Sat, Mar 14, 2009
The Straits Times
Stiffer rules: Private schools may raise fees

By Amelia Tan & Jane Ng

STUDENTS will pay - literally - when the new guidelines on private education come into force, said several schools contacted yesterday.

The schools - mostly smaller ones with enrolments of between 40 and 200 - said complying with the guidelines, such as the need to engage independent academic and examination boards to develop and review policies, would swell their costs.

They said that unlike bigger players, they would not be able to absorb the costs, and would have to pass the burden to students in the form of higher fees.

The new guidelines, to be contained in the Private Education Bill to be introduced in Parliament later this year, are aimed at tightening regulation of the industry here, which has been hit by a succession of school closures in recent years.

These closures have left thousands of students stranded, and many have not been able to recover their fees.

The new rules require the 1,000 or so private schools in Singapore to meet a set of criteria before they can register with the Ministry of Education (MOE).

Apart from forming academic and examination boards, they will also have to give information on their finances, teachers and facilities, among other things.

The principals of five schools contacted yesterday said forming the boards will be an especially expensive endeavour.

Mr Desmond Lee, principal of Alpha Education Centre, which provides O-level courses for 40 students, said: 'We will have to take time to look for these people and then pay them. This will take manpower and resources. Bigger schools can absorb the costs because they have the funds, but for smaller ones like mine, we may have no choice but to raise fees.'

Mr Ho Kai Huat, who heads System Computer Training Centre, said: 'We do not know if we will be given subsidies to pay for these people who will be assessing us. The costs of running schools are already high.

'Rentals are rising, and enrolment is falling. All of this just means more costs and stress for us,' he added. His school runs diploma and advanced diploma courses for about 100 students.

If costs spiral, many schools may shut, warned Dr Perumal Magayson, who runs the School of Logistics, which has about 300 part-time students.

'Private schools are here to make profits. I think many schools will close down if the costs are too high,' he said.

Bigger players, meanwhile, have no such concerns. Indeed, many are eagerly anticipating the changes and already gearing up for them.

The secretary-general of the Management Development Institute of Singapore (MDIS), Dr R. Theyvendran, said the school did not have an independent department for academic audit and was now looking at how one could be set up.

'We've been gearing up for the changes in the last two years, so when we heard the guidelines, we immediately checked what our gaps were,' he said.

Singapore Institute of Management (SIM) chief executive Lee Kwok Cheong said the school was confident of getting EduTrust certification, a requirement for schools seeking to admit foreign students.

This means complying with much higher standards, but Mr Lee said SIM had been working hard to do this over the last few years. 'We have academic governance panels, and in the last few years, we have been improving our student services and the quality of our teachers. Not all the details are out yet, but I am confident that we will be able to meet the new guidelines,' he said.

Reacting to the guidelines yesterday, Mr Andrew Chua, president of the Association of Private Schools and Colleges Singapore, said they were 'overdue'.

'The private education sector is in need of more regulation. One big problem area is inconsistent academic standards in the different schools now.

'This will be addressed in the Bill, so we should see a general improvement in quality,' he said.

But MDIS' Dr Theyvendran cautioned against overdoing it. 'It's good that the MOE is now taking charge, but I hope it will not over-regulate and end up causing businesses to relocate to other countries where there are fewer rules,' he said.

This article was first published in The Straits Times.

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