By Yang Huiwen
DR ANDREW Chua knew all about information technology as a top executive at computer giant Dell Computer.
But in 2001, then aged 49, he took a daring leap into the newly emerging private education sector here - and it was, to say the least, a learning experience.
Instead of marketing the latest gadgetry, Dr Chua became involved in helping to shape young minds.
The IT business, he said, involves marketing and launching products quickly by adopting the best strategies.
'The product and product quality is there for consumers to see, taste and decide. What you see is what you get at the point of purchase.'
By contrast, the 'end-product' in the education field is a graduating student.
'You don't get to see them until some three years down the road. So how do customers make their decisions? ?
'I believe it has a lot has to do with the vision you expound...the promise of the kind of students you want to develop and groom,' he said.
Dr Chua, now 57, could have retired comfortably from his post as managing director of Dell Computer South Asia. But he needed a fresh challenge, partly inspired by a growing IT training and education role he had taken on at Dell.
In October 2001, he set up the EASB East Asia Institute of Management. He declined to reveal how much was invested.
His change of career came after he sensed 'a growing need and demand for private education coming from the region'.
'There was no one special pull or push impetus,' Dr Chua said of his decision to leave the IT industry after 25 years to venture into the education business.
During his years in the IT industry, he had acquired experience in providing both IT software business solutions as well as IT training and education.
'The transition from offering a broad range of IT solutions to focusing on IT training, and then on to more management and business-related academic programmes seemed to be a seamless one.'
However, things got off to a slow start. The fledgling school attracted just 30 students from China when it started in rented premises in Yen San Building in Orchard Road.
Now its success speaks for itself. The student population grew to 1,500 in the four years to 2005.
Since then, it has doubled again, and now boasts more than 3,000 foreign and local students at its Balestier and Henderson campuses in a range of tertiary-level courses, including business management, hospitality and tourism, computing and information systems, and accountancy.
Foreign students now account for about 70 per cent of the student population, with mainland Chinese students making up for more than half of the batch.
Revenue has been growing steadily between 30 per cent and 40 per cent over the past few years, and the business managed to break even three years ago.
'I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time when private education, especially at tertiary level, was taking off,' said Dr Chua, the school's principal and chairman.
But he added that the road to success was fraught with challenges, particularly in the early stages of development.
As the newest kid on the block back then with no glowing track record to fall back on, EASB also had to tackle the issue of credibility and earn the trust of prospective students and parents.
It was also competing with well-established names such as the Management Development Institute of Singapore and the Singapore Institute of Management.
So EASB worked hard to attain the Singapore Quality Class for Private Education Organisations certification in 2003. This scheme recognises private education bodies that attain a commendable level of business excellence.
It has entered into collaborative partnerships with more than 30 universities in countries, including Australia, Britain and the United States, to launch a series of undergraduate and postgraduate degree programmes in IT, business and management-related disciplines. Its diploma is also accepted by several universities in the US, Britain, Australia and New Zealand as an entry qualification.
Dr Chua is now president of the Association of Private Schools and Colleges Singapore.
With EASB's reputation as a credible private school now cemented, there is still an ongoing challenge of attracting a bigger and better pool of students and teaching professionals, he said.
'We have to be more industry-driven and nimble in the programmes we offer. We have to be quick to offer niche and specialist programmes that the industry needs and government universities don't provide.'
For instance, the school was the first to offer casino management and convention management degree programmes when the Government gave the approval for the two integrated resorts.
Despite the economic downturn, EASB appears well-placed to expand. It expects to have 4,500 students by year end.
'Singapore has what it takes to be a regional education hub,' said Dr Chua, noting that the Republic's education brand name is very strong.
This article was first published in The Straits Times.