Academic Meritocracy and Medical School Admissions

Recently there has been some disquiet about the NUS Faculty of Medicine (sorry, this YLLSOM thingy never quite jelled with an old coot like me. My degree is from Faculty of Medicine, not some guy who gave a lot of money to NUS) accepting students from ‘less than the best academic’ records and more varied sources (read: not just RI and HCI).

A certain Anthony C.H. Leong wrote in The Straits Times (23 July 2019), “What is wrong with the meritocratic old ways of judging by the quality of the candidate’s academic results, further refined through an interview? We tell our children to work hard academically to get the relevant results for the course they wish to pursue in university, only for them to be denied a place by some populist policy. Their parents will have to cough up a fortune to send them overseas. I don’t think those who are unfairly rejected, especially those who do not have the means to go overseas to study, would think very kindly about their country and its professed meritocracy”.

There are quite a few points raised in this quote that needs addressing. First, we need to understand what is the purpose of a medical school, especially a state-funded medical school. The purpose of the NUS Faculty of Medicine or YLLSOM (OK lah, he did give a lot of money to get his name on this school) is to produce the better doctor, or the best doctors it could to serve Singapore. This hobbit emphasises “to serve Singapore” because YLLSOM is largely state-funded (i.e. by taxpayers). To serve Singapore may be of secondary importance if it was privately funded, but it is not.

The primary purpose of YLLSOM is not to fulfil someone’s aspiration to be a doctor, although the individual’s aspiration and the YLLSOM’s primary purpose are not in conflict with each other, philosophically speaking. This may sound somewhat brutal, but that’s  the hard truth. They only come into conflict because of the scarcity of resources – the number of places YLLSOM can take, with the limited resources it has (funding, manpower, space etc), versus the number of people who want to become doctors.

Second, a primer on meritocracy. The word meritocracy comes from the word ‘merit’ obviously. Meritocracy is about putting people in power and/or privilege due to the ability they have, and not due to other factors, such as wealth or social position/inherited titles. We seldom say it, but the people rewarded in a meritocracy, by a meritocracy, are actually the “meritorious” (deserving of merit).

The Cambridge Dictionary describes meritocracy as a “social system, society, or organisation in which people get success or power because of abilities, not because of their money or social position”.

The next point about a meritocracy is that there are many forms and notions about meritocracy. What Mr Anthony Leong has described is academic meritocracy. This concept of meritocracy is widely held by large swathes of society, no thanks  to cultural or even governmental norms. But it is not the only form of meritocracy. For example, when we reward athletes for their performance in competitive sports or highlight citizens for acts of kindness, service to community, valour, or moral fortitude, these are, in a way, also forms of meritocracy, but the norms are different. A National Day Award from the government, such as the Public Service Star, is based on non-academic norms of meritocracy. A person who swims the fastest 100m butterfly in an Olympic Game gets the gold medal and is given S1M. The world and Singapore society have decided that he is “meritorious” and hence deserving of the medal and cash award. But it is another form of meritocracy that is not academic meritocracy. Academic meritocracy is simply a form or meritocracy based on academic ability and performance.

Dynastic and feudal China since  the Sui Dynasty in 6th century AD practised academic meritocracy through the imperial exams. People who excelled in these exams were put in positions of power as officials of the imperial court. Sometimes, the Emperor himself witnessed the final round of these exams himself and marked some of the scripts! Surely this is sponsorship and belief in academic meritocracy of the highest order! Yet one of the main reasons China faded as a superpower in the Qing Dynasty is that it clung to outdated norms of academic meritocracy. People were rewarded and appointed because they excelled in the Classics and Confucian Texts and not on Science and Maths. The world (especially Europe) moved on while China was stuck in backward feudalism. So even as we support and uphold meritocracy, we need to examine and revisit what are the norms of society so that the form and substance of meritocracy remains relevant to the needs of society. Academic meritocracy is no exception.

Back to YLLSOM. As aforesaid, its main aim is to produce the best doctors that it could to serve Singapore. Academic meritocracy is nothing more than an allocative tool to achieve this main aim. Academic meritocracy is not an end in itself.

There are several ways to look at what YLLSOM is trying to achieve by moving slightly away from pure academic criteria for admission into its ranks. First, it is an admission that academic performance is NOT the only meritocratic norm for admission.

Secondly, the correlation between a good doctor and outstanding A level academic performance is not that strong. It is true that you need to have above average academic performance to survive the rigours of medical education. But is a straight As at H2 with three H3 paper distinctions student more likely to make a good doctor than a student with 4As at H2 with no H3 papers? Or will the student with 2A and 1B at H2 necessarily make a worse doctor than a student with straight As at H2 level? The answer is obviously “no” to these questions. Beyond attaining a minimal level of academic achievement necessary to suggest the student has the ability to complete his MBBS, academic performance at A levels does not predict or correlate with his eventual performance as a doctor.

Thirdly, by admitting people from different backgrounds, YLLSOM is perhaps admitting that it is important to have diversity in the medical profession. We need brilliant people to be the next professors of medicine and make scientific breakthroughs. We also need less brilliant (but still intelligent-enough) people to be  the doctors serving patients in the community. Both are equally important, and everyone else in between.

Diversity also prevents groupthink. The risk and downside of groupthink is very real, whether in the medical profession of any organisation. Just look at the Hong Kong government now and the unrest in its society. It is probably a result of groupthink in its highest ranks that prevented them from seeing the grave repercussions that have arisen from trying to push through the now infamous Extradition Bill.

Actually, the policy of choosing people not just based on the best academic performance for Medicine is not new. It is just expressed in a different form. Those of us who entered NUS Medical School in the eighties will remember that the government then had a policy of deliberately trying to shunt the best students to other fields such as Engineering or the Arts because it felt it needed the best academic talent not to be concentrated just in Medicine. There was apparently a PSC officer at the medicine admission interviews (sitting at the extreme left or right of the panel of interviewers) who would offer you “a deal” of sorts – would you want to consider a teaching scholarship? Or a PSC scholarship to Cambridge to read Maths? We never knew whether these offers were real or not, but we were all advised by our seniors to say “no” to show our resolve to become doctors. I know of quite a few people with A level “perfect scores” who did not get into medicine. And while there was no evidence to prove so, people with less than perfect scores seemed to have a better chance of getting into Medicine in the eighties.

In summary, this hobbit thinks:

  • The job of YLLSOM is not to give out places as awards or rewards for academic excellence under the framework of academic meritocracy. It’s main job as a publicly funded medical school is to produce the best doctors it could for Singapore.
  • Academic meritocracy, which is meritocracy based on academic ability, is not the only form of meritocracy. Academic meritocracy is often used as an allocative tool, but it is not an end in itself.
  • The norms of meritocracy are as important as meritocracy itself. The norms determine who is meritorious, and these norms have to be examined and revisited from time to time so that meritocracy remains relevant to the needs of society.
  • Beyond attaining a required level of academic performance that suggests the person can withstand the future rigours of a medical education, there is little correlation between actual performance as a doctor and his A level results.
  • Diversity in a medical school cohort is important, because each cohort has to fulfil different roles in society. Diversity also prevents groupthink.

 

One thought on “Academic Meritocracy and Medical School Admissions

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s