By Sandra Davie, Senior Writer
MORE stringent laws that Parliament approved yesterday will deter and make it difficult for private schools here to peddle fake degrees and leave students with little hope of recovering their course fees when they close.
If found guilty, operators of such schools under the Private Education Act, can face being fined up to $10,000 and jailed for up to a year.
The new stricter law is the latest attempt to regulate and raise standards in an industry that has been rocked by numerous school closures, including those which offered unaccredited or downright fake degrees to unsuspecting students.
The latest case involved the Brookes Business School in Beach Road that was ordered shut down by the Education Ministry in July after it was found to be offering unauthorised degrees from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and a bogus institution, Brookes University.
Several of its 400 students were further hit when they found out that the school did not buy full insurance coverage for their course fees, which ranged from $20,000 to $30,000.
Students had to resort to filing civil suits against the school operator and incurred legal costs to recover their fees.
With new laws approved yesterday, private schools operating here will first have to gain the approval of a new statutory board - the Council for Private Education (CPE) - before they launch any new course. Failure to do so will be a criminal offence.
The foreign university issuing the degree will also be subject to checks to ensure that it has proper recognition in its own country and the necessary accreditation for the course that it is offering through a school here.
The university must also give assurances that the courses being offered here are subject to the same admission standards and examination procedures as in its home country.
Several of the 11 MPs who debated the changes in Parliament over three hours yesterday cited the Brookes Business School case.
They also sought assurances from Senior Minister of State (Education) S. Iswaran that with the new laws, such an incident will be a thing of the past.
Mr Iswaran acknowledged that the 'light touch' regulation that the Government used for the private education industry until now had become inadequate given the mushrooming of private schools and student numbers here.
The number of private schools quadrupled between 1997 and 2007 - from 305 to 1,200. The number of full-time international students in these schools also grew in tandem.
Last year, there were 120,000 students enrolled in such private schools. Of these, 45,000 were from overseas.
Mr Iswaran said the exponential growth of the sector has resulted in a 'highly uneven spread of academic and governance standards' among the schools.
Some were found to have engaged in dubious or unscrupulous practices, which adversely affected Singapore's reputation, he added.
'It is, therefore, in the interest of all stakeholders that we tighten up standards and accountability,' he said before highlighting several aspects of the new law to show how it would offer better protection to students.
For one thing, the law will empower the council to direct schools to refund students' fees should they fail to deliver on the courses which students had enrolled in.
The council will also limit the maximum amount of fees that a school can collect upfront. This is so that students will not be hit hard in the event of the sudden closure of a school.
Mr Iswaran also assured MPs that the council will ensure compliance with the new laws by stepping up its monitoring and enforcement action.
Provisions have been made for inspectors to have the necessary investigative and enforcement powers to conduct regular audits and to investigate any complaints against schools.
The new law also provides for a full range of actions and penalties that the council can impose on errant schools.
But in summing up, Mr Iswaran cautioned that the new system being put in place could not by itself guarantee student satisfaction or avert school closures.
Schools and students must play their part, he said.
Private schools must constantly upgrade themselves and students must be more discerning in their choice of courses and institutions.
With the passing of the new legislation yesterday and the setting up of the council by November, the first group of private schools are likely to be registered under the new scheme by the end of this year.
Other schools will have to follow suit within the next 18 months.
Mr Edwin Chan, 60, principal of Cambridge Institute, one of the larger private education providers here, said he hopes to be among the first to be registered, and to also win the higher level Edutrust award for schools.
Edutrust, a new quality mark that schools can aim for, is compulsory for schools that take in both foreign and local students. Schools can vie for the bronze, silver or gold Edutrust award.
'We are going for the gold,' said Mr Chan.
This article was first published in The Straits Times.