Relook role of private education

Private education is in a state of contraction here. The year started out with 312 private schools registered here but this number has declined by 10 so far and eight more might shut down later. Some observers are predicting that only about 50 commercial schools will be left standing by 2020 as enrolment drops. The Private Education Act of 2009 sought to uplift the sector by focusing on quality assurance, with the setting up of an independent Council for Private Education to oversee the regulatory framework. To develop Singapore as an education hub, both quality and quantity mattered then. Has the equation changed?

The private education market exists because local demand outstrips public supply - the consequence of orthodox policy that once equated the provision of more tertiary places with a dilution of standards in public institutes. It was left to the market to meet the unfulfilled hunger for higher qualifications. Disappointingly, that did not lead to a usefully differentiated class of graduates, for example, those attuned to fast-evolving work skills. Instead, the commercial focus was largely on courses popular with students in pursuit of paper qualifications that in their minds would land them a better job. When such expectations are not fulfilled, underemployed private school graduates represent a huge cost in terms of misdirected effort and burdensome expenditure.

Figures of local students, who now make up about three-quarters of private school enrolment, are dipping. So are the numbers of foreign students. One might well ask why efforts to shore up institutional standards via the EduTrust certification scheme proved insufficient to avert the decline. Should "EduRelevant" compliance have also been sought for courses, given the changing nature of jobs in a competitive world?

It is timely, therefore, to review the role of private education in reducing the mismatch between what is taught and what workplaces in various areas need. The private sector should also contribute to the overarching development effort dubbed "SkillsFuture" that is to drive the nation towards becoming an advanced economy. This requires learners to not fixate on "paper" and to go beyond achieving competence towards mastering relevant skills over their lifetime.

Given the scale of this undertaking, various means of collaboration should be explored, like the public-private partnership model used to build and operate ITE College West's facilities. One could imagine a possible university of future skills where the State provides the infrastructure for a vibrant campus and private enterprises run different faculties oriented more closely to industry. Traditional dons might dismiss this as a form of "academic capitalism". But a rigid public-private or academia-industry dichotomy ought to be eschewed. SkillsFuture calls for broader vistas.

This article was first published on November 25, 2015.
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