Sobering up on scholarships

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Checking in at 'heartbreak hotel'

The awarding of government scholarships has turned into a sort of lottery scheme where winners are few and losers are many, says Nicholas Chan.

The news about the suspension of Public Service Department (JPA) scholarships generated massive reactions, not just from politicians, but also students and parents.

This is understandable considering that for many Malaysians, government scholarships have been a mainstay in their aspirations. When parents say, “study hard, so that you can get a scholarship”, the scholarship implied is always a government one. I personally was the subject of such exhortations.

The fact that government scholarships can be so integral to the “Malaysian dream” demonstrates how generous our government has been throughout the years.

As the numbers go up to the thousands per year, a former scholar even argued that there is no government in the world that is as generous as ours in terms of giving out scholarships.

JPA scholarships, in particular, are even more sought after, considering that many who do not qualify for Mara scholarships as a result of their non-Bumiputera status will have to compete for it.

An unsustainable and digressed enterprise

But it is clear that such a costly enterprise is no longer financially feasible, as can be seen in the markedly reduced positions as announced in the revised Budget 2016. Indeed, it is time for us to have a sober look at the scholarship conundrum.

That said, I am not exonerating the government over it “shock treatment” of the situation. As the matter had been raised for years, if serious policy-thinking had gone into it, the government would not have found itself caught in a situation where the fate of scholarship holders were beholden to a reactionary budgetary decision.

To be fair, the grievances are real when you have supposed scholars being told that their study plans are now in a state of limbo.

But like petrol subsidies and toll concessions, hard decisions must be made with regard to government scholarships, and more importantly, they must be decisions that are proactive and serve a long-term vision.

What do I mean by that? For example, in terms of policies regulating petrol subsidies and highway tolls, the government needs to balance between financial feasibility, Malaysia’s carbon footprint, public transport planning, and the quality of life for its citizens in the long term.

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That seems to be a lot of planning that needs to be done by the administration, and admittedly it is not something a lay person can handle.

That is why the JPA scholarships were instituted in the first place – to train high-calibre, competent civil servants to serve the nation on its way towards growth and more equitable development. So it should be no surprise when JPA scholars are bound by service bonds with the government.

A reality check

But fast forward many years later, it is clear that we are no longer the nation that does not have enough universities to train civil servants, nor is the civil service expanding at the speed it used to be.

In fact, the civil service is bloated now. This explains why many scholars returned to find that there were no jobs “waiting” for them.

To mediate the situation, other service schemes were introduced so that the scholar could fulfil his/her service bond outside the public sector, as long as it is in Malaysia.

But that doesn’t change the fact that JPA scholarships are no longer serving its original purpose.

And if the scheme was meant to offer social mobility to Malaysian kids (and serve developmental interests at the same time), there are now criticisms that it is only propagating an elite culture.

Candidates from a better socio-economic standing have a higher chance of getting the scholarships, because they tend to perform better in exams.

I personally have known of cases where families who could afford such an extreme privilege still take government scholarships. Somehow, as the criteria for scholarships oscillate between race and merit-based, need-based considerations were never prioritised.

That is not the entire story. We have also the case of scholars who never return to the country to serve at all.

Times have changed, policies should too

Times have changed, policies should too. But adaptability is not something our bureaucracy is known for. Even the rather colonial tradition of picking out elite cadres at a very young age (hence, the highly-criticised choice of offering overseas scholarship to SPM-leavers) has not been completely phased out yet.

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But before we embark on a redesign, here are a few points our policymakers need to consider.

First, why are our students so eager to study abroad? While part of it could be what some call a petite bourgeoisie culture, let’s also not kid ourselves about the dire conditions afflicting most of our universities.

No doubt the travelling student is a dream shared by many, even in advanced economies, but we should at least provide quality tertiary education at home so that those who stay back do not feel they are missing out.

Countries like Germany and Finland are good examples of this. Their universities are not as well known (language could be a reason), but it serves their people well.

Singapore is another example, whereby although the governments still send their best scholars abroad, the option to stay home is not too bad either, considering its two public universities are among the world’s best.

It is no secret that many employers – especially those hiring for skilled positions – prefer candidates with foreign education. While it is clear that some elitism is at play, the fact remains that our universities are still not up to par with those expected of a developed nation.

More than 50 years after independence, we should no longer be dependent on foreign education to nurture our talents. If government scholarships are supposed to change that, it is not working.

Scholarships should not be lottery tickets

Second, we need to rethink the purpose of government-funded scholarships. Whatever the rationale, it should have maximum impact because it comes from taxpayers’ money.

The current situation where scholarship benefits only accrue to the personal rather than the greater society (as a result of demand-supply mismatches in the public sector or other reasons mentioned above) needs to be rectified.

It has turned government scholarships into sort of a lottery scheme where winners are few and losers are many.

One way to change it is to reallocate resources so that the funding can be used to train or hire teachers and lecturers. One good university lecturer can benefit hundreds, if not thousands, of students – the arithmetic fares better that way.

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Some might argue there are systemic problems in our tertiary education system, which makes it hard to hire or retain good lecturers. So we fix them. That is no reason to continue the lottery scheme.

The bigger portion of our students are in our local universities; the reasonable way out is to save the many and not by picking a few winners and leaving the others behind.

Smarter funding for smarter outcomes

If there are still reasons for government scholarships to go on, they must be based on forward thinking and be devoid of patronage politics. The fruit from investing in education can only come in the future so the rationale for it should be based on the future too.

Our current practice of giving out scholarships en masse makes it a very random and costly project. To add, there is no reason why scholarships should be centralised and not handled by separate government departments so that they can fund scholars to fit their own niche demands.

For example, with the observably bad urban design we have today, perhaps more money should be spent on training planners, rather than medical doctors, which is a field already experiencing a glut in supply.

It is also equally important that we invest more money into vocational and post-graduate education if we desire a knowledge and hi-tech economy. Widening social inequality also demands that we enhance needs-based considerations for scholarship selection, not a race-based obsession, which honestly should have been done away with long ago.

If seen from a glass half-empty position, this might be a wake-up call for us to reconsider how we can better manage our scholarships, and how we can move away from a policy focus that benefits the selected few instead of the many.

Let’s hope after all these years of funding, we have nurtured enough sober minds to think this through.

Source: The Malaysian Insider

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