Stricter controls on private institutions offering TNE

New measures to tighten up on the quality, financial viability and information provided by private higher education institutions in Singapore, including foreign branch campuses, that offer external degrees from foreign institutions – also known as transnational education or TNE – have been published by the Singapore government.

The move follows reports that graduates of such programmes find it harder to secure graduate-level jobs compared to graduates of Singapore’s main public universities.

It also comes in the wake of an ongoing lawsuit by several graduates of New York University’s now defunct branch of the Tisch School of the Arts in Singapore, or Tisch Asia, alleging the institution did not provide the same quality of education as the main campus in New York. NYU is disputing these claims.

The new measures announced on Friday will require all private education institutions offering external degree programmes – the majority of these are degrees from British and Australian universities – to participate in an annual graduate employment survey to be conducted by the Committee for Private Education or CPE, the Singapore government agency that regulates the sector.

“This will better enable prospective students to make informed education and career choices,” said a joint statement issued by the government education and skills body, SkillsFuture Singapore, and CPE on 21 October.

The new survey will be centrally administered by the CPE “to ensure independence and neutrality”, the statement said.

A pilot graduate employment survey published by CPE last month, surveying around a third of the 12,600 students who graduated in 2014 from nine private institutions in Singapore, found that 58% of the graduates secured full-time permanent employment within six months of completing their final examinations compared to around 83% for Singapore’s four top public universities.

A number of institutions disputed the figures saying their own surveys had produced different results.

New certification

In new measures to improve quality, and the standards reached by school leavers applying for such institutions, private institutions offering external degrees or courses, including diplomas, that lead directly to TNE degrees will first have to obtain a four-year EduTrust certification, a quality-assurance award administered by the government through CPE. Previously EduTrust certification was voluntary.

Revised EduTrust requirements to be released in January 2017 to be in effect by June 2017 will focus more on academic processes and student education outcomes, the statement said.

Private institutions will also be required to bring in “appropriate minimum academic entry requirements for fresh school leavers” enrolling in TNE programmes, similar to the minimum school-leaver qualifications required for entry into public universities.

“By establishing these benchmarks explicitly, prospective students will be clearer about the prerequisites for such courses. Individual PEIs [private education institutions] may set more stringent entry requirements and should exercise due diligence in their admissions process to ensure that students are able to cope with their programmes,” the statement said.

Private institutions will have the flexibility to admit mature students with prior learning or work experience in the relevant fields but will have to seek CPE approval for their criteria “and demonstrate that they have the necessary systems and processes in place to assess applications from mature students”.

Minimum financial requirements will also be imposed “to strengthen student protection”. A minimum paid-up capital of SG$100,000 (US$71,000) will be required of all new private institutions “with immediate effect” while existing institutions will be required to meet a minimum credit rating by next June.

This would provide more assurances about viability to students. Some 22 private institutions in Singapore closed in the past 12 months, the CPE reported last month, in part due to declining enrolment caused by "changing business conditions, increased competition and shifting market demands".

Brandon Lee, director-general, private education, of SkillsFuture Singapore, the government body that oversees the CPE, said: "As the sector matures, we need to ensure that institutions continue to have sound foundations on which to operate and deliver the quality of training that students expect.”

Private higher education institutions in Singapore enrol some 70,000 Singaporeans and 30,000 foreign students.