Open up a newspaper any day and there are many advertisements by local private schools advertising degree programmes of some kind from overseas universities, primarily those in the UK, Australia and the United States. Many of these programmes offer an excellent means of obtaining a quality education for people looking to go back to school after a break or those without the time or finances to go abroad. However, potential students need to be very cautious about entering into these programmes as some are better than others – and some aren’t good at all.  Below we will briefly cover what to look for and what questions to ask when you are shopping around.

The Cert Isn’t Everything!
The objective about going back to school too often is to earn another certificate. The purpose of education is not to get a piece of paper with your name on it, the purpose is to actually learn something that can help further your career or grow as an individual.  However, the choice of overseas university is important and you should always thoroughly research the overseas university before signing a contract to validate that it is a reputable institution.  Do not blindly rely on what the sales people tell you. If the school is top-ranked, then ask top-ranked by who?  And independently verify what they tell you or what is written in the sales information. Don’t expect the university to be in the top ten anywhere; a Columbia, Harvard or Oxford really have no reason to engage in these sort of external programmes. If the school is somewhere in the middle of the pack in that country then that is usually ok.

Furthermore, verify that the certificate awarded is from the overseas university.  Sometimes, the overseas university merely ‘validates’ an advanced diploma awarded by the private school in Singapore. These diplomas are known and generally recognised by employers in Singapore but not elsewhere – especially not in the United States or UK.

Advanced Standing
If you have some academic experience beyond ‘O’ levels it may be possible to apply some credits towards a degree.  Always have a copy of your educational records handy at the sales consultation and ask that you know what, if any, advanced standing you will be eligible for before you sign on.

Railroading And Flexibility
Many programmes are broken down into four or more modules, each with a different level of diploma awarded before the final degree. Ask if it is possible to change tracks after you start. Often, once you are on one track you need to start over if you decide to change the specific focus of your studies.  This of course adds to the overall cost of the programme and gets more money to the private school.  By having students enroll in local diploma programmes as long as possible, this ensures that you are tied to the local school as those credits may only be acceptable to the overseas universities that it works with and none other – greatly limiting your ability to transfer to another programme and take your credits with you.

Verify from the start what is the school’s policy for dropping out or taking a break from the programme. Read all the fine print carefully. Many times, once you sign on for a given module you need to keep paying a monthly fee for up to two years regardless of whether you enroll in a class or submit assignments.  If you don’t understand the legal jargon, bring it home and have someone help you with it before you sign – don’t rely on the school to explain it to you.
Furthermore, ask what the drop out rate is.  If 90 percent of the people who start the programme don’t finish then something is clearly wrong with it.  If the sales consultant says that information is not available or proprietary then you should walk out the door and find another school that produces graduates.  A completion rate of 50 percent is generally pretty decent.

Classes And Instructors
Sometimes classroom attendance isn’t compulsory, but if it is available you clearly should avail yourself of it. However, as the quality of private schools vary, so too does the quality of teachers.  Before signing up, ask to sit in on the next lesson to get a feel for the classroom component.  Don’t ‘come back next Tuesday’ to see the lesson as that may be the best instructor’s session that the private school likes to show off.  Ask what lessons are running that evening and then ask to sit in on whichever one is closest to your area of interest.  Many of the best teachers at these private schools are not Western, just because some white faces are on the advertisements doesn’t mean it is a good programme.

Advice from friends and family in these programmes is very helpful.  Also, you should ask to read some testimonials and success stories of past students. Did they enjoy the programme?  Did they get their money’s worth? Finally, did it increase their career prospects? You may even want to call the Ministry of Education to see if there have been complaints about that school registered recently. Thankfully, now there is the Centre for Private Education to check up.

There are many ways to earn a foreign degree in Singapore, but you have to be careful.  Remember that unlike universities, the local private schools are usually for profit companies looking to make as many sales as possible for their owners and shareholders. Demand that any promises made are in writing and not verbal, and are authorised by a manager as the sales staff turn over quickly and may not be around a month or two down the road.

If you use caution as your watchword, and follow some of the advice above, you should be able to find a programme that matches your requirements and budget.