started comparing NUS students to SMU’s to the extent of chiding the NUS ones as unresponsive during lectures as compared to our SMU peers. Other praises such as “SMU students exude more confidence than NUS students” or “SMU students are more articulate than NUS students” followed. Debates regarding the superiority of one institution over another has always been interesting, and I was tempted to jump into the bandwagon. Although one naturally relies on anecdotal evidences in comparing institutions, objectivity in evaluation is still the key. Thus, I am more interested in comparing NUS to SMU in different areas, albeit objectively.
Undergraduate responsiveness during lectures: SMU’s mode of teaching is seminar-style. A seminar-style of lesson delivery is somewhere between a lecture and tutorial, albeit with a small class size. Seminar-style of teaching actually encourages a great deal of teacher-student interaction. The students will definitely benefit from close attention by the lecturer. There is no reason to doubt that seminar-style teaching encourages responsiveness from students. Furthermore, it is known that participation in class discussion forms part of the student’s continual assessment in SMU. It is of no surprise that SMU students are naturally responsive during lessons. How about NUS students? The mode of teaching is traditional, with large group lectures followed by small group tutorials. The question is – are NUS students less responsive? The answer is uncertain. There are seminar-style modules offered in the NUS, especially those offered by the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and the University Scholars Program (USP). I am a USP alumni and have sat in an FASS seminar for a philosophy module. I observed that the students were very responsive, which reinforces my aforesaid point about seminar-style teaching encouraging teacher-student interaction. It is totally different in a large lecture theatre. Stopping a lecturer and questioning him especially in a large lecture group is uncommon and this can be attributed to shyness. Imagine 200 or more pairs of eyes staring in your direction should you decide to speak up. Some remain unfazed, while most will shy away. Perhaps, one should also define the word “responsiveness”. Students can be considered responsive if they approach the lecturer after lesson to speak their mind, or send an email discussing certain aspects of the lesson. I belong to the category of students who speak up, not during lecture, but after.
The question is – are NUS students less responsive? The answer is uncertain. There are seminar-style modules offered in the NUS, especially those offered by the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and the University Scholars Program (USP).
Preparation for working life beyond school: SMU modules require a substantial amount of presentation work to be done. This allows students to master invaluable presentation skills that will serve them well in their working life. Most of the NUS modules do not have a presentation component, and thus, NUS lacks behind SMU in this aspect. However, presentation skills is not the be-all and end-all of working life. A broad-based education is equally important, and this is where NUS holds the aces over SMU. SMU does not have the traditional engineering, medical and science faculties unlike NUS. NUS requires its students to read General Elective Modules (GEM), with the exception of law and medical students (Law students may apply to read non-law modules). GEMs strive to provide students with a broad-based education. An economics major may take a biotechnology GEM, which may prove useful if he/she lands a job in a biotech firm. USP is another program which is modelled after the liberal arts colleges in the United States. Liberal arts graduates are considered attractive to employers because the former can easily adapt in an ever-changing workforce with his/her transferable skills. A broad-based education will also come in useful in research-based jobs. There are instances whereby multiple disciplines are required in order to do a piece of research. A math graduate may find his virology lessons useful when he attempts to create a mathematical model that simulates viral transmission if he is working in a healthcare setting.
Academic culture: SMU is not as research-intensive as NUS because it has yet to develop a university-wide Ph.D. program. Even with a university-wide Ph.D. program, NUS still holds an advantage due to her additional faculties. After all, research can involve multiple disciplines. It will be an easier task for NUS to develop expertise in a fusion field such as bioeconomics by drawing on the resources of the economics and life sciences departments as compared to SMU.
Recognition of degrees in admissions to graduate programs: An NUS degree is recognized worldwide, and graduates have been successful in their admission to various graduate programs. As far as the recognition of SMU degree by overseas institutions is concerned, I reserve my judgement because this depends on the perception of graduate programs admisisons committees.
Alumni achievement: NUS obviously has the upper hand due to her long history. However, SMU has graduated her first few batches of students and will have her fair share of high-flying alumni.