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Why course subsidies are a really bad idea

- By Tony Sealy -

The Singapore government is pro active and aggressive in many areas of economic development. This is something for which they need to be wholeheartedly congratulated (and emulated by others in the region).

Many people have spoken to me about the excellent government support for digital media and of PM Lee’s speeches where he spoke about the “knowledge-based economy” and what a growth market digital media and animation could be for Singapore.

I agree with all of this. In fact I agree with quite a lot of the initiatives the government is undertaking to support and fund digital media and the creative industry in Singapore.

Except for one thing -the system of providing grants for digital media studies.

My view is that this is an absurd practice and detrimental to the development of the industry. I am certain there will be many who disagree. However I argue that those who disagree with my point of view do so only from the perspective of self-interest.

The general purpose of providing subsidies for any kind of academic or professional courses is to encourage growth in that particular market sector. However, how much encouragement does it really provide?

Over the years my company has been conducting animation courses, we have seen (and participated in) various funding schemes. We have also seen different types of students come and go too. In the early days before any schemes were around, the nature of the students were quite different to the current batch.

Without any doubt, the driving factor behind these early animation career seekers was their personal desire to make a career in the industry. They were prepared to make many sacrifices. Some quit their jobs mid-course to concentrate on animation, most immediately quit their jobs after graduation to either work on their portfolios or seek job placement with their new skills. I remember one student was an investment banker; he left that industry and worked a combination of freelance and part-time animation jobs until he landed the fulltime job he was after. He was 32 years old.

We have many stories like his - those who made personal sacrifices and suffered setbacks following a path that led to ultimate success.

Now we fast-forward to the present day where animation students are no longer seeking the best course, but instead they are seeking the course with the best subsidy. This has led to a dramatic lowering of standards.

I have listened to many heart bleeding stories from animation students who are failing their courses. Their fear was not about  failing to receive a precious certificate (something Singaporeans are paranoid about). Their fear was not getting their money back  if they don’t graduate and if they fail.

More and more examples of this  have occurred. An individual whom I know on a professional basis recently graduated from a private animation school in Singapore under a government-funded diploma program. He was scathing of the standard of teaching (by a former graduate of the same course). It’s easy for me to criticize competitors but a specific claim this school makes is its faculties are current industry professionals. Clearly this is not the case but who’s going to complain? The person I know said everyone passed their course and received a diploma when some clearly deserved not to. One of the reasons I believe what I have heard from this individual is because I know how the scheme providing the grants works. If the student doesn’t pass the course, the school doesn’t receive their fees from the government. If that happens, it’s bad for business.

Is this good for the industry? Potentially, there are hundreds of diploma-waiving graduates seeking a job who have no right to work in this business. Thankfully, there are quite a few old-school bosses like me who look only at a rookie’s portfolio. But as demand for CGI increases, will employment standards remain high enough to grow the business?

Clients are unforgiving. If they entrust a project to an animation company only to find the work not up to their expectations, the consequences are very serious. How then can schools provide credentials to graduates who may not deserve them? The answer is simple. To deny them their diploma or certificate would disqualify them from receiving their government support. In plainer language, this practice is called: “rorting the system”.

And that is the real root of the problem. The system is “rortable”. When funding (no matter the source) becomes available without the strictest of policing, human nature will dictate that some people will try and take advantage for their own gain.

The present system for providing grants is misguided. It’s wrong for the students, the schools and the industry. By all means provide a grant. But not for schools or courses, but for employers who take the commercial risk of hiring rookies. Fund the first 3 or 6 months of their employment when they really will be learning something and also making the most mistakes. This way schools and students compete with one another on an even basis and the industry will grow organically.

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Tony Sealy is the Managing Director of Intense Animation Academy and Intense Animation Studio (visit the facebook fan page) who blogs at Tony's Intense

Headline image courtesy of Effective Internet

*Rort is a term used in Australia and New Zealand.[1] It is commonly related to politics, or, more generally, a financial impropriety, particularly relating to a government programme. The term was first recorded in 1919 and is a derivative of the older "rorty" a 19th century London slang word—meaning “fine; splendid; jolly; or boisterous”.[2] The term is also used as a verb to mean the action of defrauding, (e.g.: he rorted the system).

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