The Straits Times says

Making public value of private courses

Value for money is ranked highly by many who seek degrees from private schools. They see higher education largely in terms of the economic benefits possible from certain endpoint qualifications. Thus, any study that confirms that possibility often drives up demand for these degrees. Acknowledging a general hunger for wage potential information, the polytechnics and publicly funded universities conduct annual graduate employment surveys. Many private schools, however, do not (perhaps to avoid unfavourable comparisons). Hence there will be interest in the findings of an employment survey to be done among those who graduated in 2014 from nine private schools with large enrolments. The Council for Private Education says it will help to "guide future policy formulation for matters related to private education, manpower and graduate employment outcomes".

Of course, to merely gauge the market worth of private sector degrees would amplify the approach to further education as a commodity - much more of a private benefit than a public good. A continuing focus on the economic value of a paper qualification, rather than the intrinsic value of higher education, would detract from its worth as an important means of self-development. From the latter perspective, what should matter more are the fitness, purposes and efficacy of a programme, as one journeys through life picking up knowledge as times change. Thus, the current dollar potential of a degree would be less crucial than the future skills potential of the degree holder. As jobs evolve and wages fluctuate, what makes a 21st century qualification truly valuable is the development of an ability to hone deep skills progressively over a lifetime.

In a new education ecosystem, the quest for such qualifications should not be viewed narrowly - for example, by putting undue weight on a gilt-edged diploma and little on a portfolio of skills that an individual has built by tapping wider competencies and positive dispositions. Alongside extended programmes, there should be room for a variety of specialised modular courses that offer scope to master relevant skills. A nation of lifetime upgraders needs a system of learning pathways that is open, inclusive and flexible.

It is timely, therefore, to study how the private sector can contribute to this new paradigm. For example, could commercial schools run accredited modular courses that are publicly supported in one way or another? Perhaps, sets of modules could lead to a qualification awarded by an independent body. And how can bosses be persuaded to look beyond typical degrees and support constant upgrading efforts as well? Then more upgraders are likely to hop on the SkillsFuture bandwagon. If that creates sufficient market demand, it might help to alter the focus of private schools still dwelling on the paper chase.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 12, 2016, with the headline 'Making public value of private courses'. Print Edition | Subscribe