A hard sell for easy money

April 26, 2002

Singapore's dearth of universities has allowed unscrupulous providers, often backed by overseas institutions, to fill the gap, says one whistleblower.

The other week I received an interesting invitation to attend a reception as "guest of honour" at a US business school. Nothing new in that, except that this one was in Singapore and was situated on the third floor of a shopping mall sandwiched between a karaoke bar and an amusement arcade. It is one of the many commercial schools that have flourished in this part of the world through their franchise arrangements with British, American and Australian universities. I frequently receive this type of invitation. I think it is partly because having a Brit in the background is useful when tying a deal with a British university.

Another equally valuable service I have been asked to perform is master of ceremonies at degree awards on behalf of an American university. "But I'm not American," I protest. "But you look American" comes the reply. I do not get paid for this, but I do get a free lunch, a free cell phone and the opportunity to wear a floppy hat and some rather fetching crimson and purple robes. All this for a short speech on the knowledge economy and a quick photo session.

Another scam is dissertation writing - that is, doing the research not just correcting the English. This is where I most definitely draw the line. Others, however, do not. Given that the dissertation can constitute anything between 40 per cent and 100 per cent of the total assessment of a masters degree, this is a worrying trend. Even more worrying, however, is that most universities that back these schools know that it goes on.

All you need to open up a school in Singapore is approval from the ministry of education (although you can call yourself a "consultant" and get away without registering). You can't call your institution a university or college, but you can use the title school. Most new institutions call themselves schools of business or "management centres", because even if, technically speaking, they might not teach business or management, it sounds respectable. All are privately owned. They are set up, often as a speculative venture, with the minimum level of investment. Apart from the usual red tape, the minimum the ministry of education requires is two rooms and a reception area and evidence that you are empowered to offer programmes on behalf of a university or professional institution. Sometimes the owners have impressive academic qualifications - PhDs to boot. Others do not have academic qualifications as such, but possess equally valuable experience within the shipping, carpet-laying or used-car industries.

Southeast Asia's commercial school industry can be divided between those seeking to cash in on a temporary boom for minimum investment - if it does not work out, they can simply pull out and go and do something else like opening a sushi restaurant or a karaoke bar - and those who invest in the expectation that they will build up a reputation and eventually become a market leader. There are very few of the latter in Southeast Asia and, because they are committed to establishing themselves within the market, they tend to be the more reputable ones.

In terms of staffing, lecturers are employed on a part-time basis by the schools that have full responsibility for delivery of the teaching programme. This is where quality control tends to take a back seat. While some overseas universities send their own staff to Southeast Asia (a very expensive and sometimes tokenistic process), part-time lecturers are nearly always locals. Many of them acquired their bachelors and masters at the same institutions as the students they teach. The tutor will set the exam paper. Usually they are asked to submit 16 questions from which the university backing the school will select just eight. In many, if not most, instances the students will be told the questions in advance. Sometimes there is a tacit understanding that a high pass rate will be rewarded, with the tutor being reappointed. And tutors are not expected to deduct marks when assignments are handed in late, especially if the student is a "good customer". Occasionally, representatives from the university will pay a flying visit - just to make sure that standards are being maintained and that everything is above board.

So how do the schools go about recruiting students? Some time ago I was invited to a recruitment evening. I found the school, backed by a UK university, with some difficulty, located down a side street over a club. I had to push my way through a bar cram-packed with young Filipino girls to gain access. The marketing people had obviously done a splendid job and had managed to pack in 50 or more potential MBA and BCom students. First came the usual sales pitch from the school's business manager (I now know what is meant by a sharp suit). Then meet-the-prof time. Enter John Harvey-Jones lookalike, especially flown all the way from the UK for the occasion. The professor gave a vivacious presentation, although I did spot a few reckless oversights. For example, he said the university was "one of the oldest in the UK". Sorry, but I seem to recall that it was a polytechnic up to ten years ago. But, then again, it does have some oldish-looking buildings. Anyway he was developing a good repartee with the audience, until someone produced a newspaper cutting and broached the sensitive issue of league tables. At this juncture the business manager began to look agitated and turned to the professor for support. The audience began to turn ugly. Meanwhile some of the Filipino women had started to drift in from downstairs. Sharp suit was busy shooing them out. Things were getting out of hand. Fortuitously, the professor saved the day by whipping out a photo of the queen opening a new building complex in the UK. He then reeled off a list of royals and members of the aristocracy with whom he was on first-name terms and followed up with an open invitation to play golf with anyone who signed up for the programme and an offer to write them references as well. Phew, that was close!

The root of the commercial school problem is that Singapore has only three universities: the National University of Singapore, Nanyang Technological University and the recently opened Singapore Management University. Together, they provide places for no more than 15 per cent of 18-year-olds. Competition for places is tough. The alternative is going overseas to be educated. This is expensive. The only remaining option is to enrol at a commercial school offering an overseas degree. So why doesn't Singapore create a fourth university? This is being mooted. The sticking point is that Singapore is loathe to create what might be perceived as a second-rate university or something that caters for anything more than, say, 20 per cent of the youth population. It could tarnish Singapore's image abroad and this is often the most important factor. Commercial schools cater for those Singaporeans who simply want the piece of paper. Library facilities ("library" being something of an overstatement in most instances) are sparse and there is often heavy reliance on getting students through the exams by any means available, such as forms of rote learning.

On the other hand, Singapore has four excellent polytechnics (catering for the 16-18 age group and offering non-degree programmes), various institutes of technical education, several junior colleges and a state school system that is second to none. Underprovision at post-18 level places a huge financial burden on the parents of students who have to study abroad. Also, students going abroad means money going abroad and some young Singaporeans do not return.

While the debate rages, technology is changing the playing field. Within about a decade, if not earlier, the shape of distance learning will have changed. The internet will make it possible for institutions to offer programmes without having to rely on a middle man to deliver them. The commercial schools know that their life expectancy is limited and this increases the incentive for many to make a quick killing before the market matures. The result is a hotting-up of competition within an industry crowded with privately owned schools offering overseas programmes in Southeast Asia. The schools with a more long-term strategy and ambition are already investing in forms of internet packaging and delivery. When the market changes they intend to change with it.

So why does Singapore make it so easy to set up a school? One reason is that the market-forces model appeals to the Singaporean mindset. Let the commercial schools operate and the bad ones will flounder. The more reputable ones will survive. But in the meantime, what about the students?

For those who do not qualify for one of the three national universities and cannot afford to study abroad, possibly the best option is the Singapore Institute of Management. Like the commercial schools, the SIM offers a range of overseas degrees. But it also has a well-equipped campus, opened in 1997, which would put many UK campuses to shame. The SIM is privately funded but has some government backing.

Alternatively, there are the overseas degree programmes offered by the British Council, Singapore Human Resources Institute and the Institute of Marketing. Because they are run by professional bodies, there is greater adherence to academic and professional standards. Likewise, the programmes offered by the bigger and often more reputable companies are underpinned by a more appropriate level of investment. They tend to be of a better quality, but do not depend on it.

And what about the future for British universities that back commercial schools in Singapore? Some schools are focusing on the Chinese market. After all, 22 per cent of the world's population is Chinese. The market is enormous. A British qualification has a lot of appeal in China, especially if it bears the name of a famous institution. Even if it is not quite as it might seem. Cambridge certificates in their various guises, for example, may have nothing to do with Cambridge University, at least in their degree-awarding capacity, but you would not necessarily know that if you had just stepped off a plane from China.

The Asian market is absolutely huge in terms of the possibilities it offers, especially if you include China. Several million potential students. And several million bucks to be made, especially fast ones. About a decade ago I seem to recall that much was being said about the need for British universities to become "more entrepreneurial" in terms of overseas investment. But nothing was said about jumping into bed with the cast of Only Fools and Horses . And some British universities are "getting into bed" with some less than reputable people. Organisational theory will tell you that it tends to be at the seams where the cracks start to emerge. From a long-term perspective, these universities can only be selling themselves short.

The author is an educational consultant working in Asia.

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