I am not sure when it all first started, but education in Singapore has quietly been turned into a commodity. In fact, the commoditisation of education has become quite a prevalent phenomenon. Tuition centres that are registered businesses have seized upon the opportunity to market their wares as soon as examination results are announced: photographs of students are displayed alongside their examination results, accompanied by statements that attribute the students’ achievements to the centres’ curriculum and tutoring services.
Not too long ago, a current affairs programme featured interviews of some students who unanimously chimed that the extra tutoring at these private schools contributed to the improvement of their examination results. As the society and the government are ambivalent about whether education should be run like a business, they have had no cause to crack down on the adoption of commercial marketing tactics by profit-driven schools to win over the confidence of parents and students — their targeted customers. After all, the parents purchase the centres’ products and sign their children up for the classes as willing customers.
However, it is interesting to note that such a practice has also spilled over to the public schools. They have begun to treat parents and students as their customers, while shaping their institutions with the aggressiveness and strategies worthy of any commercial brand. Their objective is to ensure continued and even increased enrolment as well as the improvement in the school’s ranking.
While the schools’ adoption of such strategies is understandable, one could not help, but worry about the consequences and impact on the relationship that schools and teachers enjoy with the parents and students. In this new relationship, schools and teachers are now service providers, with the parents and students occupying the role of consumers. Whenever their rights and interests clash, the Ministry of Education steps in, playing the role of a consumer watchdog, to mediate their conflict.
With the transformation of the educational landscape, some unprecedented and thought-provoking questions have been raised. Since students attribute their academic success to tuition classes, then what purpose do the mainstream schools serve? Or do schools constitute a waste of time and taxpayers’ money? Should they be dismissed as being totally unproductive? Or perhaps some subjects could be better taught in schools, with others allocated to the tuition centres? If the learning process outside the school works better for students, then which areas need to be improved within the mainstream schools? Should outstanding academic results be attributed to the school teacher or the tuition teacher? And should those aspiring to teach join the mainstream school or a tuition centre (apparently, one could earn more than ten thousand dollars a month in the latter)?
Non-standardised school fees have also produced schools of differing qualities. The situation is particularly striking in the preschool sector that does not receive any direct subsidy from the government. Hence, there are disparate standards in the curricula and teaching staff of different schools. In terms of equal education opportunities, it is a regrettable situation for the majority of the children who come from families that are unable to afford the more highly-priced schools, despite government grants.
With the emergence of education business groups that engage in franchising and acquisition on a broad scale, the education sector has been infiltrated by the demands of economic returns. There has been an avalanche of all kinds of degree and diploma courses and others that deal with the right brain and left brain, multiple intelligences, mental arithmetic, speed reading, memory, etc. Parents who do not have a clear idea of the fundamental learning and developmental needs of their children, but yet harbour hopes for their success, have been flocking to sign up.
Is that what education in the 21st century should be? This is a critical issue that deserves serious reflection, for the quality and vitality of the citizens and the future of a nation is dependent on its education system. And for a country like Singapore, short on land and natural resources, our choices about our education system have even more far-reaching consequences than for most other nations.
In my view, the organisations that manage the resources of education should never operate on the principles of commercialisation and profit-making. For if costs become the overriding factor, then many cornerstones of education, such as the training of teachers, ratio between teachers and students, administrative support, and service delivery for kids with special needs, would be overlooked or curbed.
Finland is one of the most competitive nations in the world. Erkki Aho who had served as the Director General of the Finnish National Board of Education for 20 years (from 1972) states that education has played a key role in the current achievements of Finland. The core value of its education system is that “every child is important”. According to Aho, while nations with a bigger population could withstand losing one or two million people to poor education, Finland, with a population of only five million, has to take care of each and every child. This vision and concern is sorely missing in those who view education simply as a commodity.
Since the 1970s, Finland has embarked on radical educational reforms with the aim of achieving high-quality universal education so that all children could enjoy equal opportunities for learning. As a result, a few crucial decisions were made: highly-subsidised pre-school education; nine years of free education; and an effective funding system. At the same time, a non-centralised power structure allows the schools and teachers to enjoy the autonomy of making their own decisions. The Finnish government’s commitment to the development of its human resources is further evidenced by the fact that it continued to increase funding for education and research and development, even during the economic recession in the early 1990s. As costs were never an issue, education was not run like a business in Finland.
We are now entering the 11th year of the 21st century. Yet as we ponder about education reforms, we have not begun to re-think preschool and adult education in a more consistent and integrated fashion. Rather, we have adopted an excessively indulgent stance towards the commercialisation of education, and as a result, we have lost our way in our pursuit of economic benefits and productive value in the education sector. In the long term, we could gradually lose sight of the fundamental purpose of our education — strengthening the quality and ability of the citizens in an earnest manner.
In a civilised society, the education, charity and medical sectors should not, and ought not, be commercialised.