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The myth of financial aid for students (in the form of scholarships, discounted loans etc.) is that they operate on the principles of meritocracy and social mobility. In theory, anyone with the right grades and combination of skill sets should be able to qualify for them. In practice, this is often not the case. While some students from underrepresented and underprivileged backgrounds do gain access to the opportunities provided, social mobility does not quite happen on a large scale. A problem of class persists. Such aid is frequently won by students from backgrounds that provide them with the right social capital, skill sets, personal tutoring, and background knowledge to juggle the personal essays, extracurricular activities and even awareness and insider’s knowledge on how to apply for scholarships successfully. In other words, existing systems of scholarships and loans favour those with the right amount of social capital. While this does not preclude students from underprivileged backgrounds, the reality, more often than not, is that a fair number of these students join the urban middle class (individual mobility), and there is less of a “trickle-down” effect to their original social circles and communities. There are always inspiring success stories, but this does not hide the fact that there are systemic problems that need to be dealt with.
Another problem is the focus on developing technical skills, or acquiring the right amount of knowledge required for a developed society. This focus is very much a product of the technocratic model that spurred Malaysia’s development in the 70s and the 80s, but even today, there is a strong focus is to send students to gain knowledge abroad in these fields, often at an exorbitant cost per individual student. The overwhelming focus on “bringing back” specialised knowledge in fields such as engineering, biotechnology and oil- and gas-related sectors persists, even though Malaysia should have been able to develop a strong domestic educational infrastructure by now. In fact, most of the courses abroad are now available to be studied in local institutions. Furthermore, it is apparent that there is a mismatch between the majors funded through scholarship programs and the demand for graduates from such majors, as evidenced by the absence of jobs that match returning students’ specialisations. STEM specialisation comes at the expense of the social sciences and humanities, which are just as crucial in developing strong societal frameworks.
There has also been a chronic mismanagement of public scholarships. For example, JPA fails to keep track of hundreds of students who were sent abroad, despite explicitly assigned case officers and a “lapor diri” programme for returning students. With such lax enforcement of the scholarships terms post-graduation, very often, it has been unable to capitalise on the resources spent on each individual student. It appears as if success is only measured by the scholarships given and degrees completed, but no analysis is made on the impact of JPA’s scholarship program on society once the scholars return home.
There are other issues at hand: the brain drain of scholarship students continues, given stronger financial incentives abroad and a lack of suitable jobs at home. In recent years, there has been a sharp drop in the number of students who are fully funded today, compared with just ten years ago. Another rising threat is that of the brazen openness of the “education industry” -- for-profit higher education institutes which extract exorbitant tuition fees, while producing lower standards in terms of rigour, academic knowledge and the ability to think and engage critically, and bankrolled by student loans provided by PTPTN, which in turns borrow from financial institutions such as banks.
What we need is an overhaul of the existing educational system. But what would this look like? Is free education for all sustainable, and if so, what shape or form would this take? The costs are exorbitant and the existing educational model does not work for everyone. For now, what we can do is to push the discourse forward and expand the spectrum of debates. Are the aims of financial aid (to develop expertise and to uplift society) being achieved, or is it time for an overhaul? Do we reward only the few with excellent qualifications with scholarships (“free” education) and keep the status quo for the rest who have to borrow 5-figure loan to finance their education?
The panel featured: Ooi Kok Hin, graduate student at Waseda University, Tokyo; TamilSelvan Ramis, lecturer at HELP University; Afiq Ismaizam, research manager at Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute (ASLI) and; Nadine Faisal, publications officer at Gerakbudaya.