PUBLISHED IN TODAY (SINGAPORE) ON 16 JUNE 2004
If a Singaporean Shakespeare were to write Hamlet today, Marcellus would say: "Something is rotten in the state of private schools in Singapore!"
A few private schools here have been in the news for the wrong reasons.
For example, Nanyang Institute of Management (NIM) was stripped of its trust mark last month, the Singapore Quality Class for Private Education Organisations (SQC-PEO) status given to it by Spring Singapore.
According to Mr Raymond Lim, Minister of State for Trade and Industry: "NIM is alleged to have forged students' signatures on student pass applications, made students sign on blank forms and entered false information to enable students to come here for courses not approved by the relevant authorities. NIM was also alleged to have charged students for items like school uniforms, which are not needed, and guardianship fee when no guardian was made available to the student."
NIM is now under investigation by the Commercial Affairs Department.
Incidents such as these can affect the public perception of private schools.
One wonders what the past and present students in private schools are feeling. How will such incidents affect their employment prospects?
Indeed, a social stigma already exists. Recently, I learnt of two companies which have become wary of recruiting those from private schools. This is a real worry for someone with a private school background like me.
Furthermore, complaints against private schools show an increasing trend.
The Consumers Association of Singapore (Case) received 486 complaints against private schools last year, up from 460 in 2002.
Two years ago, my family wasted about $10,000 on an external University of London degree programme that my sister signed up for at a private school here. One year into the three-year programme, my sister was told that it would be stopped. She was told that if she wanted to continue the course, she would be expected to self-study.
There was no one my family could turn to for redress. Eventually, my family had to dip into our savings to send her to England to re-start her undergraduate course at the University of Leicester. The university was sympathetic to her plight and gave her a place, even though she applied well after the admissions deadline.
Such developments will not help Singapore's aspirations to be a "Global Schoolhouse", which the Economic Development Board (EDB) describes as "a world-class education hub internationally renowned for its intellectual capital and creative energy".
Most developed countries have regulators to ensure that the quality of higher education is of an acceptable standard. For example, the Higher Education Funding Council for England ensures "that all higher education students benefit from a high-quality learning experience" to meet their needs and the needs of society.
It was reported that here, the Government prefers the industry to self-regulate. If self-regulation is indeed the way to go, why is the country not moving to do away with its present control over public schools?
The Government's obvious unwillingness to do the same with public schools suggests that self-regulation may not be the best approach. After all, education happens to be a key pillar of our small, open economy.
Moreover, the industry's attempts to self-regulate via the Association of Private Schools and Singapore Education International have so far proved inadequate. The two bodies are due to meet Case, EDB, the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) and the Association of Small and Medium Enterprises next week — after a scheduled meeting on Monday was postponed — to discuss such regulatory issues.
The Ministry of Education, together with relevant government agencies, should look into introducing a statutory body to encourage a high quality of private education in Singapore. Such a body will be the equivalent of what the Monetary Authority of Singapore is to the financial services industry.
As in the financial services sector, confidence and stability are fundamental to a sound and progressive education system. Singapore, as a young country, has successfully achieved this through both its public and private schools.
In 1999, I secured a place in one of the top 10 British law schools. The university I applied to placed a premium value on a diploma I acquired at a private school, IBMEC, and the rest of my Singapore education.
We should act decisively before others emulate the practices of private schools such as NIM. Let's restore the necessary confidence and stability in our private schools. The Government should introduce a private education regulator with teeth.
We must not allow this rot to evolve into a plague that afflicts our economy.