From ‘Global Schoolhouse’ to a diverse sector driven by local needs

In October 2016, the Singaporean regulatory body, the Committee for Private Education (CPE) introduced a series of regulatory changes designed to improve the quality of private education provision in Singapore. The new regulation has an increased emphasis upon graduate outcomes, reflecting a change in higher education policy focus over the last 15 years. Joe Taylor, UUK International's Asia Policy Manager, takes us through Singapore's changing HE policy landscape.


'Global Schoolhouse'

In December 2001, then Singaporean Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, set up the Economic Review Committee. The committee was tasked with reviewing current and past policy to making recommendations for strategies for future development. The review covered a range of sectors, convening seven sub-committees and several subordinate workgroups. The final output of the review, chaired by current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, was submitted in February 2003.

The report, Developing Singapore's Education Industry sets out recommendations to remake Singapore into:

  1. A globalised economy where Singapore is the key node in the global network, linked to all the major economies

  2. A creative and entrepreneurial nation willing to take risks to create fresh businesses and blaze new paths to success; and

  3. A diversified economy powered by the twin engines of manufacturing and services, where vibrant Singapore companies complement MNCs, and new start-ups co-exist with traditional businesses exploiting new and innovative ideas.

Developing Singapore's Education Industry looks at the contemporary political and economic context (particularly the 2001 recession). It then explores in particular detail seven core policy areas: fiscal and monetary policies; wages and the Central Provident Fund (CPF, an obligatory savings fund that covers the provision of social services); land; entrepreneurship; manufacturing; services; human capital; and restructuring and employment.

The SWOT analysis of the Singaporean education industry in 2002 is particularly telling:

Table 1 – SWOT Analysis



Strong academic reputation with well-developed public education system

Regulatory hurdles, e.g. private commercial schools can only operate as middlemen of foreign universities' programs

Safe, cosmopolitan, progressive East meets West society

Lack critical mass of quality professors and teachers

Asia Pacific hub for top foreign tertiary institutions, e.g. INSEAD, Georgia Tech, University of Chicago

High land costs, which would translate into higher course fees for institutions that require their own campuses

English is language of instruction and communication, which means a large addressable market

Shortage of affordable accommodation

Cost-competitive vis-' vis Australia, UK, USA

Student quotas at local universities, e.g. law, medicine

Already a regional magnet for students seeking quality education

Lack of quality assurance and accreditation agencies, which results in uneven quality among service providers, especially the private commercial schools

Located in region of top source countries for international students, e.g. India and China

Difficulty in securing student passes for international students, especially for the private commercial schools



Education contributes between 0.5-5.5% of GDP in top international student host countries (Australia, UK, USA), which indicates that education can be a significant and sustainable contributor to the economy

Reputation of competitors and perceived quality of overseas institutions, especially in the popular destinations such as Australia, U.S., Canada and the U.K.

Global market for higher education (consumption abroad only) is around US$30 billion. Total number of foreign students enrolled in higher education was 1.6 million in 1996 with an annual average growth rate of 5% since 1970. 45% of these students are from Asia with China, Korea, Japan, Malaysia and India comprising the top five source countries

Minimal regulatory hurdles in other countries (e.g. Malaysia) results in a diversity of public and private educational institutions, which increases the attractiveness as educational destinations

Growing demand from Asian students (especially China, Korea, Japan) for quality education at various levels' tertiary, pre-university, English language training, vocational training, etc. This is especially so amongst the fast-growth countries (such as China), where there is

Availability of internship and post-graduation job opportunities for international students in other countries. In Singapore, many international students (especially those that graduate from the private commercial schools) have to return home upon course completion, which lowers the overall value of the education here

Growing demand from Asian students (especially China, Korea, Japan) for quality education at various levels' tertiary, pre-university, English language training, vocational training, etc. This is especially so amongst the fast-growth countries (such as China), where there is unmet demand from the burgeoning middle classes for quality education services

Concerted marketing efforts of other host countries to attract international students and funded by the government, e.g. British Council, IDP Australia, US Department of State


The strengths highlight eight leading international universities having bases in Singapore. They were the result of the 1998 Singaporean Economic Development Board (EDB) World Class Universities (WCU) Programme. Six were American branch campuses, one from the Netherlands and one German.

In 2003, the Economic Development Board and Singapore Tourism Board launched Singapore Education, a campaign and web portal designed to encourage international students to apply to study in Singapore. An associated brand campaign was launched in 2006, as part of a reported ambition to bring 150,000 international students to Singapore by 2015.

The campaign had some success with a high of 90,000 international students in 2010, though the number had fallen by 2014. In 2013 the portal was closed, with traffic redirected to the Council for Private Education website.

Greater diversity, more opportunities

In May 2011, the People's Action Party (PAP) retained their power in the national elections, but opposition parties achieved their best performance since independence in 1965. Public dissatisfaction about rapid immigration and competition for jobs and housing were identified as causes of the PAP's relatively poor performance.

This dissatisfaction extended to education and international students:

Many online commenters felt that by reducing the number of international students admitted, more university places for Singaporeans could be freed up. Some also felt that the reasoning behind the influx of foreigners and university places were paradoxical: on the one hand foreigners are needed to meet talent shortages in the job market and on the other hand they perceived that university places were being limited to prevent graduate unemployment. However, others have also cautioned against a situation where outstanding foreign students, who may eventually be committed to contributing to Singapore, were kept out because of pro-Singaporean policies.

In August 2012, the Report of the Committee on University Education Pathways Beyond 2015 (CUEP) highlighted that in 2011, there were 71 registered private education institutions (PEIs) offering 819 undergraduate external programmes. Apart from SIM University (UniSIM), these institutions did not have degree awarding powers and were offering degree programmes of overseas partners (further information about the role of UK institutions in delivering this provision is available in the QAA report, Audit of overseas provision, Singapore (July 2011).

The report proposed changes to policy targets, funding, institutional and system design. The following recommendations have been highlighted to illustrate the focus of the policy upon domestic needs, and the role of private education in achieving the plurality of provision required to achieve this:

  • Recommendation 1: Increase publicly-funded university cohort participation rate (CPR) to 40% by 2020

    • The Committee recommends raising the publicly-funded, pre-employment training (PET) university CPR to 40% by 2020, thereby creating about 3,000 additional places compared to today. This increase will raise the number of publicly-funded PET degree places to about 16,000 by 2020.

    • In addition to the increase in the number of publicly-funded PET degree places, we also recommend that the Government support the growth of publicly funded continuing education and training (CET) degree places. Currently, an estimated 7% of the cohort pursues a publicly-funded CET degree. As support and demand for skills upgrading increases, the publicly-funded CET participation rate could increase to about 10% by 2020.

  • Recommendation 2: Diversify the university landscape to provide more opportunities

    • Notwithstanding these positive developments, we believe that there is room for greater diversity in our university sector. Other countries' university landscapes are more variegated, comprising a thriving eco-system of public and private universities, research-intensive and applied pathways, with options for both fresh school leavers and working adults seeking a degree education. Having such a diverse and comprehensive university landscape in Singapore will better enable us to meet the needs of our citizens and economy. 

  • Recommendation 5: Conduct in-depth study of the private education (PE) sector

    • Currently, there is insufficient data to fully assess the quality and value of various PEI programmes. Hence, the Committee recommends conducting an in-depth study of the programmes and student profile of the PE sector. An expert panel could be established to advise on key quality parameters and data indicators to be collected through an independent survey. This will facilitate a better quality assessment of the PEI programmes, and set the stage for tighter regulatory controls, beyond the mandatory baseline standards that are already in place today.

Higher education policy emphasis in Singapore now and in future years

The commissioning and recommendations of the Report of the Committee on University Education Pathways Beyond 2015 (CUEP), demonstrates a response to public concerns. It represents a shift in policy emphasis from education as 'an export' to a means to meet the skills needs of the domestic population. The hope was that these needs could be met through a variegated expansion of the sector, which included an increased role for private providers.

The 2014 Applied Study in Polytechnics and ITE Review (ASPIRE) Committee produced further recommendations to improve vocational provision. These were to provide students with more information to help them make more informed career choices, create more opportunities for technical education and build more pathways for technical graduates into education and on to careers.

Singapore's higher education policy is tightly focused on the future graduate skillset and employability. To meet this, expectations on private education institutions have recently been revised. UUKi's information note outlines the key changes and actions that UK universities working with Singapore may wish to consider.

The emphasis on meeting the lifetime skills requirements of the Singaporean population is expected to continue in the medium term. Government's focus is on building a pluralistic system, with leading international research intensive universities alongside those with a dedicated focus upon vocational training.

Rather than seeing tighter regulations as restricting possibilities for the UK's universities in Singapore, the breadth of our TNE programmes means that we are well positioned to work with Singapore's private education institutions to cater to the region's well-defined future vision.

Our team


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