More private schools make grade

Sector clean-up sees exit of those unable to meet standards and more orderly closures

There are now 305 private schools registered with the Council for Private Education. ST FILE PHOTO

The private education industry is no longer the troubled sector it was six years ago, after an overhaul requiring schools to meet minimum standards.

The sector had, in the past, been plagued by schools offering dud degrees or closing without warning, leaving students who had paid for their courses in the lurch.

Since the Council for Private Education (CPE) was set up in 2009 to clean up the sector, schools unable to meet the requirements have been weeded out and processes have been put in place for those which face closure.

Of the remaining schools, more are attaining the four-year EduTrust award, a mark of quality in the key areas of management and providing educational services.

To earn it, schools must meet higher standards in areas such as corporate governance; fee protection for students; and academic processes, for example, teacher selection.

Mr Remy Choo, director in charge of CPE's regulatory departments, told The Straits Times that the number of private schools had fallen gradually in recent years, as they exited for reasons including the lack of financial resources.

There are now 305 private schools registered with CPE, down from 338 in 2011. At one point, in 2009, there were more than 1,000 private schools.

From 2011 till now, 124 private schools have closed, although some may have continued as short-course providers.

So far this year, another six have signalled intentions to de-register, including M2 Academy which announced its closure in October. About 95 per cent of closures were voluntary - the schools themselves chose to de-register, said Mr Choo.

At closure, they usually do not have students, or have only graduating students, he said, adding that closure is now a more orderly affair.

Schools with a significant number of students must allow them to finish their courses, or transfer them to other similar private institutions. Said Mr Choo: "This is unlike other businesses... this is a business that comes with moral obligations. And that's something we stress to all players, both current and new."

CPE said school closures this year and last year affected about 270 students, all of whom could finish their courses or were transferred to other schools.

One school which left the scene this year was Tisch School of the Arts, which announced its closure in 2012 because of money woes. It was set up in 2007 by the non-pro-fit New York University (NYU).

NYU press officer Shonna Keogan said it had a principle that "money should not be going from the NYU campus to support its global degree-granting campuses".

"Apart from start-up costs, we also confronted deficits of several million dollars per year that made Tisch Asia untenable, largely owing to lower-than-projected enrolments and higher-than-projected costs," she explained.

About 7 per cent of the school's students were Singaporeans. Ms Keogan said the campus was kept open until this year so that all 30 graduating students could finish their courses.

Mr Choo said CPE keeps a close watch on private schools to ensure that they are run properly and to prevent more closures.

Under its Enhanced Registration Framework, schools have to make sure their finances are transparent and qualified teachers are recruited , for instance.

Schools which want to take in foreign students must meet even higher standards, to obtain the quality assurance award, EduTrust.

Mr Choo said: "Slowly but surely, the schools are getting better. We also note that some schools on the one-year (provisional) EduTrust certification have attained the four-year status."

CPE figures show that there were 49 schools with the four-year EduTrust award last year, up from 34 in 2011.

Mr Choo said the private education industry has to keep up with the market, as competition heats up from other sources such as expanded publicly funded university offerings and the attraction of studying abroad.

"Even among the bigger boys in the private education institution sector, there are falling enrolments of 10 to 30 per cent," he said.

There are now an estimated 77,000 Singaporeans and 29,000 foreigners in private schools, down from about 100,000 and 35,000 respectively three years ago.

Beyond meeting standards, institutions must adapt their curricula and courses to meet new challenges, said Mr Choo, noting that they have to align with the SkillsFuture movement that emphasises job-oriented skills and lifelong learning.

Schools must ensure that their graduates are employable, he said. He cited the example of digital media university DigiPen as a school which gives its students industry-relevant experiences through attachments and projects.

"If you're doing the right thing and are aware of what the market wants, that gives you a good chance of being successful."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 05, 2015, with the headline More private schools make grade. Subscribe