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Private school shake-up spells good news

But as the quality of those remaining rises, it is time to look at including them in govt drive to lift skill sets

Singapore's private education industry, which in the past was beset by dodgy operators and poor quality, is now in the headlines for another reason: Enrolments by both local and foreign students are falling.

This is good news in terms of raising standards. However, it underlines another issue. Isn't it time that those private educators left standing have a more clearly defined role in the Government's drive to get Singaporeans to focus, not just on getting the right paper qualifications, but also deep skills and on-the-job experience?

The decline in enrolments has happened quickly. The number of locals enrolled in private commercial schools has tumbled from 100,000 three years ago to 77,000 now, The Straits Times reported last month. Foreign enrolments have fallen from 35,000 to 29,000. This is according to figures provided by the Council for Private Education (CPE) in its annual report last year and the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority, which issues student visas.

Some of the less viable operators are closing shop. Of the 312 registered private schools here at the start of the year, 10 have exited the industry so far, mostly voluntarily.

And several schools that had previously qualified for higher quality marks under a rating scheme set up by industry regulator CPE had slipped in standards and are now only making it to lower-level awards, revealed its chief executive, Mr Brandon Lee. So even more of them can be expected to exit the scene.


ST ILLUSTRATION: CHNG CHOON HIONG

In fact, I agree with one veteran private school operator who predicted that by 2020 - that is, in barely five years - no more than 50 private commercial schools will be left standing.

They are likely to be the big established ones, such as the global education arm of the Singapore Institute of Management (SIM), and those known for quality, such as James Cook University Singapore which, earlier this year, became the first private commercial school to win the EduTrust Star, the highest quality mark given to private schools by the CPE.

Private school officials attribute the drop in local enrolments to the increase in university places, especially at the Singapore Institute of Technology, which caters to polytechnic graduates.

And this number is expected to fall further as the Government has pledged to increase the yearly intake for the six universities from 15,000 now to 16,000 by 2020. That would mean up to 40 per cent of each age group will be able to study for a degree in local institutions.

The strong Singapore dollar has also made it less attractive for international students to come here. Another factor - fewer work opportunities for foreigners upon graduation.

This is the second shake-up the sector has undergone in the past five years. In 2011, new minimum standards regulations came into effect. Schools are subject to various checks, including that of their partners and qualifications of their lecturers, as well as their finances.

The number of schools dropped from more than 1,000 to the current 300. The clean-up followed scandals, including schools offering dud degrees or closing suddenly in mid-course.

JUST WHO ARE THE LOCAL STUDENTS?

The latest shake-up is not a bad thing as the schools left standing are likely to be of better quality and are more viable as businesses.

But considering the substantial number of local enrolments - 77,000 - the Government should do a study and look at who the Singaporeans attending these schools are.

What are their reasons for going the private education route?

It is important to study their backgrounds because, going by the private school students I have interacted with, many come from humble backgrounds and did not have the opportunity to go to a polytechnic or university.

I have advised quite a few on their choice of private schools or courses. Some base their choice on the fees and length of the course. They also pick courses without considering if that is where their strengths and interests lie. They would be better off being routed into the Government's Earn and Learn scheme, which allows Institute of Technical Education (ITE) and polytechnic graduates to work and further their qualifications at the same time. It would be a far better option than the sub-standard private schools some were considering.

However, there is a problem: Currently, the Earn and Learn scheme, launched under the SkillsFuture movement, is open only to those who hold ITE certificates or polytechnic diplomas.

As the SkillsFuture movement aims to help every Singaporean reach his fullest potential whatever his starting point, doesn't it make sense to open its schemes to private school students?

I have argued for this before, but it bears repeating: The Government needs to conduct a review of the private education industry and see how it can be roped into the SkillsFuture movement to encourage Singaporeans to build up job-relevant qualifications and skills.

INCLUDE EDUTRUST STAR SCHOOLS IN SKILLSFUTURE

The issue of uneven quality remains even though school numbers have shrunk and only 57 of the 300 or so remaining hold the higher-level, four-year EduTrust quality mark.

But one must also note that for the first time since the new quality marks for private schools were introduced in 2009, this year, two private schools - James Cook University Singapore and Lasalle College of the Arts - attained the EduTrust Star quality.

It is given to a school for excelling in all key areas of management and for providing quality education services.

Surely, this should count for something. But the CPE has been silent on whether private schools with the EduTrust Star will be given any benefits. When the quality mark system was first discussed, there were suggestions that those which win the EduTrust Star could be given a "green lane" for student visa-processing and their foreign students could be allowed to work part-time for up to 20 hours a week.

I am certain a few more schools will be able to win the EduTrust Star quality mark soon. Then, perhaps the Government can look at including those who gain the EduTrust Star in the SkillsFuture scheme.

Another requirement that must be put in place for private schools is that of conducting graduate employment surveys.

Government officials have voiced concerns that Singapore may be faced with graduate unemployment if more young people enrol in institutions with questionable standards.

So it is important to look at what the job outcomes are for those emerging from private schools. Do they go into graduate-level jobs, or do they end up in jobs that do not require degree-level studies?

Most private schools now do not conduct independent graduate employment surveys. Or if they do, they do not make these public. They should be required to conduct such surveys and publicise the findings.

SIM recently released its graduate employment survey results for the class of last year. Close to 90 per cent found jobs, and nearly 60 per cent received two or more job offers. But its graduates started with slightly lower salaries than those from publicly funded universities.

The graduates of some of the other private schools may not fare as well. But if so, then prospective students and their parents must be given information on this before they make a choice.

However, if the review finds there are private schools that are well run and offer quality programmes, then the Government should consider how they can be co-opted into the push to build a nimble workforce.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 12, 2015, with the headline 'Private school shake-up spells good news'. Print Edition | Subscribe