Too many schools spoil the industry Posted: 17 June 2010; Category: National IF MR Lee Kwok Cheong had his way, the cleanup of the private education sector would have been even more rigorous than it has been.

That is quite something when you consider that, to date, only 62 of the 1,000 private schools here have met the stringent new registration requirements that have been set down for them.

And of them, only 13 have so far qualified for the higher-level Edutrust mark that allows them to enrol foreign students.

But, according to the chief executive officer of the Singapore Institute of Management (SIM), Singapore's largest private school and one of those to win the Edutrust mark, 13 is still 'three too many'.

'Ideally, if we want a healthy, thriving high-quality private education sector, only 10 big players should remain,' he says.

The Government passed stricter laws governing schools late last year as part of an industry crackdown designed to raise standards in a sector plagued by complaints and hit by sudden school closures.

Under the new regime, private schools registering with the overseeing Council for Private Education (CPE) must meet tougher requirements in a number of areas, including recognition of courses and teachers' qualifications.

If they fail to meet the new standards by June next year, they will be ordered to close down.

Those who want the Edutrust mark must meet even higher standards, including having independent academic and examination boards; having to disclose their finances, teachers and facilities; and ensuring that foreign institution links are up to par.

Before the new laws came into place, some 300 of the 1,000 schools here were taking in foreign students. Now industry veterans expect this number will be ruthlessly whittled down to under 50.

The 55-year-old Mr Lee, who was brought in from the IT industry to run the global education arm of SIM, has nothing but praise for the shake-up.

'It is long overdue. Previously, just about anybody could rent a shop space, hire a couple of teachers with minimum qualifications and set up a school. The barrier was set really low,' he laments.

'As a result, we had some fly-by-night operators who came in just to make a quick buck without any concern for the welfare of students.'

He predicts that the industry bloodletting will continue over the next year.

'There will be shutdowns and mergers. It will be good if in the end, it is whittled down to 10 big players and a variety of niche institutions such as language schools and culinary arts schools. Of course, I see SIM being one of the big 10,' he says, quick to declare his vested interest.

Setting up and running a proper private school is tough - and should have appropriately rigorous benchmarks. He points out that it requires huge investment - in land, facilities and good teachers - and signing up the right university partners.

'When you have too many small players without the know-how and resources, you are going to have a weak industry and it is not going to be good for Singapore in the long run,' he adds.

The former decade-long head of SingTel subsidiary National Computer Systems draws a parallel to the shake-up of the personal computer industry.

'When the PC first came to the market, there were 1,000 to 2,000 PC manufacturers. But after five to 10 years, it was down to maybe five big ones. But these are all strong, innovative companies that have added to the vibrancy of the whole industry.'

By Sandra Davie, Senior Writer