The British Council has warned that complacency is endangering British universities' lucrative market share of student recruitment in Singapore. Institutions that have historically enjoyed close links with Singapore, making it their fourth biggest recruiting ground for overseas students, are being left behind by Australian and United States competitors.
The warning comes on the eve of the launch of a new brand image that the government hopes will raise the profile of higher and further education overseas.
Baroness Blackstone, minister of state for higher education, will unveil campaign materials intended to emphasise British academic quality and excellence, educational and cultural diversity, the value of English, benefits of the British lifestyle, opportunities for personal development and affordability.
Reforms in Singapore's higher education system and the creation this year of a new university have created fresh openings for recruitment, partnerships, exchanges and consultancy work.
The Singapore government is encouraging foreign institutions to become involved in developing a more flexible sector geared towards producing creative and entrepreneurial graduates to help build a knowledge-based economy.
Singapore's invitation to overseas universities to set up graduate-school campuses has been met by four responses from the US, one from France, but none from the United Kingdom. Australian universities are offering competitively priced courses and more scholarships.
John Grote, director of the British Council in Singapore, said UK institutions had been sluggish in their response to the new opportunities in Singapore. "They cannot afford to be complacent," he warned. "Singapore perceives Britain as being left behind and America as being exciting. If institutions consider Singapore to be an important market then they have to engage with it rather than just trying to milk it."
Zaibun Siraj, director of international liaison at Ngee Ann Polytechnic, suggested British institutions needed to become more proactive. "Over the past few years we have not had so many UK visitors. It is important for academics to come because our links are not just about accreditation, but also about joint research projects, exchanges and consultancy," she said.
A dramatic decline in the number of postgraduate students (now stabilised) from Singapore was disguised by a marginal increase in undergraduate enrolments, but this has now reversed (see table).
Singapore's ministry of education hopes that the opening this year of the Singapore Management University, set up with public funding but officially a private institution, will speed the pace of cultural change towards greater autonomy and accountability and will offer fresh prospects for overseas collaboration. But it could have a negative impact on the market through a broader admissions policy that could result in more of Singapore's students securing university places at home.
The rebranding initiative stems from a Cabinet Office review following prime minister Tony Blair's visit to China in 1998. A British Council survey found evidence of negative images of Britain in traditional markets.
Ministers have set targets of 50,000 more overseas students in higher education and 25,000 more in further education by 2005.
But there are also growing concerns about the quality of UK operations in Singapore. In 1994, after a high-profile visit to Singapore, education secretary John Patten warned that UK universities must improve their quality. This was repeated by the Higher Education Quality Council in 1996, which delivered mild rebukes to Brunel University's partnership with the Singapore Institute of Management and Birmingham University's partnership with AEC Open Learning.
The negative perception of the UK could also be to blame for the dwindling flow of Singaporean students to the UK. British Council figures show that there were 5,617 students from Singapore studying in the UK in 1998-99.
Singapore had been perceived as a growth market, as other major sources of overseas recruitment were hit by the collapse of the Asian tiger markets.
About 50 UK institutions have a presence in Singapore, including distance-learning ventures and franchise partnerships.