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Taking the stigma out of private tertiary education

Private tertiary education remains a dirty phrase in Singapore, with perceived lax admission criteria and poor standards leading to a growing glut of inferior graduates.

Students at a private education institution. Paper qualifications, whether awarded by public or private institutions, are merely proxies to workplace competency 
and productivity. 
TODAY File Photo

Students at a private education institution. Paper qualifications, whether awarded by public or private institutions, are merely proxies to workplace competency
and productivity.
TODAY File Photo

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Private tertiary education remains a dirty phrase in Singapore, with perceived lax admission criteria and poor standards leading to a growing glut of inferior graduates.

At last count, there were 227,090 students enrolled in private degree and diploma courses, going by last year’s figures from the Council for Private Education (CPE). This is not an insignificant number and graduates from private institutions make up a good proportion of fresh hires in the workplace each year.

Still, students from private universities tend to be viewed in a lesser light compared with their public university counterparts.

Policies such as getting companies to make CPF contributions to interns from private education institutions (PEIs) also do not help, as bosses do not have to do the same for interns from public universities. This rule discourages firms from hiring PEI interns, indirectly creating barriers for these students to gain valuable experience that is relevant to the economy.

Why is there such policy differentiation? Are negative societal attitudes towards students from private universities valid? And how can it be changed?

The recent discourse on university education has centred around two views. First, higher education has diminished in value as a result of the rising proportion of graduates and — though perhaps less so — grade inflation. PEIs add to the problem with their more inclusive admission criteria and varying assessment standards. Second, university degrees remain essential, if not more, given Singapore’s reliance on human capital, as well as its need to remain internationally competitive.

While both views have their merits, neither gives due attention to the core issue at hand: That paper qualifications, whether awarded by public or private institutions, are merely proxies to workplace competency and productivity. A degree is only as meaningful as the extent to which it effectively prepares students for the workplace and their role in broader society.

The stigmatisation of private degrees can be seen as a manifestation of such views, as private-degree holders are perceived to be contributing to the problem of an unsustainable economy of graduates without the supposed intellectual pedigree to be part of such a pool.

The solution, then, is neither to increase the number of places in public universities, nor to establish more public universities and introduce a broader suite of course offerings.

Rather, it should be to reduce structural inequalities that reinforce the public-private divide, such that tertiary students, whether public or private, are able to make the transition to a competitive workforce effectively without being held back by societal baggage.

 

COMPETITION AND CHOICE

 

A revamped system needs to integrate the element of a more compassionate meritocracy without compromising the competitiveness that has driven students to excel academically.

Liberalising tertiary education to more broadly encompass people from different tertiary backgrounds, be it private or public, diploma or technical, is a positive step.

This shifts the focus from mere reputation associated with where one received his or her education, towards workplace competencies accumulated over one’s course of learning.

Fundamental to bridging the perceived gap between PEIs and public universities is the CPE. The council has served PEIs well, dutifully ensuring the accountability of overseas degrees and programmes administered to private students.

However, its role must expand to include active measures to grow in public trust and acceptance as a high-quality accreditation body. This is to legitimise its endorsement of PEIs under its purview, similar to what the Ministry of Education has done with public education institutions.

Changing how education is viewed, coupled with a deconstruction of the public-private dichotomy, are integral to facilitating the introduction of two key market mechanisms currently lacking in Singapore’s education system: Competition and choice.

Allowing PEIs to compete with public institutions on a more equal footing relinquishes the monopoly public institutions have on what it means to be “qualified” or “educated”, and compels administrators of such institutions to constantly innovate in view of heightened local competition.

If managed well, this can mean better educational outcomes for students and graduates who are more economy-ready. The removal of barriers that separate PEIs from their public counterparts should motivate private education providers to strive for improvements they once felt were out of reach.

Such changes do not merely instigate enhancements at the structural level. Increased competition across the education system should spur students towards gaining more industry-relevant experience to differentiate themselves from their peers, leading to a better skilled workforce.

Next, healthy competition in its various forms offers greater choice. Local employers can choose from a pool of graduates who are better equipped for their careers can make the transition to the workplace more adeptly and from a higher launch point.

Students benefit from having a wider range of quality institutions to choose from, without having to worry about disparities in quality between private and public education providers. This fosters risk-taking and provokes students and employers to recognise trade-offs in decision-making, while taking responsibility for their choices.

The right combination of competition and choice requires a fundamental recognition that the status quo, while having served its purpose, is no longer sustainable. To survive amid the challenging global landscape, Singapore must aim to build a workforce that is not only competent and skilled, but which is also resilient and adaptable in the face of growing uncertainty and systemic volatility.

A fundamental rethinking of the system, aimed at ensuring equitable outcomes for as many students as possible, while retaining the competitive element present in the current model, is therefore imperative for Singapore to move ahead.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHORS:

Andrew Yeo is a graduate student in social policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Daniel Ho is a recent graduate in International Relations from the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University. Both are alumni of the Singapore Institute of Management, where they took the University at Buffalo programme.

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