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Reassessing overseas scholarships

jimat duit tarik biasiswaDatuk Azalina’s recent statement in parliament has sparked a discussion over overseas scholarships. A handful of Malaysians has expressed their strong disagreement with Azalina following her statement when she mentioned that the government has the opportunity to save up to RM240 million annually by cutting down on scholarships for 744 Public Service Department (JPA) scholars studying overseas.

It seems that the debate over overseas scholarships has been rather emotional and political, much less rational than it should be. This issue is also a serious issue that needs to be looked into very thoroughly, one that shouldn’t be taken at face value as it brings serious financial and human resource repercussions to the country. Although we do have many issues with the current leadership, we cant put a blanket over everything the administration says, and choose to stop discussing issues rationally.

SHOULD WE REASSESS OVERSEAS SCHOLARSHIPS?

Definitely. It has been decades since the first batch of overseas scholarship recipients were sent on their first flights. Some has ended up being ambassadors, ministers and MPs from both the government and opposition. We have had academician, engineers and CEOs who have heavily benefited from their scholarships to the four corners of the world. With decades of the program being implemented, have we measured our results?

This is where it gets tricky. How do we measure the return on investment from overseas scholarships? Is it enough for us to do a head count of people of influence, academicians and engineers to justify the millions of ringgit being spent?

RETURN ON INVESTMENT

Cost-wise, there is a huge contrast between local and overseas tuition costs. As stated by Azalina, “The average annual expenditure for a local student sponsored by the government can be between RM10,350 and RM12,690, whereas for their counterparts abroad, the amount is between RM38,115 and RM277,515.” However, it goes back to whether or not the program has and will bring a good enough return on investment to justify the costs incurred. The return might not have to be monetary, it could be things as subjective and qualitative such as the transfer of social entrepreneurial culture to Malaysia. Regardless, the scholarship program needs to have specifically defined goals and scholarship recipients need to be aware that they are part of that goal.

Many scholarship recipients look at their government-funded education as a privilege; a right and not a responsibility. We have failed to look at government policies objectively and understand that for each cent being spent by the government, there is an equal or greater benefit being expected. Policies and programs are designed using the people’s money for one reason; to bring benefit to the whole population – one way or another. Until scholarship recipients understand this and act on it, then there is really no point of sending people overseas on tax money. While we could point our fingers to the students, the program design in itself needs to cater this loophole. Conventionally, Kem Biro Tata Negara programs are being conducted with a fraction of the camp designed to promote this idea.

I argue that the government needs to do more. Scholarship recipients need to be exposed to the opportunities that they are getting when they’re overseas and they need to know how they are going to utilize these opportunities for the betterment of their country. More than that, the bigger question that scholarship recipients need to have a clear picture about is, what they should do next once they graduate.

It seems like a common problem across many years is that the government sends in a bunch of students studying a new field expecting to get a group of new “experts’ in that field and once they get back home, they don’t have the opportunity to work, and they end up working in fields that are totally irrelevant to their four years of study. From an individual perspective, career changes are not a big problem but if we look at this from a thousand feet above, spending more than half a million ringgit expecting someone to be an expert in one field when he/she ends up working a completely different field, is a policy failure. And this policy failure needs to be dealt with very seriously to avoid more money going down the drain.

RACIAL INEQUITY

Perhaps one of the reasons our overseas scholarship programs are being continued regardless of cost is as an effort to solve racial inequity. If you had the chance to head over to the UK or the US, you’ll be able to see a huge disparity between privately-funded Malaysians of different races. I don’t have the statistics, but I only know of a handful of privately-funded Malays compared to hundreds of Chinese Malaysians studying in the US. Currently, it costs more than half a million ringgit to fund a person through four years of undergraduate studies; an amount that I argue would not be a plausible amount for a large majority of scholarship recipients today.

With that being said, I argue that the sudden retraction of scholarships would lead to an imbalance between the races graduating from overseas. If a large knowledge and experience gap accompanies this, then racial inequity would be the direct result of the retraction. This may seem like a non-issue for the lay person, but racial equity is a big determinant of social, economic, and political stability. Is it worth to invest millions on stability? So long as there is an exit strategy in the long run, I say yes.

A CHANGE IN STRATEGY

We’re living in a globalized world where knowledge transfer can happen very easily across borders. Perhaps the conventional method of sending people abroad for a general, undergraduate knowledge transfer might be too costly in this day and age, with the technology that we have to enable communication and information exchange.

Before you make a conclusion of what I am trying to convey, let me say this; we have to be clear on our goals and we have to stay true to them if we want the program to be successful and be able to maximize our returns. If our goal is to create more jobs, then sending students to learn business and entrepreneurial subjects might be more beneficial. If the focus is in developing new technologies in engineering, then what we need is not more engineering undergraduates who go through similar textbooks as students from local universities, but what we need is more postgraduate students doing research in specific subject matters of the country’s interests. If we want more experts, we need to invest in experts; people who are passionate to pursue what the country needs, and we can invest more on an individual basis.

I am all in support for sending students overseas; but all I ask is that we need to change our strategy to make the most out of the money we’ve been investing on, and to be transparent about our objectives. On top of that, we need to be serious in evaluating the scholarships that we have invested on; how much have we spent and have we met our KPIs? Only then can we decide, whether we’ve made a sound investment, or if it’s a complete waste of money that can be channelled to fund many other government programs.

YUSRI JAMALUDDIN
Masters of Public Policy Candidate
Michigan, USA

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official views of, and should not be attributed to, Isma or Ismaweb.

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