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PUBLISHED: Dec 27, 2013 6:00am

Free Higher Education : Making Education Accessible to All

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RAJINA DHILLON By:
Rajina Dhillon

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ptptnMention the word education in Malaysia and it will instantly spark heated debate among many. For years, ministries have been unable to decide on a one system-fits-all solution to the education system and this has left students confused and unable to decide where their future lies.

The reality is that the state of education in Malaysia is constantly in a limbo and is used as a political tool ever so often that no real importance has been placed on it, apart from the dispensing of millions or billions into systems and programmes that are so rhetoric and menial, they shouldn’t even be mentioned, let alone spent money on.

In Malaysia, the education system for primary and secondary schooling — which make up 11 years of initial education for Malaysians — is free in public and national schools.

Once students complete the 11th year by taking their SPM (O-level equivalent) examination, they leave with the choice to further their education in the pre-university or foundation levels, before proceeding to the tertiary education. Here is where many feel the pinch.

The high costs of private university or college education has left many with little choice when it comes to a tertiary education. If they opt for public institutions that are cheaper, ethnic quotas, racial preferences and cost all contribute as obstacles to education.

So the solution is pure and simple: education is a right and should be free for all. Of course, this isn’t the first time you are hearing or reading about this argument. Politicians and supporters of both sides of the political divide have been arguing about the feasibility of providing free tertiary education to students and for years no real solution has been made, except for the prevalence of quota-based entry requirements and government financial loans that come with hefty consequences.

THE GOOD IN FREE TERTIARY EDUCATION

The first and most obvious reason to why free education is good is the fact that it is everyone’s right. The United Nations’ International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Article 13 (1) states: “The States Parties to the present Covenant recognise the right of everyone to education. They agree that education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and the sense of its dignity, and shall strengthen the respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

It also states that “education shall enable all persons to participate effectively in a free society, promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations and all racial, ethnic or religious groups, and further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.” This is especially true for a country like Malaysia, which has for years lived in the shadow of racial preference, leading to disparity among the people. Free education thus, means fairness to all.

Free education also has its implications economically. A population that is better educated is able to find better jobs with better pay, and directly contributes back to the country in the form of taxes, which provide for the funding of free education in the first place.

Anas Alam Faizli, an oil and gas professional, doctorate candidate in business administration and avid contributor to social and economic issues in Malaysia, wrote in his article on “Why the Malaysian Government should fund Higher Education”, that “An educated society is able to position themselves into higher standards of living characterised by higher income, production of high value goods and services, longer life expectancy, subscription to civic and moral values, political stability, existence of civil liberties and openness to change and development.”

Anas explained that it is education that can lift households into higher income and significantly reduce poverty and its consequences. If lower income groups were to receive higher education, he believes the state benefits as social capital is returned from the household to the state in increased production and tax income.

Other factors of free education that make good arguments is the ability for education to drive innovation. Anas pointed out that with a lack of focus on inventing new things, we are losing out on where the big bucks are and education provides for the luxury of innovation.

“We can no longer offer very cheap labour, land and factories to produce mass generic products competitively. We are in dire need for more trained professionals and innovators, and we could have harvested them from talents that did not pursue tertiary education due to the lack of opportunities,” Anas explained.

Education can really be seen as an investment that the government should make. With equal opportunity, free tertiary education can create more educated individuals, which in turn abolishes poverty, creates more innovative youth and will encourage a better economy with more employment and competitiveness.

VALUING FREE EDUCATION

The argument against free education is often that people do not value what they get for free and that the rakyat’s money is being used to fund something that does not give back to them.

When it comes to the funding factor, Malaysians are all too familiar with government wastages to understand that using taxes for free education is far better an investment than unnecessary purchases, and will eventually contribute back to them.

But to say that those who pay to further their studies in tertiary institutions will value education more than those who receive it for free is the wrong perception to have.

Today, there are many who pay for tertiary education and drop out because either they don’t feel like studying or they want to pursue other opportunities. Students who come from wealthy families that are paying high fees also might not appreciate the value of education because it’s not the student themselves who are paying for it.

To some students, they will do just enough to pass and graduate. Parents who can afford the education have their own plans for their children, but whether their children see the same vision, is questionable. How then, are these students valuing education better?

Here is the bigger issue: the luxury of choice. For those who can afford education, at least they have the option to pursue education or not. But for those who are unable to afford it, they are left with no choice at all, thus no further education. At the very least, they can be given this luxury and that’s where the true appreciation lies: in being given a chance.

AIDING TERTIARY EDUCATION

The Perbadanan Tabung Pendidikan Tinggi Nasional (PTPTN) loan scheme was seen as the government’s saving grace to please parents and students by providing financial help in their pursuit of education. But, where has that gotten us today?

Debt to the government is high because of inability to pay back the loan. Students are forced to take jobs not within their skillset and expertise just to pay back the loan and talk of blacklisting non-payers adds to the pressure. Along the way, speculation and additional clauses were added to the loan’s equation, leading to imperfections in the system and more weight upon the shoulders of students who are left wondering if they will ever be able to repay their loan.

In Budget 2012 and 2013, the government gave out 1Malaysia Book Vouchers worth RM200 and RM250 respectively to each university student. In this year’s Budget announcement, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak said the government will continue with the programme valued at RM250 to each student in the pre-university and institutions of higher learning to help them with the purchase of books, reference material and stationary.

A noble cause, no doubt, but how far will this amount get them? Unless students are able to find second-hand books, new ones come at high costs and to spend RM250 per year on books, journals and stationary hardly seems enough.

MAKING FREE EDUCATION A REALITY

Over the years, many have opined that turning tertiary education free can be done and the government is capable of it, seeing as to how we are rich in natural resources and have high tax revenue.

Chief executive of Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS) Wan Saiful Wan Jan reportedly said that if the government wants to do it, they need to stop wasting money on things like BR1M, free tyres, RM100 for school children, petrol subsidy, and divert that money to tertiary education. He believes it is only a matter of re-juggling priorities and putting tertiary education as priority above other unproductive spending.

It was also reported that the national education budget was slashed from RM50 billion in 2012 to RM37 billion in 2013, and economist Khoo Kay Peng was reported by The Sun Daily to have said that this phenomena is associated with government cash handouts in the form of BR1M and the rebate on smartphones. Khoo opined that education funding should occupy 20% to 22% of the GDP, but is only at 15% today.

Wastages by the government and officials have also been all too revealing. Millions of ringgit are washed down the drain yearly just because some cannot resist the temptation to take without giving back while others are unfit to manage the country’s resources and revenue. Those paying for the greed and incompetence are the citizens themselves and the consequence is less money being spent where it matters the most.

Like most new policies and programmes in Malaysia, the eventual path to free tertiary education is not going to be an easy one, more so with the government totally against the policy and existing problems of corruption and leakages. This is also not to say that the implementation should be immediate. It will take a lot of compromise and re-evaluation of the existing flawed education system before we can safely transition into a free education policy. But, the hope is that we at least think about a future with free education with the plans to implement it and that should be the priority thinking now.

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