Higher education is not a right but a privilege and the Government cannot provide subsidies for everything. And European countries famous for fully subsidising tertiary education are moving away from that system.
A PROPOSED overhaul in the way tertiary education is funded in our country has added to the number of causes being combined with Bersih 3.0 due tomorrow.
The suggestion is that the National Higher Education Fund Corporation (PTPTN), which provides loans to students pursuing their higher education, should be replaced by a fully subsidised system in which (most/all) students receive fully government-funded tertiary education.
PTPTN abolitionists charge that it is administratively inefficient and unfair to leave graduates with a mountain of debt, costly to the taxpayer because of low repayment rates (and subsequent costs of having to forcibly recover dues), and un-Islamic due to the charging of interest.
Though I was not a beneficiary of PTPTN, I routinely meet young people who are, through the education sub-committee of Yayasan Munarah, the royal foundation funded solely by private and corporate donations.
Since the start of our education fund last year, we have screened over a thousand applications for financial aid and I have personally interviewed hundreds of them at our office in Seremban.
Of the nearly RM500,000 disbursed so far, most cases involve the “topping up” of the amount students had already received from PTPTN, Mara and private sources.
In these 15-minute interviews, no student has ever complained about PTPTN; rather, the hardworking students often show gratitude to the fund, providing a contrast to the attitude of the Dataran Merdeka protesters.
What has impressed me in the denunciation of replacing a voluntary loan system with a compulsory subsidised system is that many commentators in the mainstream and alternative media object to the loss of individual responsibility that this will entail; young citizens will no longer feel that they owe anyone anything in exchange for the tuition, and this does not encourage responsible citizenship.
Higher education is not a right but a privilege, they say, and the Government cannot provide subsidies for everything.
Articles also point out that European countries famous for fully subsidising tertiary education are moving away from that system, though even so, those countries embedded competition between universities enabled by sponsoring students directly, rather than fully funding universities, so that a market mechanism is at work to reward the cleverest students and the best universities.
Indeed the potential impact of this proposal on our universities needs to be highlighted.
European universities possess much more autonomy than ours do – even if they are state-funded – allowing for areas of specialisation and different preferences to be accommodated.
Our public universities are not used to such competition, and may end up decomposing into a stultifying heap of monotonous, mediocre institutions unless autonomy is granted first.
The opposite approach is taken in the US, where universities are very independent and often expensive; but a deep tradition of alumni endowments for scholarships and bursaries enable academic merit to remain the main criteria of admission.
At the same time, one of the assumptions in effect in this whole debate is the idea that the primary purpose of tertiary education is to prepare one for a job that can pay back the cost of that education while contributing to national economic growth.
This offends the very principle of education for its own sake as well as the idea that the arts have merely an economic value.
I have long objected to Government attempts to engineer society by providing scholarships or loans for some subjects and not others.
If public money is being used to subsidise education, then it must grant every young Malaysian access to that money without discrimination.
I have met dozens of young Malaysians whose dreams of becoming historians or performers have been scuppered because they are discriminated against in favour of those who want to become doctors or engineers (tellingly, Aswara comes under the Culture Ministry, not the Higher Education Ministry).
The academic profile of the next generation of Malaysians should be shaped by their own preferences and perceptions of their futures, not by the dictate of someone with a crystal ball in Putrajaya.
If you agree that tertiary education funding should be designed to allow maximum freedom for students on the one hand to pursue the disciplines of their choosing without guilt, and institutions of higher learning on the other to compete amongst themselves – then it is more likely that this will be achieved by reviewing the current loan system (including repayment mechanisms), developing vocational options and granting much more autonomy to universities, including on financial matters.
> Tunku ’Abidin Muhriz is President of IDEAS.