By Amelia Tan & Leow Si Wan
THE cleanup of the private education sector has begun with the implementation of new stringent regulations, and it is likely to hit almost half of the existing institutions here.
In all, some 400 of the 1,000 private schools here are expected to go, the Council for Private Education (CPE) - a new statutory board charged with cleaning up the sector - said yesterday.
This is the result of either closures or mergers - with bigger partners or with schools owned by the same company.
The CPE believes that the changing landscape is the result of the new and tough Private Education Bill passed late last year as part of the Government's efforts to raise standards of the sector riddled with complaints from students and parents and, at times, troubled by sudden closures of schools, some of which were offering sub-par programmes.
The council, a Ministry of Education statutory board set up to regulate the sector, has started with the registration of schools.
Schools registered under the previous Education Act will have until June next year to sign up under the new scheme. These include private universities, commercial schools and international schools. All the other schools had to submit applications to be registered with the CPE by February this year.
To be accepted, schools have to meet a list of criteria which include having proper systems, such as independent academic and examination boards; giving information on their finances, teachers and facilities; and ensuring that foreign institutions they have links with are up to par.
Should they fail to do so, they would have to shut down.
The cost and effort of meeting these requirements have already led some players to 'reconsider' if they want to be part of the industry, said the CPE.
'For example, some of the private schools may be doing a lot of enrichment programmes, tuition and so forth. And maybe they have a little sliver of it, doing diploma or full-time certificates. So what they have decided is since the critical mass is in tuition, they may want to withdraw from this segment,' said an official.
Hairdressing school Jantzen Academy is one such school and it has decided not to register. Said its spokesman: 'All along, we have focused on training our own stylists and then take in some others who are keen.
'But it is very troublesome now. We have decided not to register. It isn't a big part of our business as well.'
To maintain standards, all schools will have to renew their registration, the duration of which will vary. Those with better practices can go longer between registrations - between two and six years - while others may have to do it annually.
To date, only 62 schools have been registered in the ongoing exercise, and one has been rejected. Of the successful ones, 36 have a four-year licence while 26 have been registered for only a year. So far, the council has received 308 applications but close to half or 144 were incomplete and could not be assessed.
The CPE said a common document left out by schools, which run programmes in partnership with foreign universities, is an original letter signed by the vice-chancellor of the foreign partner.
'We feel that this is an area where we probably want to have some workshops. We will bring the schools in to help them go through the process and documents they have to submit,' said its spokesman.
The cleanup, said private school students, was timely but also very telling of the poor standards in the sector.
'There are some good ones but there are also others which are just there to make money. They do not care about standards,' said a former private school student who wanted to be known only as John. He was cheated out of $18,000 for a bogus degree last year.
Since the CPE's Student Services Centre opened last month, it has received about 180 complaints and appeals from students over issues such as disputes over course fees, course administration and issuance of certificates.
The larger schools are seeing the new laws as a boon, allowing them to expand their businesses acquiring some of the smaller schools that fail to meet the requirements.
Said the chief executive officer of TMC Academy Chin Kon Yuen: 'Acquisitions are definitely an area we will look into once the situation has crystallised.
'Bigger schools will be keen to look at smaller ones which offer niche programmes to complement what they already have.'
Agreeing, Kaplan's college director Jim Jackson added: 'This is welcome news to Kaplan, not only because it creates opportunities to acquire and revitalise businesses under our academic infrastructure and brand, but it also helps the Singapore brand as a whole by culling marginal players.'
Students can go to www.cpe.gov.sg to find out which private schools have been registered with the council.
This article was first published in The Straits Times.
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