Leong Sze Hian: My 41 years’ private education experience


Compared with the fame of the public university, private institutes continue to bear the label of mediocrity,  is it the time for us to reconsider the condition that private institutes are facing.

I refer to Cheng Yi’En’s article “Commentary: Is private higher education in Singapore a ‘second chance’ option?” (Channel NewsAsia, Sep 17).

I would like to applaud Cheng Yi’En who is a postdoctoral fellow at the Yale-NUS College, for such an excellent article.

It states that “As local public universities make their mark on world ranking leagues, private institutes continue to bear the label of mediocrity.

Private degree students not only tend to be viewed in a lesser light compared to their public university counterparts, they are also not doing as well in the graduate job market.

The recent restructuring of UniSIM from a private to a public, autonomous university represents an exceptional case. Many other private institutes will remain non-elite institutes responding to growing aspirations of both local and international degree-seeking students.

According to an Asian Development Bank report, a large proportion of private institutes in Asia occupy the bottom of the prestige hierarchy within their domestic higher education landscape.

This is in part due to private institutes taking on a demand-absorbing role. Private institutes absorb the demand that public institutions, usually with more exclusive admissions criteria, cannot accommodate.

So public universities end up with the academically best students, while private institutes stay “second chance” options.


The perception that a private degree education is a “second chance” for those not accepted into public universities is prevalent among the general public, including administrators, educators and even private education students themselves.

The answer looks like a no. The first graduate employment survey on students from nine private institutes who graduated in 2014 found that 42 per cent of them were unable to secure full-time jobs within six months of completing their studies. This is striking contrast to an 83 per cent successful full-time job rate among public university students.

Private degree graduates also command a lower pay compared to their public university peers.


The Committee for Private Education recently strengthened its framework by introducing a new criterion for private institutes to assess graduate employment. This is a right step forward as the private education sector should be held responsible for producing graduates who can compete in the job market.

But the manner in which youths are being prepared for the future economy needs to go beyond industry-relevance.

Professor Philip Altbach, prominent scholar, researcher and commentator of higher education, argued that industry skill-based education has been “overblown”. He is of the opinion that higher education should not be overly fixated on responding to vocational needs and job demands, but should aim to train our young to adopt a broader and flexible way of thinking.

Local public universities are increasingly keen to shift higher education toward holistic learning, critical thinking and adaptive competences. For instance, NUS has established a Centre for Future-ready Graduates which runs programmes designed to equip students with a toolbox of “broad-based essential life skills”.

It is important that private institutes similarly respond to this shift to set themselves on a more equal footing with public universities and prepare their graduates to navigate a rapidly changing labour market.

Being sensitive to employability and industry needs is still important. But it is equally crucial to offer our young people an opportunity to acquire lifelong habits of the mind such as creativity and flexible thinking that is central to the learning journey of higher education.


In an earlier commentary on the age-old question on university rankings, one keen observer pointed out that university rankings matter since “coming from a highly-ranked university sends the signal that this person has potential and is poised for success because they beat many others to get into a top-notch school in their youth”.

The author added that “if students’ key objective is getting a headstart in their working lives, (university rankings) should matter to them too.”

To be told this brutal fact from someone who has more than 10 years’ experience in executive search is especially disquieting.

For one, employers and hirers need to give more consideration to broadly defined skill sets and aptitudes, rather than fixating on degree credentials and university brand names.

If employers and hirers adopt an “elitist” mentality and continue to be obsessed with reputation built on an unequal ground that privileges public universities, the job market will continue to bear out this bias.

A truly meritocratic system will consider the potential and capabilities of each individual, in deciding who the best person for the job is, compared to one that is fixated on educational credentials.

There is merit in the philosophy that there are many pathways to success – whether through a private higher education after working for a few years or a public university right after, or even in considering a polytechnic position rather than a junior college route.

What we need now is to avoid turning these pathways into hierarchies.

Over recent years, we have witnessed an increase in students who did well in the O-Levels actively opting for polytechnics, so we have no reason to think that private higher education cannot likewise become a mainstream path.

Private higher education has the potential to be a boon and a bane in every society. It is what we do collectively to ensure it does more good and enable our youths to chase their dreams that matter.”

Given the consistent rhetoric in recent years that Singaporeans do not need a degree, and the problems that increasingly PMETs have, in unemployment and under-employment – I would like to share my lifelong (I’m turning 64 years old this year) “private education” experience.

I was offered a place in 1975, in the Bachelor of Science course (If I remember correctly – the annual tuition fees then was about $600) by the University of Singapore (now known as NUS).

As to “Private institutes also offer young working adults, including those who decided to enter the working world before returning to university, with flexible course arrangements to upgrade their qualifications” – as my late father was then a bankrupt or in a state of insolvency – my financial circumstances were then such that I could not afford to study full-time (no part-time degree courses were available then like now).

So, I went to work and embarked on studies part-time by self-study, since I had no money to attend classes after work at the private educational institutions. I was so poor that I could not even afford to buy textbooks. So, I relied almost entirely on borrowing “similar” textbooks from the libraries.

My first course was the Diploma in Organisation and Methods and the Diploma in Administrative Management (if I remember correctly – the examination fee per subject was only about three pounds), of the Institute of Administrative Management (IAM), United Kingdom, which I completed in about a year in 1976. (I subsequently became the chairman of the IAM’s Singapore Branch).

In this connection, I think one of the problems with private and public education today, maybe the high cost, compared to mine in the 70s and 80s.

I was much encouraged as I did not fail any of the 12 papers and to my surprise I passed one of the diplomas with distinction (my A levels was B, E, two subsidiary passes (means failed two A-level subjects), and my O levels – a relatively poor 17 points for the best five subjects, in Raffles Institution).

I was particularly encouraged and motivated by my colleagues’ reaction to my funny and strange suggestions about how to possibly change things at work.

To cut a long story short – I completed 3 masters degrees, 2 bachelors degrees and 13 professional qualifications.

I particularly enjoyed my residential stints at the United Nations University International Leadership Academy, Harvard Business School, University of Pennsylvania (Wharton School), Stanford University, etc.

With regard to “Lack of information, stereotypes and old mindsets about the merits of a public university education handed down from the older generation may have perpetuated negative views about private degree education.

On the flip side, some see private education institutes as meeting a growing demand for qualifications. Private institutes serve as an additional route to obtain a degree for those who did not manage to secure a spot in a local public university.

Even so, given that so many students see private higher education as a substitute for public higher education, the more important question may be whether both put graduates on equal footing – I have enjoyed particularly the networking and interesting, fun and meaningful activities during my 41 years’ private education experience.

In this connection, I have served as chairman/president of three professional bodies, president of a human rights NGO, honorary consul of two countries and founding advisor to the financial planning associations of two countries.

In respect of “A second important question is what can be done to close this gap and even the unequal playing fields between private and public higher education.

I think part of the answer lies in shifting the present discourse from private degree education as a “second chance” towards seeing it as a “socially viable” option.

For the public to see private education as a socially viable alternative – it has to be an acceptable mainstream option that university entrants think of alongside public universities.

This is a mammoth task – asking that society’s mindset regarding the quality of private education graduates change, particularly those of hirers, educators and parents. This means that private institutes must up their game to strengthen their value-add to students’ educational and learning experiences – let me just say that I am turning 64 and still continuing to learn, and I hope you will too – regardless of what some people may be telling you that it may be pointless to upgrade yourself, because your job may easily be taken away by a non-Singaporean who may be cheaper and better.

Leong Sze Hian

About the Author

Leong Sze Hian has served as president of 4 professional bodies, honorary consul of 2 countries, an alumnus of Harvard University, authored 4 books, quoted over 1500 times in the media , has been a radio talkshow host, a newspaper daily columnist, Wharton Fellow, SEACeM Fellow, columnist for theonlinecitizen and Malaysiakini, executive producer of Ilo Ilo (40 international awards), invited to speak more than 200 times in over 30 countries, CIFA advisory board member, founding advisor to the Financial Planning Associations of Indonesia and Brunei. He has 3 Masters, 2 Bachelors degrees and 13 professional  qualifications.