The perennial problem of JPA scholarships: is the government failing students?

by Kamilia Khairul Anuar

I read an article recently in The Star about SPM students (once again) expressing their disappointment that the government has (once again) announced cutbacks in its provision of JPA scholarships to top SPM scorers.

This is an article that appears perennially, and one that, every year, elicits largely the same responses ― a brave delve into the Facebook comments of said article revealed to me three strains of thought among Malaysian netizens with regards to reductions in JPA scholarship provisions :

― These SPM students are whiny entitled brats, expecting the government to foot the bill for their university education solely off the back of their SPM results, which, excellent as they may be, are not necessarily a reliable indicator of future success in university

― The government is a corrupt dumpster fire that has whittled away public funds instead of using it to invest in the nation’s future talents by providing more JPA scholarships

― The reduction in JPA scholarships is discriminatory, because Bumiputeras have the option of applying for MARA scholarships/loans and are able to obtain funding with considerably lower grade thresholds, as opposed to non-Bumiputeras which have to compete for ever-more competitive JPA scholarships

In all probability there may be an element of truth to all of the above ― but these are not the only sources of the conundrum. Let’s dissect the situation a little more.

In the first place, let’s examine ― why is it the case that our bright students desire, in the first place, to study at such expensive universities? Many SPM graduates seek to study abroad ― and studying abroad is far from cheap and affordable to the average Malaysian.

In the UK, one of the most popular destinations for Malaysian students (indeed, statistically we are among the top 5 largest groups of international students in the UK), the standard three-year non-science degree costs upwards of RM450,000++, inclusive of living costs.

If we go further down the scale of costs, private universities in Malaysia are still expensive, but comparatively much more within reach of the average (at least urban) Malaysian. A degree at Taylor’s University, for instance, would cost around RM80,000 in total.

And if we look for cheaper still, public universities ― such as the University of Malaya and International Islamic University ― charge only around RM5,000 per year in tuition fees, comparatively much more affordable.

So why do our students not want to study locally, at public universities? It is a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem. To a great extent, a university is only as good as the students and staff that it houses ― places like Oxford University is at the calibre that it is because it attracts exceptional academic talent, people who are passionate about their subjects of study.

But smart students do not want to go to a university that they perceive as lacking in prestige, good teaching staff, or quality of facilities.

Sadly, it is the truth that our public universities seem to be lacking in all three areas ― even the University of Malaya, long considered Malaysia’s crown jewel of public higher education, ranked 133rd in the 2016 QS World University Rankings, and 59th in the 2017 Times Higher Education Asia University Rankings.

By contrast, the National University of Singapore was ranked at an impressive 12th place in the 2016 QS World rankings and 1st place in the 2016 Times Asia University Rankings.

Certainly, our young students’ perceptions of the quality of local public universities cannot be aided by the fact that the government has recently chosen to significantly cut funding to public universities by 10-31 per cent, the rationale being that public universities had become “too dependent” on government funding.

But we know, of course, that money doesn’t simply grow on trees ― if our public universities can no longer rely as much on state funding, inevitably as the UK did when university funding was cut in 2000 ― and again in 2006 and 2010 ― it must survive by raising its tuition fees, or else see a further drop in teaching quality (because capable academics will go where the money takes them), and study facilities.

Eventually, this will make one of the biggest incentives to study at a public university – their relative affordability ― largely obsolete.

So, has the government failed Malaysia’s students? Yes, but not, as many seem to think, by failing to provide more JPA scholarships.

It has failed by consistently failing to create a comprehensive plan of action to improve the calibre of our nation’s local institutions, and thus reassuring our SPM graduates that even if they cannot afford to study anywhere else, they will still get a good quality university education in Malaysian public institutions.

There is of course still a place for university sponsorship by the government to study abroad ― there always will be, for what our own universities lack now can be gained by students at other universities, who then, it is hoped, will utilise their expertise in advancing Malaysia.

But this should not be a long-term or permanent solution. Not everyone wants to study abroad, or can afford to study abroad, and we owe it to young Malaysians to give them a realistic choice between studying at home and studying in another country ― for not being able to study abroad, as it now seems to be viewed, should not be synonymous with having to subject oneself to a hugely lower quality of education.

For SPM students who may be reading this, JPA is but one (albeit the biggest) scholarship provider. Set your sights on other scholarships and apply, apply, apply.

When I finished my SPM back in 2011, I did not qualify for the bursary programme that existed at the time, so JPA did not sponsor me ― but thankfully, after several scholarship applications I was able to find funding for my studies in the UK.

**First published on Malay Mail Online (29 March 2017)

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