Not another badge to collect: CCA transcripts should not become another rat race

17 Apr 2023

Straits Times, 17 Apr 2023, Not another badge to collect: CCA transcripts should not become another rat race
Speak to second-year National University of Singapore (NUS) student Stanley Mak about his school life, and he sounds busier than some working adults.
On top of classes, the 23-year-old information systems undergraduate is in three co-curricular activities (CCAs). He holds a leadership position in NUS Entrepreneurship Society, is partnership director in NUS Students’ Computing Club, and is a Web designer in NUS Fintech Society.
His schedule is packed – in August, he will head to Norway for a six-month NUS Overseas College programme to learn more about entrepreneurship, followed by Sweden for another six months from January 2024 for a student exchange stint.
His plan is to take a leave of absence for one semester, with the intention of completing three internships by the time he graduates.
Students as active as Mr Mak in programmes outside the classroom will likely benefit from a transcript recording their co-curricular involvement and skills learnt, apart from the traditional graduation transcript with their academic results.
The Singapore Management University (SMU) announced on April 6 that it would introduce such a transcript for its students, starting with the graduating cohort in 2025. It would indicate the extent to which graduates demonstrate various goals, such as intellectual and creative skills, interpersonal skills and global citizenship.
Students who show strong growth in these areas will earn digital badges showcasing their achievements, which can be used on their social media platforms – for example, in their LinkedIn profiles.
Since its pioneer cohort in 2015, the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) has had a similar initiative: Its graduates receive a transcript detailing their Fifth Row participation, which refers to CCAs.
To recognise their efforts, based on their leadership and CCA involvement, SUTD graduates whose cumulative grade point average (GPA) is within a certain range of the next class of honours, can have their class of honours upgraded.
Going beyond book-smarts
Introducing the new transcript during its launch, SMU president Lily Kong said its intent was to guide students in deepening and documenting their learning beyond the classroom and help them articulate personal growth.
“Oftentimes, the really valuable lessons in life take place outside of the classroom,” she said.
Education Minister Chan Chun Sing said at the event: “It also emphasises to students the range of life skills and qualities needed to succeed in the future, beyond academic grades. It signals to future employers the diversity of experiences and exposures our students have gone through that will add to their ability to learn and evolve at speed to be prepared for the future.”
SMU said feedback collected from more than 200 second-year students in 2022 showed that most of them – 97.5 per cent – were of the view that a formal record documenting their co-curricular involvement should be issued by the university upon graduation.
Second-year computing and information systems student Andrew Ng, 24, said he has learnt several skills in his role as president of SMU Caderas Latinas, a salsa dance club.
“I work with my members, dance instructors, choreographers. I work with my executive committee, school management, and I interact with a lot of the external community in the dance scene as well,” he said.
“It’s a new experience for me managing different perspectives and needs, and I also gain deeper empathy for different people and learn to be more flexible in my working style,” he said.
While the idea of an official CCA record may seem a little daunting, he said it is an opportunity to tell another side of the story for students and show their potential.
Mr Mak said he learnt more about himself through his out-of-classroom experiences, where there is more room for trial and error in a natural environment.
“I pick up a mix of technical and soft skills, like leadership and people management, communication and public speaking, as well as professional networking skills,” he said.
Ms Vanessa Teo, a senior human resource leader in the healthcare industry, said: “It enables employers like ourselves to be able to see a student’s performance beyond the academic perspective.
“Oftentimes, when we meet with students, we’re always asking about what they’ve done beyond school, in terms of CCAs.”
Increasingly, employers are looking for job candidates with skills to collaborate across diverse teams and borders, as well as the ability to learn quickly and deal with situations that may be difficult or ambiguous, she added.
Ms Melissa Aratani Kwee, chief catalyst and former chief executive of the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre, said having knowledge of such skills on students’ transcripts would be helpful for employers screening thousands of applicants.
“The academic transcript is one-dimensional and doesn’t say very much... Employers can also use the co-curricular transcript to have deeper conversations with job applicants.”
Another rat race?
But the introduction of this transcript raises many questions, going by online sentiments and comments. Does it inadvertently create another source of pressure for students, who may feel they have to “perform” not just in their studies but in non-academic areas too?
Would students feel compelled to take up more CCAs for the sake of it, rather than doing so because of genuine interest?
How would students be evaluated? Would the assessment be subjected to certain biases, like perhaps favouring extroverts who may be more comfortable in a group or public setting?
These thoughts were also on the minds of the panellists at SMU’s launch, like Ms Kwee and SMU chairman Piyush Gupta, who is also chief executive of DBS.
“Making co-curriculars an integral part of the holistic education system is the right way to go... But my one hope is that we don’t get anal with the process, in measuring things that cannot be intrinsically measured,” said Mr Gupta.
“We need to get the balance right. A transcript (like this) is good... but let’s not overdo it.”
Mr Mak said: “It would definitely benefit students who are active in many things but if I were to put myself in the shoes of someone who prefers a more comfortable university life, it wouldn’t be good.
“Giving out such a transcript can add pressure for students to ‘chiong’ (Hokkien for ‘rush’) for CCAs and have better portfolios.”
It is getting increasingly competitive among undergraduates to secure internships, he added, especially among his peers in the computing faculty.
In addition, more students are creating profiles on networking platform LinkedIn or setting up personal websites to showcase their skills, positions and achievements, and connect with potential employers.
“In the past, LinkedIn wasn’t as prominent but nowadays, we’re encouraged to set up accounts as employers start to look at other aspects of job applicants beyond grades and may use LinkedIn in their hiring process,” said Mr Mak, who recently secured an internship in an automation company through connections on LinkedIn.
“There are times I do wonder why I’m so busy, and even my parents ask me to relax a little bit, but I do find meaning in the things I’m involved in and I like the hustle,” he added.
Ms Teo said she would encourage employers to use the co-curricular transcript as another data point to assess applicants, rather than delve into every single activity or subject that a student has done.
“I’m not looking for excellence necessarily in every single aspect, but I’m looking to evaluate you as a full individual,” she said.
Objectively speaking, there is no right or wrong when it comes to having a CCA transcript or not. Students are also free to join any number of activities and programmes they want to, regardless of whether there is a transcript.
If one accepts that a university education is much more than book-smarts and chasing the perfect GPA, then it is encouraging that undergraduates are finding their interests and strengths in different ways, amid a larger discussion about broadening Singapore’s definition of meritocracy and recognising multiple pathways of success.
Hence the move to recognise their efforts more broadly is on the right track.
But the bigger question is how to ensure that co-curricular participation does not unintentionally become a parallel racetrack for students, who may feel like they have to pursue these activities just to build the ideal professional brand or portfolio.
This would defeat the purpose of moving away from the overemphasis on academics, and simply replace this fixation with another one.
It would be more beneficial if students truly enjoy what they do, and focus on learning about themselves as well as the intangible skills and qualities they pick up through CCAs – even if there is no report card to show for it.