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Wed, June 30, 2010
The Straits Times

School enrolment up through word of mouth

By Ian Poh

The education sector - which does not include schools controlled or funded by the Government - generated $4.9 billion in operating receipts in 2008.

In the final part of a six-part fortnightly series sponsored by Spring Singapore, Ian Poh and Marissa Lee look at two leading private education organisations.

THE private East Asia Institute of Management (EASB) has a refreshingly pragmatic approach to the business of education - making sure graduates are employable.

It might seem like a no-brainer, but school principal and chairman Andrew Chua believes in keeping his eye firmly on a goal that could easily slip away under the day-to-day challenges of running a large institution with a wide range of students.

"Employability is inevitably an important indicator of success in any educational system, private or public," says Mr Chua, who is also president of the Association of Private Schools and Colleges Singapore.

The word seems to have got about. Enrolment has increased from fewer than 50 when Mr Chua started out at a Raffles Place campus in 2001, to more than 4,000 last year at the Henderson Road facility it moved to in 2004.

EASB - formerly the East Asia School of Business - opened its second campus, in Ah Hood Road, in 2008.

As a business, it broke even in 2006 and revenue has been growing "about 30 per cent every year" over the last five years, says Mr Chua, with profits "good over the past three to four years".

The school offers a range of qualifications including certificates, diplomas, advanced diplomas, master's degrees and doctorates in various disciplines.

These include business management, hospitality and tourism, computing and information systems, and accountancy.

A key to its success has been its efforts to differentiate itself in an industry cluttered with some 1,000 private schools.

It devised its curricula with reference to the assessment criteria stipulated in two well-recognised British benchmarks - the Quality Assurance Agency and the Credit Accumulation and Transfer Scheme.

This made it easier for British and Commonwealth universities to map their courses to those at EASB.

The strategy helped EASB by quickly allowing its courses and brand name to gain visibility. It now has such an arrangement with about 30 British and Australian universities.

EASB also strived to build up its brand name to the point where "more than half" of its new students enrol by word of mouth, according to Mr Chua.

It achieves this "perpetual cycle of branding" by being "nimble and agile enough to keep pace with the fast-changing needs of each industry", he adds.

Take its approach to the hospitality industry in 2005. EASB had already started devising the relevant courses - as well as securing the required accreditation - while Parliament was still debating whether to build the two integrated resorts.

The initiative meant EASB was able to beat all other private schools to the punch and offer casino management, convention management and event management degree programmes right after the projects got the green light.

EASB's decade-long effort to build its brand and establish its credibility against established players like the Singapore Institute of Management and the Management Development Institute of Singapore have stood it in good stead in these more testing times.

Its strong name, relative financial clout and superior ability to weather crises engender trust among current and potential students.

More established players also tend to have the cash flow to keep classes running without a hitch, which is essential to maintaining customer confidence.

During times like the Sars crisis in 2003 and the 2008 recession, students and their agents were more selective in deciding which private schools to enrol in.

"In such cases, it's a huge asset to be known for being financially sound," says Mr Chua.

EASB's clout can be seen in another area as well - it is one of only a handful of private education institutions allowed to enrol foreign students, thanks to its coveted EduTrust certification.

EASB intends to expand its international outlook in the next year or two by leveraging its existing university partnerships to make the school a hub for bilingual curriculum development.

In the long term, it aims to increase collaboration with overseas institutions.

This will mean conducting EASB degree programmes in overseas colleges and universities, with the final year spent in Singapore.

The school also wants to establish branch campuses in countries like Australia, China, Vietnam and Malaysia.

Mr Chua believes private students will benefit from being exposed to different learning environments, market conditions and cultures.

"Transnational education is the direction that tertiary education is moving in," he says.

"We want to leverage on this to expand regionally and globally."

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