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The Straits Times says

Private education and the public good

The latest rules set for the private education sector once again reflect the bureaucratic remit of its regulator. Registering schools, setting up a "quality assurance" framework, and going after schools for not keeping proper records are types of tasks that rule-oriented agencies often do. The latest measure requires new private schools to have a minimum paid-up capital of $100,000. Those offering degree programmes must take part in a yearly survey to track graduate employment outcomes. The aim is to safeguard students who regard this education sector as their last resort.

More than 70,000 Singaporeans chase degrees and diplomas privately, bearing costs of between $20,000 and $40,000 a year for degree courses. But they find it harder to land jobs and earn as much as graduates from traditional universities. By 2020, up to half of each cohort could get a degree education at publicly funded institutes, with courses subsidised by up to 75 per cent by the Government. Private students aspiring to make good struggle financially and might have their hopes dashed later. This represents a woeful waste of private resources and an unacceptable mismatch of training and skills required by the economy. Has both the market and regulation together failed to address this national need satisfactorily?

The Committee on University Education Pathways Beyond 2015 recognised that private education institutions "play a role in complementing the public university sector by injecting greater course diversity and supporting workforce development". However, efforts over the last seven years were largely of a bureaucratic nature. That could change as the former Council of Private Education was quietly subsumed under SkillsFuture Singapore a month ago and is known as Committee for Private Education. Hopefully, the regulator will focus on helping the industry to move in a fresh direction. The first step could be to undertake an in-depth study of all private programmes to gauge their quality and value, and of the student profile in this sector, as recommended by the University Education Pathways Committee.

It is vital for private schools to dovetail their training with the national movement to promote evolving job-oriented skills, dubbed SkillsFuture. As smaller players, they must "focus on a niche and be good at it", as rightly noted by the Association for Private Education's president. The market is consolidating further, observed Member of Parliament Denise Phua. But with the focus on jobs of the future, there is a place for "small boutique quality" schools, perhaps with an applied, cutting-edge focus, catering to the private and public sectors. With programme quality truly assured, it would be worth studying how private students can be better supported. Private schools with different business models have a part to play too in giving students of all ages a shot at a future.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 02, 2016, with the headline 'Private education and the public good'. Print Edition | Subscribe