Saturday July 25, 2009, The Star Online
From head start to headache
Insight Down South by SEAH CHEANG NEE
SINGAPORE’S bid to turn the dream of millions of Asians for a 21st century education into a big business has run into a snag.
Two news headlines last week explained part of it: the first read, “Business school shut down for selling fake degrees”, and then a day later, “A second case of bogus certificates”.
Hundreds of students found their higher studies rudely interrupted when the two rogue schools were ordered to close, forcing them to scramble for alternatives or drop their study pursuits.
The larger of the two, Brookes Business School, saw 400 students (half of them foreigners) in the horns of a dilemma.
It also delivered a blow to Singapore’s image as a reliable hub for higher education, which now caters to an estimated 100,000 foreign students from 20 countries.
Privately-run Brookes had handed out fake degrees from top universities in Britain and Australia, including the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, which has lodged a police report.
In the other case, 40 students, all from abroad, suffered the same fate.
The closures came as a shock to the students, some of whom only found out when they arrived to find the doors locked.
They are the latest in a series of scandals in recent years committed by rogue merchants “who cashed in on people’s dreams” (as one critic put it).
The victims, from Singapore, China, India and countries in South-east Asia, were duped into paying S$12,000 to S$18,000 a year for a worthless piece of paper.
They came because of Singapore’s reputation for high standards, believing that any school that registered with the government must be reliable.
After the news broke, several Singaporeans who graduated from Brookes Business School with fake RMIT degrees resigned from their jobs before they were found out.
In the past four years, about a dozen reported cases of bogus degrees or misleading claims about the mushrooming private schools have left thousands of foreigners stranded.
These samples of news headlines indicate the scope of it:
> Feb 25, 2009: “Four Private Schools Closed — Be Careful!”. Altogether 11 have failed in the past year due to poor enrolments, with many students losing their money.
> Oct 24, 2008: “Fancy Setting, Worthless Degrees”; 76 people graduate with worthless papers from an unaccredited university known as a degree supplier.
> Sept 15, 2008: “Stop These Degree Courses, School Told”; Ministry of Education revokes approval for University of Northern Virginia courses; 270 students were affected.
> June 9, 2007: “Froebel Shuts Its Doors To Angry Students”. Mostly students from China, they protested against the non-issuing of certificates and no refunds, while lecturers were not paid for work.
> Sept 20, 2006: “Two China students Sue IT School” saying they had paid S$80,500 for a “misrepresented” Masters course. A check by reporters found its premises vacated.
> Sept 2, 2005: “900 Students Hit By School’s Closure”. The affected were mostly foreigners, having to leave AIT Academy when it failed to meet government standards.
In perspective, these make up only a fraction of the nation’s 1,200 private — mostly small — schools. So is the proportion of rogue merchants that cash in on people’s dreams.
The black mark does not affect the majority of education ventures in Singapore — particularly the mainstream universities and official institutions — which provide high quality courses.
However limited in number, these few high-profile scams are spreading far and wide across frontiers that could hurt the city’s image as a reliable, distinctive hub.
As a victim from China said: “If people in China hears about this, fewer of them will come to Singapore.”
The government is worried that the cheating cases could undermine the country’s fast-growing, US$8bil a year education hub.
It plans to enact a new Private Education Bill later this year to impose tougher penalties on commercial ventures (including hefty fines and imprisonment) that misrepresent themselves and leave students in the lurch.
Until then, it is tightening supervision on them; last year it took measures to protect students from unfairly losing their fee money.
Critics blame it partly on the government for allowing these schools to proliferate so quickly that it makes screening or supervision almost impossible.
One of them blogged: “The question is, how could something so good go so bad and so fast in this efficient city?”
Some of them are calling for a scale-back of plans to have 150,000 foreign students here by 2015 — a 50% increase from current figures.
Their rationale is this already over-crowded city will not be able to cope with it.
People’s Action Party backbencher Inderjit Singh said: “I don’t think numbers are important. We should get in (a few) respectable names first.”
It is unlikely to be heeded though, with Singapore’s other hub activities likely to remain weak in the coming years.
“Education is the most resilient of all the hubs, and it has survived the recession relatively unscathed,” said a private tutor. He is getting more classes to teach.
Not all foreigners who end up with a worthless degree or diploma are con victims.
Some of them, who lack the minimum qualifications to be accepted for a mainstream institution (many hardly speak English), or are too poor to afford to afford it, are willing participants in the scam.
For them, a fake degree will help get them a job back home — which, of course, spells more trouble for Singapore.
Unless it is under control, a day may arrive when global companies start looking at a Singapore-issued degrees through a magnifying glass.