SINGAPORE: Private higher education doesn’t deserve its bad reputation.
Among the many myths lies one that is of deep concern: That there is no value in obtaining a degree from a private education institution (PEI). This cannot be further from the truth.
The starting salary of graduates provides an indication of whether the qualification is industry-recognised. It is no secret that hiring companies distinguish between degrees obtained from different institutes of higher learning, and offer fresh graduates from local universities a salary of 10 to 15 per cent more than their counterparts from PEIs.
However, looking at the value of an education from this lens is insufficient. Graduates from PEIs obtain good, quality jobs.
Look around us – graduates from PSB Academy and SIM Global Education are gainfully employed across sectors from banking and finance to healthcare and cybersecurity.
According to PSB Academy’s 2015 graduate and employment survey, nine out of 10 students gained employment within six months of their graduation while six in 10 graduates saw pay raises and/or better career prospects.
While graduates from public universities take stock of their mean salary annually, what truly contributes to a valuable, meaningful career? While salary is a good starting point to examine the employability of graduates, one should go beyond salary and look at career progression and personal development as well.
That said, the starting salary of PEI graduates should not deviate too significantly from those who have acquired a diploma or degree with the local polytechnics and universities, all other things remaining the same.
The danger of this, if it persists, is that it would lead to social exclusion where graduates from publicly funded education institutions tend to see themselves as socially more superior than others.
RIGOUR OF THE UNIVERSITY CURRICULUM
While the Government, through the Council of Private Education (CPE), has put in place a set of strict guidelines and regulations to raise the standards of private education in Singapore, hiring companies, including those in the public sector, continue to maintain a bias against qualifications that are not from public universities.
This may be due to some misunderstanding about the rigour of an education with a PEI.
One of the misconceptions is that the lecturers are not “qualified enough”. The CPE has stipulated the academic qualifications required of teaching staff, and PEIs have complied with the requirements.
While universities participate in ranking games, where the “publish or perish” mentality exerts great pressure on academic staff, this is not the same in PEIs.
The most helpful lecturers are not those with the most doctoral degrees. Salman Khan, founder of the Khan Academy, observed that:
Teaching is a separate skill – an art that is creative, intuitive, and highly personal.
I have seen many non-doctorates and non-research teaching staff with many years of working experience in relevant industries, who have received excellent evaluation results from students.
Under our partnerships with recognised university partners based in countries like the UK and Australia, lecturers from the universities’ home campus fly in to deliver lectures. This partnership means that lecturers from the industry are also hired to teach these same courses and must adhere to the university’s teaching standards.
What it all comes down to is that the real value-add in class is derived from the passion for teaching and the type of knowledge, skills and real-world experiences lecturers can bring to the class.
As students who go through private education undergo only one to two years of education, people have the misconception that they must therefore be “unenlightened” or somehow, inadequate in their learning.
Closer observation of the manner in which the PEIs operate will reveal that “shorter” programme duration at PEIs (24 months for a typical three-year undergraduate programme) can be attributed to innovative scheduling and timetabling, compressing a typical three-year programme to two calendar years.
This is possible because of shorter study breaks in between terms and a faster turnaround time in the marking and moderating of coursework and final examinations.
For example, PEIs may offer the undergraduate programmes on a trimester mode of 17 weeks of teaching with each student reading four modules per trimester on a full time basis, allowing the student to read 24 modules in two calendar years.
Moreover, the programme duration as stated on the website or programme brochure indicates the minimum modules required to complete the course. Students have the option to do less and learn more by taking fewer modules per term.
In the case of PEI Diploma courses, claims that PEI students are short-changed or embark on a non-rigorous programme are unfounded on the basis of comparison between a PEI Diploma and a polytechnic diploma.
PEI Diplomas are not similar to polytechnic diplomas which take an average of three years to complete. They are also not meant to be similar.
PEI Diplomas are in most cases mapped to Year 1 of an undergraduate programme thereby allowing the graduates to proceed to Year 2 of an undergraduate programme.
Shorter courses does not mean lower quality – this is unfortunately an assumption that is made too often and should be corrected.
Let us put aside this antiquated idea of learning, especially when SkillsFuture challenges all of us, young and old, to upskill, because the truth is, learning never ends.
THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM
The intensity of competition and ever rising costs of operations have resulted in some private schools making false promises about the school facilities and academic programmes. This has led the public to question the legitimacy of a degree taken from a foreign university, through a PEI.
When more cautious PEIs see their rivals move ahead in recruiting students and making more sales, they want to leap forward even if this means lowering the entry requirements for their programmes and shortening the programme duration. They do so just to make the programme appear more attractive to potential students.
However, this is a very myopic view in decision-making without due regard to how students and the public may think about programme quality, corporate governance and the integrity of the operators.
This gnawing issue has thankfully been tackled head on by the CPE, and this crackdown on errant PEIs does strengthen the overall standing of the few good institutions who have stood the test of time and increased regulations.
The essential idea of education is to produce students who are industry-ready, and infuse various perspectives in classes to enable students to think straight, morally and critically.
At PSB Academy, we have always regarded ourselves to be an important fabric in Singapore's social safety net, to help individuals who make the effort earn degrees and diplomas that are of good standing, to better compete with global talent and seize exciting opportunities in our cosmopolitan marketplace.
It is worth remembering that besides yielding a return in the economic sense, education equips students with transferable or soft skills like problem-solving, meeting deadlines, negotiation, team-work, research and communication skills.
The value of a degree, perhaps, should be measured by how vigorously the institution has incorporated hard and soft skills in graduates, on top of academic excellence, as these are the very real aspects that determine students’ employability in the future economy.
Amid industry chatter around the need for private education institutions to shed their reputation as “second chance” providers of degree and diploma programmes, PSB Academy feels fortunate to embrace this moniker.
In fact, we would gladly offer second and more chances, to deserving individuals who aspire to earn a quality education, but did not attain it via our public institutions because of circumstances personal or otherwise.
Dr Sam Choon Yin is dean of PSB Academy.
Read also: The commentary that discussed if private higher education is a "second chance" for youths.