Singaporean school's closure opens a can of worms

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Int'l tertiary education in HCMC marked by dubious quality, inept administration


Students gather outside the Melior Business School in Ho Chi Minh City, preparing to lodge complaints on November 12. The school's abrupt closure while it was under investigation for opening unregistered courses has left 150 students and their teachers in the lurch.

Lan Huong had great hopes of landing a decent job after getting an international certificate in business administration.

She willingly paid the high fees demanded by a Singaporean school in Ho Chi Minh City because it would be well worth it in the end, she said. In fact, she had passed the university entrance exam and earned a much coveted seat at a public university, but she said an international course would offer greater value.

Two weeks after her classes began at the Melior Business School, she came to her class as usual on November 12 only to find it closed. 

Huong and many others only saw a notice by the building owner that said the school had ceased to operate and failed to pay rent, an allegation refuted by the school's general director.

"I don't know how to get back the school fees," Huong said. She had paid VND70 million (US$3,460) for the year, more than 20 times the maximum she would pay public universities.

But Huong had an even greater worry than the money she had lost. She said she does not know how to continue studying as other schools have already enrolled students for the academic year.

Huong and more than 150 students at Melior have been left in the lurch, and it appears that their plight was not a major concern when authorities and/or the school management decided to close the institution.

Experts say the case highlights several aspects of the problem sluggish improvements in the local education system that drives the preference for studying at foreign schools, an inept administration, lack of proper quality assessments and accreditations and a misguided notion that for-profit institutions offer better education.

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On Monday, the HCMC Department of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs announced that it had revoked the license of Melior because the school had been licensed to offer only short-term courses in tourism, hotel management and business administration, but it was found offering undergraduate courses.

The decision was issued on November 16, four days after the school shut down without any notice to students.

Last May, the Ministry of Education and Training had fined the school for opening unregistered courses and instructed HCMC authorities to monitor future compliance.

But the ministry's inspectors found that the school was persisting with its violations and issued another fine on October 11. This time the ministry asked that the HCMC People's Committee, the municipal administration, revoke its license.

While the committee was discussing the issue with relevant agencies, the school abruptly closed down.

The city's labor department, which has been criticized for being sluggish in revoking the school's license, has said it is considering similar action against two other Singaporean schools, Education and Research Center Institute Vietnam (ERC) and Singapore Informatics & Business Management Education Ltd., (SIBME), which have been emulating Melior's violations.

A foreign teacher at Melior, who wanted to remain anonymous, told Vietweek that he had received an SMS from the academic director, while full time teachers received a formal email terminating their employment.

"I feel very sorry [for the students] as they have been put in a terrible situation: they have been paying a fortune for their education, now they cannot even prove it if they want to transfer to other institutions as Melior has run away," he said.

Cheng Sim Kok, Melior director, told Vietweek in an email that he is trying to help students continue their studies with its parent institution in Singapore as well as schools in Vietnam and the city-state.

"We are trying to arrange more options, so students can revert to their original goal, which is to study. We hope they can take up the option, and complete their studies," he said.

He denied allegations that he had swindled money from the firm and fled the country. He said following reports the education ministry had decided to shut the school down and "we were given a copy of that decision.

"We wrote to [the] Vice Minister to appeal, and highlighted the wrong allegations, but no help possible. So we have to plan for shutdown. Meanwhile we tried other informal contacts, trying out best to work out a solution. We all avenues failed, we accepted the fact we have to go."

Messier still

The Melior case has revealed problems in management of foreign schools as well as the dubious quality of education they provide.

The mother of a student at Melior, who wanted to be identified only as N., admitted that she had not studied the school carefully before getting her child enrolled there. 

"I have seen several other children near my house study at the school and get an international certificate. I thought that if the school was committing violations, it would not have been operating for so many years, and so many students would not have graduated from it," she said.

There has been no mention about what impact the school's closure would have on the certificates it has issued to those who have already graduated. Kok said: "MBS graduates have been accepted by colleges in Switzerland, Australia etc."

Jonathan Pincus, resident academic advisor of Harvard Kennedy School's Vietnam Program, said Vietnam should improve its higher education system in general and its  accreditation system in particular to avoid similar incidents in the future.

"There are plenty of unscrupulous institutions who try to offer an inferior quality of education at a high price just to make money," he told Vietweek.

He said many colleges and universities in many countries have a career development office that builds relationships with employers and tries to get their graduates jobs with them.

"In my experience, Vietnamese universities do not spend enough time and money on career development for their students. They just offer courses and degrees, and it is up to the students to find their own jobs if they can," he said.

Pincus also said that part of the problem in Vietnam is that there are more high school graduates now than ever before and many of them do not know how to choose a university and where to get advice from. 

"They often turn to companies that have been set up to give students advice and help them get admission to foreign universities," he said, adding that many of these companies are paid by low quality institutions to recruit students for them.

Pincus also said Vietnam should remove "legal obstacles to establishing non-profit universities," if it is serious about improving the educational system in the country.

"One of the biggest problems in Vietnam is that everyone seems to think that higher education is a business," he said.

"There are many for-profit universities, both foreign and Vietnamese. But the fact is that the best universities in the world are not for profit."

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