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The bumpy road to university

Jul 08,2019 - Last updated at Jul 08,2019

Last Saturday was a momentous day to many because on that day, the results of international standardised exams, e.g. AP, SAT and International Baccalaureate, came out.

There was a very tense moment at my house while my son searched the screen of his laptop for his results. My better half and I hid our apprehension by pretending to be busy doing something else, but our gaze was fixed on him as intently as his was fixed on the screen.

The moment passed like an eternity before his face lit up in a broad smile, which reassured us that he had received the grade he hoped for.

Which brings up the question of the competitiveness of admission to the world’s top universities. Even back in my days, people debated whether admission to university had become too competitive, but today it is becoming mission impossible.

Applicants are expected to achieve top marks in an overwhelming number of subjects as a base line, which qualifies them only to be considered. The admissions panel then expects more outstanding achievements, such as excellence in sports, music or community service.

Children are left no time to enjoy their childhood, which raises the risk of making them in adulthood, super-bright high-achievers who are not well balanced.

Competition can be a positive influence, but too much of it can be dehumanising. Already in some Asian countries, 10 or 11-year-old children commit suicide from the enormous stress of qualifying for a prestigious middle school. The alternative is for them to be relegated to the lower ranks for the rest of their lives.

Another issue is the cost of higher education. As far back as the eighties, students complained that, by the time they received their master’s degree, they had accumulated a debt that rivaled Mexico’s national debt, which was the byword at the time. Other students complained that their countries did not offer student loans at all.

This situation can also be described as a problem on the global level. It is becoming prohibitively expensive for students to travel abroad for their education. Naturally, one always has the option of studying at home, but this choice is not without its shortcomings.

For one thing, all the leading universities may be abroad. Moreover, students would lose the opportunity of exposure to, and interaction with fellow students of different cultures, backgrounds, nationalities, races and religions. This interaction is as enriching for all concerned as university education itself and it is what gives higher education the universal dimension.

How these dysfunctions will rectify themselves is a question for experts to address. All that can be stated with confidence now is that it would be unwise to let higher education become the prerogative of a tiny elite based on geography, wealth or even academic merit, which can also be affected by socioeconomic factors.

The privileged would complain, as they always do, that the high cost of educating everyone is prohibitive; but it is not, particularly when compared to the higher cost of ignorance.


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