Yale-NUS Latin Honours: A Source of Distinction or Discrimination?
story | Dion Ho, Senior Writer; Wong Shiying, Contributing Reporter
cover photo | Yale-NUS College Facebook Page
photo | Dion Ho, Senior Writer
Ed: A previous version of this article did not reflect the fact that NUS Law uses both a CAP cutoff and a percentage cutoff, such that a student who attains a CAP of 4.50 or is in the top 10% of their cohort will attain Honors with Highest Distinction. The same holds for all lower tiers of honours. This article has since been corrected.
Disclaimer: Due to the sensitivity of this topic, The Octant has granted anonymity to all the Yale-NUS graduates we interviewed.
A few Yale-NUS College graduates have received a significantly lower starting salary compared to graduates from other local universities. They said that this is mostly due to Yale-NUS’ Latin Honours system.
The Octant interviewed three such graduates from the Classes of 2017 and 2018. These graduates currently work in the Singaporean civil service or in organizations which are closely related to the Singapore government (quasi-government organizations). Graduates working in private companies did not face the same problems.
At the heart of these graduates’ concerns is the mapping of Latin Honours. From what The Octant understands, affected graduates had their Latin Honours mapped onto the British Honours, which is used by most other local universities, including the National University of Singapore (NUS). Singapore Management University’s (SMU’s) system, while called Latin Honours, uses a fixed GPA-cutoff similar to NUS.
The British Honours system uses a fixed Cumulative Average Point (CAP) cutoff, where Honours with Highest Distinction requires a CAP of at least 4.50; with this CAP cutoff decreasing by 0.50 for every lower tier of Honours thereafter.
The Yale-NUS Latin Honours system, however, is three-tiered with a percentage cutoff. The top 5% of a graduating class will receive summa cum laude, the next 10% magna cum laude, and the next 20%, cum laude.
The Octant understands that some organizations map summa cum laude to Honours with Highest Distinction (First-Class Honours), magna cum laude to Honours with Distinction (Second-Upper Honours), and cum laude to Honours with Merit (Second-Lower Honours). Yale-NUS graduates who attained no Latin Honours are considered equivalent to (Third-Class) Honour graduates.
The implication is that graduates with a 4.50 CAP are guaranteed Honours with Highest Distinction in NUS, whereas the same CAP would not guarantee the highest (or even any) level of Latin Honours in Yale-NUS as it is dependent on the performance of their peers.
The Octant could not obtain the CAP cutoff for the Classes of 2017 and 2018, as the information is classified. Nonetheless, anecdotal evidence from interviewees placed the CAP cutoff for summa cum laude, magna cum laude and cum laude to be 4.80, 4.60–4.70 and 4.50–4.60 respectively.
Of our three interviewees, two attained cum laude and one did not attain a Latin Honour. If they were NUS graduates following the British Honours system, their CAP could have attained them NUS’ first and second highest honours, respectively. Since the civil service and quasi-government organizations in Singapore commonly take Honour tiers into consideration when deciding on starting salary and rank, these graduates found that their Latin Honours put them at a disadvantage compared to students from other local universities.
On average, our interviewees estimated that they received $400 less in their starting salaries as a result. One graduate also received a lower starting position. The Octant attempted to corroborate their statements, but none of their organizations publicised clear information on how Honour tiers are taken into consideration.
On the other hand, The Octant also interviewed two graduates who are working in the private sector and they said that their Latin Honours did not affect their career.
The first interviewee graduated cum laude and currently works at a think tank. They said that their employer was more concerned with how their liberal arts education was relevant to the job.
“I don’t think they cared too much about my grades as there were applicants from other universities who graduated summa and magna cum laude, but were not hired in the end. It was much more important for me to demonstrate how my experience in various social sciences would make me more adept at my job,” the graduate said.
The other interviewee graduated summa cum laude and also said that the Latin Honours did not affect their career. “Most job interviews in my area of interest took place before graduation, and the Latin Honours had not been awarded at that time. With regard to salary and rank, I don’t think it is common practice for the private sector to award benefits based on honours,” the graduate said.
However, the graduate also said that they saw value in the Latin Honours as “a recognition of the effort put into academics through[out] their years in college.”
Yale-NUS Administration’s Response and Appeal Outcomes
In response to why Yale-NUS introduced a Latin Honours system despite the problems it may cause, President of Yale-NUS College Tan Tai Yong said, “We wanted a system where we can recognize the top performers of each class. We looked at various models [like] NUS’ model, but we wanted to be distinct from NUS, and that is why we did not use [the British Honour system].”
Mr. Tan said that a decision was made to emulate Yale University’s Latin Honours system, including their 35% cutoff for Latin Honours. He said that there was a concern that a lower cutoff would cause the remaining students to feel more left out. Moreover, Mr. Tan said that the school made a “compromise” to not have graduates’ Latin classification appear in their certificate; the Latin classification is only reflected in the transcript.
The Frequently Asked Questions for Latin Honours of the college website states that “while Latin Honours may not be as widespread in Singapore, it is well-known in the international education arena, used by such leading institutions […] and is recognized by employers worldwide.”
Mr. Tan said that even before the Class of 2017 graduated, the administration had reached out to the Public Service Division and various Human Resource managers regarding Yale-NUS’ Latin Honours.
He said that they accepted Yale-NUS’ Latin Honours and agreed to compare graduates based on CAP, though “there were still a handful who are not sure.” This “handful” mainly comprised civil service or quasi-government organizations, said Mr. Tan. “We never encountered problems with the private sector,” he added.
Mr. Tan acknowledged his awareness of five students from the Class of 2017 who faced problems. He said that he wrote in to their organizations to convince them to evaluate the graduates based on their CAP, and added that most discrepancies have been corrected.
However, he also said that “the success rate was not 100% because there is one organisation which remained very stubborn.” Mr. Tan said he had received three requests for intervention from the Class of 2018, of which one was resolved, one he received no further update from the student, and one is still ongoing.
“I don’t think [the Latin Honours system] is having an adverse impact on our graduates’ lives just going by numbers and going by the complaints I’m receiving,” said Mr. Tan.
Nonetheless, he also said that “if [graduates] feel like they have been discriminated in any way, come back to us, we’ll fight the battle for you […] we will escalate [the case if need be], I’m even prepared to go to the [relevant] minister.”
Our interviewees said that they were aware of Mr. Tan’s assurances, and of the school’s effort in reaching out to key stakeholders. This gave them the confidence to reach out to the school, and to Mr. Tan directly, for assistance. Despite that, our interviewees also expressed concerns with the school’s ability to assist them.
One interviewee from the Class of 2017 had their case partially addressed: even though their CAP was equivalent to that of a Honours with Distinction graduate, their pay-grade was originally pegged at Honours — two levels down. It was eventually raised a level after appeal. A second interviewee from the Class of 2018 said that their organization acknowledged the school’s arguments, but did not change their terms of pay.
The final interviewee from the Class of 2018 had their case fully resolved. “The school was very supportive,” they said. “Mr. Tan really helped me a lot.” Nonetheless, they also said that it was up to them to approach their employer, with the school mostly providing advice, and that the employer ultimately decides whether or not to acknowledge their honours.
The interviewee stated that there is a templated letter that the school sends out to employers to argue for adjustments to the graduate’s pay. However, the interviewee also said that “depending on whether or not the employers are receptive, [sending the letter] might be the only thing the school can do.”
Future of the Latin Honours system
“People are getting used to our Honours classification [as we have] more graduates out there,” said Mr. Tan. He said that the school will continue to gather more feedback with subsequent cohorts.
Nonetheless, two interviewees said it will be difficult for a small school like Yale-NUS to influence the Singapore Public Service to accommodate its Latin Honours system.
“If the situation continues, Yale-NUS may lose potential students, especially government scholarship holders or students who want to work in the government because things [may] become harder for them,” said one interviewee.
According to Director of Academic Affairs at Yale-NUS Navin Rajagobal, Yale-NUS is expected to review the Latin Honours system in Academic Year 2019/2020.