Should scholarships for students be solely based on academic merit?

            Education is a great social leveller – it can empower people who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, by giving them the knowledge and skills that allow them to rise up the social ladder. To equalise opportunities, governments, private institutions and educational institutions provide scholarships, aimed at providing financial support or employment opportunities to stellar students, so as to attract top talents to work for them after they graduate. Examples of these include the Public Service Commission Scholarship (PSCS) and the A* Star Research Scholarship in Singapore, both of which fund students to attend tertiary institutions with heavily subsidised fees, then bonds them to working in the company or institution for a period of time, from five to ten years. However, it is not definitive that those who deserve these scholarships the most are always the students that boast the best results in their examinations. The alternative would thus be to pass students through a selection process, including phases such as an interview and character evaluation on top of academic evaluation. This would mean that selected scholarship holds not only meet a certain academic criteria, but also show possess other traits that would help them in the future, depending on the nature of the scholarship they receive.
Scholarships, first and foremost, should be handed to those who best fit the culture and requirements of the organisation. Although some would argue that academic grades are a good barometer by virtue of its universality, there is more to a job than just being able to regurgitate information. The information we obtain through our education serves to set the foundation for the future, but it quickly becomes obsolete in this day and age where changes are frantic and unexpected. To overcome this, companies seek talents that can adapt to changes, and meet the industry’s future needs to keep it competitive. In order to decide the best man for the job, it would be in the interest of the corporation to look at the extra-curricular activities and achievements of the student, because they potentially point at the personality of the person. For instance, the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) probably would not want to award its scholarship to a student who excels at literature, even if he had won the Angus Ross. On the other hand, the PSC committee would be looking out for students that have shown to be involved in community work and leadership roles. Ultimately, the future scholar not only has to excel academically, he must also be able to fit the culture of his future workplace in terms of his character traits and his individual interests.
Beyond finding the best fit for the company’s culture and nature, scholars should also possess other traits such as the awareness of the people around them and their interests. Judging by academic grades would result in a pool of potentially arrogant, narcissistic individuals who cannot be bothered about the interests of his employees, but rather only seeks practical results. Recognising that many of these scholarship holders are granted high positions in the corporations because they have already been identified as individuals with potential, these high achievers must be able to take responsibility for the people working under his instruction. With great power, comes great responsibility – those who have great power must also bear the responsibility of caring for the needs of those who work for him. There must be an agreement between the employer and the employee that the employee gives up some degree of his right over his own actions in exchange for the trust that his or her employer will consider their needs. For this to happen, scholarships should also look at the capability of the candidates to become leaders that are aware of others’ needs beyond just their personal desires. For instance, scholarships should look at the willingness of students to be involved in the community and get to know the needs of the community better, plausibly represented by the number of Community Involvement Project (CIP) hours the student has obtained. By looking at a multitude of factors other than just the student’s academic results, we are better able to pinpoint students that are better-rounded and better suited to make decisions for the organisation in the future.
Some would argue that it is more effective to give the best examination performers a good position, so that they can implement the best changes. Despite this seemingly intuitive argument, it does not consider the question of who best makes use of that opportunity. Even if we assume that those with greater potential do the best in examinations, these people may not necessarily have the moral integrity to make decisions in the best interests of the people if they were to be given the opportunity to do so. Clearly, we need to consider the values of those that receive these opportunities – as C. S. Lewis proclaimed, “education without values, as useful as it is, seems, rather to make Man a more clever devil.” When systems like the Gifted Education Programme (GEP) of Singapore singles out those with greater intellect, it does nothing to change the personalities and the moral systems of these intellectuals. If the people we funnel opportunities and top positions do not have the sense of responsibility required to make decisions that do not only bring personal benefit, then we would end up with industry leaders that stand upon their ivory towers, making decisions that could potentially harm others. For example, Jonathan Wong, a student with a stellar academic record, was awarded a scholarship in education, despite his poor social track record. In the end, he was even found to have illegally downloaded child pornography – those who lack morals like him clearly do not deserve such a good opportunity. On the contrary to this, scholarships can represent great opportunities if we consider the fact that those who really have the conviction to improve others’ lives. When such morally upright individuals are given exposure, they are more likely to use their understanding of the situation to implement positive change. Therefore, scholarships given solely based on academic merit turn a blind eye to arguably as important, if not more important criteria, such as the individuals’ principles and values that can bring about better change.

The capability of a student is multi-faceted – not only is it important for students to score decently well on their tests, they must have the moral courage and social awareness to act beyond their own interests. Scholarships today hold a whole new world of opportunities for those who are more disadvantaged, and would never have had the chance to let their ideals impact the rest of the world for the better. Giving top scorers all of these scholarship opportunities would not achieve this, not only because such high achievers may not necessarily be the best fit for the organisation, but also because they may not have the needs of the people at heart when they make certain decisions. Ultimately, scholarships must not only consider one’s ability to score in a test, but also his passion for work, his moral code by which he works, and also the potential he holds. 


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Hi guys, I'm a student in Singapore, and this are some thoughts and essays I have written over the years.