Monday, June 11, 2007

Lessons from the UNSW Fiasco

As if criticism from its students, Singaporeans and its peers in Australian education weren't enough, UNSW Asia has now received bad words from the Chinese Government. In news just out, the Chinese government has warned its student against private educational institutions, and this issue is seen to be a serious setback to Singapore's drive to become an education hub.

"In a recent advisory to students, China's Education Ministry noted the unexpected closure of the UNSW Asia campus, located in Singapore.

It criticised UNSW Asia for its 'exaggerated' and 'false' claims about being rated among the world's top 50 universities.

The ministry said students should do their research before enrolling in schools set up by foreign institutions in another country.

It noted that there is a growing number of such schools which it said have 'varying standards'.

'In choosing a school or courses run by a foreign school in a third country, students should try to avoid schools which are unstable or have dubious quality.'

When asked, Mr Bai Yan Lei, second secretary (education) at the Chinese embassy in Singapore, said no complaints have been received from the five or so Chinese students at UNSW Asia.

But the UNSW Asia issue, coupled with the closures of private schools like AIT Unicampus and Ritz Everton Academy, would inadvertently dim Singapore's allure as a study destination for Chinese students, he said." (Straits Times, Jun 11)
But, the Chinese government's criticism notwithstanding, I think there is a bigger underlying problem with these sort of education initiatives in Singapore, and that is that what should primarily be a private-sector driven endeavour has had its reigns taken over by bureaucrats, politicians and administrators who have little practical business acumen.

Operations like this, first and foremost, have to be commercially viable to survive. If you can't pay the fees of academics and you can't pay the rent, and you can't afford the computers and facilities to run an educational institution, you simply can't run a university. In other words, the initiative has to be business and market centric. But how can you expect the venture to be business centric when the initiative is led by a bunch of academics and government scholars who have PhDs and 1st class Honours degrees, but lack business acumen? It's only natural for such an initiative to fail.

The fact is, people who have spent the majority of their careers writing academic papers and in secure, government administrative jobs simply don't have the experience and business sense to successfully execute ventures like this. Such ventures have to be led to the private sector. Indeed, when you compare a venture such as Raffles Education Corp, to the abysmal performance of the UNSW-EDB joint project, you will get exactly what I mean.

The same arguments apply to many other initiatives and grand plans that the government has: unless they are spearheaded by experienced businessmen and entrepreneurs, many economic projects that Singapore tries in the future will face similar consequences to the EDB-UNSW fiasco.

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