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Singapore hopes to become global education hub

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SINGAPORE (Reuters) -- If you've ever fumed about a long commute to school, meet John LaVacca.

Every six weeks for two years, the American executive would fly from Australia to Singapore for a week of classes at the Asia campus of the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business.

LaVacca, an Asia-Pacific manager at International Business Machines Corp (IBM) based in Melbourne, was not put off by the nine-hour flight, often spending the time cramming for exams. "It made the flight pass very quickly," the 44-year-old says.

Singapore's government is pouring millions of dollars into creating an education hub in Asia, hoping to transform both its economy and identity. Luring more visitors like LaVacca is a big part of that strategy.

The government expects education services to generate about five percent of gross domestic product -- the total value of the economy -- in the next decade, up from 3.6 percent now.

It has forecast a tripling in the number of foreign students here to 150,000 by 2012, as a growing middle class in parts of Asia look for schools outside the United States and Europe for their higher education needs, along with business executives.

"This growing education market in Asia is a major economic opportunity for us," Trade Minister George Yeo said in a recent speech.

About 22,000 new jobs will come from local and foreign institutions in the next 10 years, he estimated -- a figure that nearly matches the 26,000 jobs lost in the June quarter as the economy toiled near recession.

Growing hub

The University of Chicago, whose Asia campus sits in a restored 121-year-old traditional Chinese estate, is just one of a growing field of offshore institutions in Singapore.

Others include France's INSEAD, Johns Hopkins, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University and Technische Universiteit Eindhoven of the Netherlands.

For Singapore's policymakers, the aim is to grab a larger slice of the international education market, worth an estimated $2.2 trillion, according to a government report.

With no natural resources, the trade-reliant country hopes to develop sectors such as education, healthcare and biomedical sciences as the manufacturers at the heart of its economy come under threat from lower-cost factories in China.

By promoting official bilingualism for decades -- English and Mandarin Chinese -- Singapore has already carved out a unique role in Southeast Asia as a hub for multinational firms, capitalizing on its educated workforce and language skills.

It also has a leg up as a traditionally popular education destination for thousands of Southeast Asian students; most of LaVacca's classmates are drawn from the region. "These students helped to provide a local and broader Asian context to the materials studied," he said.

The government hopes to broaden the mix of international students by diversifying its range of courses -- from art and design to business and engineering -- and by marketing Singapore as a safe, cosmopolitan society.

'Nanny state'

But authorities also must overcome Singapore's reputation as a nanny state known for tough social controls, including pervasive censorship, that are at odds with the ideals of academia and the notion of free-thinking campuses full of intellectuals.

Chandru Rajam, a regional director at British consultancy The Economist Group, told a seminar that creative thinking in Singapore had withered in an education system that traditionally emphasized conformity and discipline.

"A lot is being invested to get people to think out of the box, but you need to do more. Students must be able to see issues and policies being debated freely in the news media," said one foreign lecturer.

With a similar cultural background and lower tuition fees, Singapore has proven popular with Chinese students, accounting for about a third of foreign students in the city.

By having a broader range of institutions -- specialist trade schools and foreign universities -- the government also hopes to avoid an outflow or brain drain of its own students abroad.

"Singapore is in Asia, and the whole of Asia is not known as a home of first-class educational institutions," said Professor Hellmut Schutte, dean of INSEAD's Asia campus.

"The result is that many very ambitious Asian students still want to go to the States or Europe," he said.

About 20,000 Singaporeans are enrolled in institutions in Australia with many others in the United States and Britain.

"People go abroad primarily to make sure they get a quality education and a degree from an institution that is recognized for its quality," said Beth Bader, managing director of the University of Chicago's business school in Singapore.

"Singapore needs to position itself as a place where the quality can be trusted," she said.

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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