How PEIs in Singapore can stay competitive
“Concern arises when the commercial aspect of the business overrides other considerations, including maintaining and enhancing the quality of the academic courses”
How can private education institutions stand out in Singapore’s competitive market place? Dr. Sam Choon-Yin, dean at PSB Academy one of Singapore’s leading private education providers argues that it requires institutions strike the right balance between and student-centered academics and their commercial goals .
The private education market in Singapore is thriving. High demand for education in the recent past has been attributed to the growing middle class population in the emerging economies in the Asia Pacific region, the perception of higher education attainment as the passport to good life, and attraction of Singapore as the place to send children for further education.
Students from emerging economies such as China, India, Vietnam, and Myanmar are especially interested in business programs, viewing a business qualification as a worthy investment to get a job and get rich quickly. Employers continue to demand an academically qualified workforce both locally and within the Asia Pacific region.
However, the private education sector has experienced slower growth in terms of student numbers, causing the incumbents to compete more aggressively for market share. The availability of substitutes such as online courses and distance learning programs has contributed to higher levels of rivalry among private education institutions. More opportunities to enroll in local universities have the effect of lowering the number of potential students both locally and internationally enrolled on PEI courses.
“The private education sector has experienced slower growth in terms of student numbers, causing the incumbents to compete more aggressively for market share”
Low cost in switching from one PEI to another especially for students enrolled in business programs is another contributing factor. A stronger Singaporean dollar has also adversely affected the inflow of international students. Countries such as the United States and Australia are wooing students directly from China, India, and elsewhere whereas emerging economies like India are building more universities to increase enrolment ratio.
PEIs operate in a highly competitive environment, with around 300 PEIs registered with the Committee for Private Education. It can be argued that private education providers around the world are largely commercially orientated. This is not wrong per se, but concern arises when the commercial aspect of the business overrides other considerations, including maintaining and enhancing the quality of the academic courses.
The means to survive in the competitive environment has led some PEIs to respond to market needs by accepting students who did not meet published entry requirements, offering shorter programs and diploma courses without requiring class attendance or assessment.
To stand out in the market, PEIs engage in extensive marketing campaigns highlighting accolades, university partners – particularly their rankings and awards earned. Yet all too often, the practical aspects of pursuing a tertiary education are left out of the equation: service level, employability of graduates, course fees. That fine balance between academic and commercial excellence of PEIs is not easy to achieve, but it is possible.
“To strengthen trust in PEIs, they can choose to be more ‘academic’ by expanding and improving infrastructure and facilities”
Closing the gap
To strengthen trust in PEIs, they can choose to be more ‘academic’ by expanding and improving infrastructure and facilities; developing, and closely complying with the academic framework that details the credit assessment point, learning outcomes and others; appointing external examiners to review the assessment methods and an academic board to deliberate independently the academic provision. The good work that Singapore’s Council of Private Education (CPE) has done must continue, but it cannot be done by CPE alone. Here I suggest some broad measures for PEIs to consider to unlock value and remain competitive.
Improve service quality
At the heart of it, PEIs are providing paying students a service. This means that PEIs as service providers must put students’ at the heart of all communications and develop a student-centric culture throughout the business. This would encourage staff to proactively take care of students’ academic and non-academic needs. Another point that can improve service quality of students would be to diversify the portfolio of ‘products’. Some students may prefer to acquire a qualification from a university of high ranking and one that is accredited by bodies such as AACSB and European Quality Improvement System (EQUIS), others do not. Product diversity offers choices to students, and therefore helps PEIs with attracting and admitting more students.
“To amplify national upskilling endeavours, PEIs should strengthen their offering, and position themselves as an enabler of workers”
Focus on employability of graduates
PEIs must include curriculums that emphasise holistic development of students via innovative teaching pedagogy and methods of assessment. At PSB Academy, students are required to take charge of their pre-class learning by accessing materials on the e-learning platform, engaging in in-class activity to exchange views and decisions, and consolidating what students have learned in a post-class reflection via e-portfolio and online group discussion. This helps to sharpen higher order thinking and inculcate good learning habits. PEIs must also make it a point to help students cultivate relationships with industry players, for example, through setting up a business advisory panel. By engaging with industry players, PEIs can build a link for our students to network and learn from these industry practitioners through internships and lectures.
Strengthen the brand position of PEIs
The efforts of the government alone might be incommensurate to the speed and finesse with which PEIs must operate to navigate through the future economy. Employers need workers who possess executive-functioning skills, as well as the practical knowledge that comes with career and technical education. To amplify national upskilling endeavours, PEIs should strengthen their offering, and position themselves as an enabler of workers. This could come in the form of including Workforce Skills Qualifications (WSQ) courses and English proficiency courses.
Rivalry is intense in the education sector because of the high capital outlay used to invest in campuses. It thus makes economic sense for PEIs to grow the volume of the student population to reap economies of scale which translate to increased competitive intensity. This intensity must be matched with a strong focus on service qualities and standards, which will help uplift standards across the private education industry.