How does a private school stay relevant?

May 05, 2017 11.00AM |

by Suhaile Md

PRIVATE Educational Institutes are, well, privately funded. No G subsidies in other words. Which means it can ill-afford to continue with programmes that are irrelevant to students. Otherwise it would die off.

“We really look at what the market is looking for, what students are actually also looking for in terms of academic programmes, said Dr Michael Cope, Director of Studies at the London School of Business and Finance (LSBF). So it’s a balance really between the kind of knowledge expected by the job market as well as what students expect to learn. So far, it has aligned well.

LSBF offers 55 different courses in fields like law, hospitality, banking and finance, logistics, and business among others. Qualifications range from preparatory courses to highly ranked post-graduate and masters courses like the MSc Finance degree from the Grenoble Graduate School of Business. But most are diploma and advanced diploma courses.

Which is why there’s another factor that’s taken into consideration when developing the curriculum. Added Dr Cope: “To a certain extent you’re looking at progression as well… if students want to continue and eventually want to end up towards a degree you’ve also got to look at the content.” In other words, the diploma courses LSBF designs also fulfil university entrance requirements of LSBF’s university partners.

There’s a limit to how responsive curriculums should be to current trends however. Not because schools don’t want to, but because “you’re talking about underpinning knowledge”, said Dr Cope.

For example, “there’s new areas in marketing but, I still got a third edition of Kotler at home which I used donkey years back… except for the newer sections (on digital marketing), it’s more or less the same.” Dr Cope was referring to the widely-used Principles of Marketing textbook by Dr Philip Kotler. The 16th edition of the book was published in 2015.

The issue of “what should be in a programme and what shouldn’t be”, is really a balance of keeping fundamental knowledge and adding updated relevant information.

Which is why marketing students across the board take similar core modules. At the National University of Singapore (NUS) and the Singapore Management University (SMU) for example, undergraduates learn market research, consumer behaviour, and so on. Digital marketing is an elective at both Universities – not compulsory.

That’s what Dr Cope means by balancing fundamentals with new trends.

There are basically three categories of students at LSBF: part-time, full-time, and executives. Public universities tend to cater to full-timers, while a large proportion of part-time students are enrolled in private institutions. A drive by the G to get polytechnic and ITE students to sign up for the Earn and Learn programme is starting a small shift towards what is effectively an apprenticeship model.

Courses for executives tend to be short, modular courses, and it changes quite frequently according to market demands. These are usually a few days long. It deals with specific skills like performance management and appraisals or effective communication for accounting professionals.

Most of the part-time and full-time students are engaged in diploma courses. Whether part-time or full-time however, these students have the same learning outcomes, sit for the same exams, and are awarded the same certificates. What differs is the learning approach, to cater to their different needs.

The part-time student

Said Dr Cope: “Generally 90 odd per cent of our part-time students I would say… are studying because they want to maybe change their career or want to improve their job prospects.”

Like ACCA student Ms Anastasia Pauline for example. The 28-year old is an audit assistant at an accounting and audit firm. Her company encouraged – with some sponsorship even – her to study accounting soon after they offered her a permanent job there. Prior to that she was working for them part-time and only had basic knowledge of accounting.

She chose LSBF because the “class notes are very useful, and the lecturers are structured”, she said. Furthermore, lecturers “go beyond the call of duty” by staying past 10.15pm when part-time classes end just to answer students’ queries.

They understand the demands of the working student and work around it. For example, lessons for shorter topics are uploaded online, in video format, to free up space for classroom teaching on harder, longer topics. Even these lessons are recorded in audio and uploaded just in case students miss class due to work commitments.

But that’s also possible, said Dr Cope, because “part-time students, they are generally quite motivated, they’ve got a specific goal, they’re quite clear in terms of why they’re doing it (studies).” In fact, although top scorers tend to come from full-time classes, the passing rate amongst part-time students is higher than full-time students, he added.

The full-time student 

“Our full-time students are a bit of a different target market,” said Dr Cope. “They are typically students coming out of high school so they really don’t know what they want… they generally don’t have the learning skills.”

Additionally, “employers will tell you that constantly they get students who come out of the Universities and pretty much they’re useless when they walk into the office…they don’t know how to interact in the office, they can’t produce reports, they can’t do basic research, their writing skills are horrible… they are actually like fish out of water.

“So we end up having to pump in quite a lot of effort to develop independent learning skills to our full-time students which we generally don’t have to do with our part-time students.”

But do the students actually pick up such skills in the end? Ms Cho Yebeen at least, agrees. The 22-year old is a full-time student enrolled in the English language course.

Her classwork is intense. She has tests every week. Ms Cho’s tested on the 60 new words she’s supposed learn weekly, then there’s the grammar test and reading test as well. But that’s what you would expect in most English language courses.

At LSBF though, she has to do research, write argumentative essays, and make presentations on various topics throughout her two month term. Topics like globalisation, childhood education, and environmental issues, among others, are discussed.

It was challenging but the results are undeniable. “In two months,” said Ms Cho, she went “from not speaking a single sentence of English to being fluent now”. But “still a little unconfident”, she added sheepishly. The Korean student wishes to go for undergraduate studies in business overseas but she felt she needed to improve her English language skills before embarking on it.

LSBF it seems is not alone in observing the need to develop basic skills like writing and research. NUS revised its Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) curriculum last year. All freshmen must now take two writing courses – academic writing and public writing – to develop critical thinking, and clear communication skills.

Students from other NUS faculties learn writing and critical thinking through general education modules. Engineering student Mr Naowed Abeer for example took the module“Public Persona and Self-Presentation”. The 22-year old freshman said he had to submit three essays which are graded. Research and analysis was required every time he wrote an essay.  Before the final submission, his lecturer would critic his drafts and guide him on how to organise his words for clarity of argument and expression.

When asked if he thought such modules better prepared him for the working world, Mr Abeer said it helps to a certain point. But there’s no substitute for actual work experience.

During his National Service (NS) stint in the Civil Defence Force for example, he was put in charge of projects with minimal guidance, and no prior experience. The hardest part was identifying blind spots he was not even aware he had. It was like trying to imagine a colour he had never seen. Learning to deal with such situations is something that “cannot be taught in the classroom”, said Mr Abeer.


This article is the second of a three-part series in collaboration with LSBF. Read the first article here.


Featured image by LSBF

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