Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Alternative take on USM expansion

I probably won't have the time to go through the plans / blueprints regarding the USM expansion so I won't be able to add much more to what I've already said earlier. While my take is slightly more positive, here's a very negative opinion on the project written by Anil Netto. Anil is right to be skeptical of such ambitious plans in the Malaysian context given our poor track record but I hope that there are some grounds for my optimism.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Bakri Musa's take on Science & Math in English

M Bakri Musa wrote this piece on his blog last week. I agree with most of this points. I'm agnostic when it comes to this issue since I recognize that there are pros and cons on both sides of the argument. I'm a pragmatist and I would choose the option which will bring about the most benefits with the least cost. Given that internal studies of the MOE have shown that teaching Science and Math in English doesn't really affect the results of students (I'd like to see the methodology though), I think that it makes sense to continue teaching both these subjects in English.

Continue Teaching Science and Mathematics in Malay

The government’s decision to revisit (and most likely do away with) the current teaching of science and mathematics in English is an instructive example of how an otherwise sensible policy could easily be discredited and then abandoned because of poor execution. Had there been better planning, many of the problems encountered could have been readily anticipated and thus avoided, or at least reduced. The policy would then more likely to succeed, and thus be accepted.

Ironically, only a year ago a Ministry of Education “study” pronounced the program to be moving along “smoothly,” with officials “satisfied” with its implementation. Now another “study” showed that there was no difference in the “performance” (whatever that term means or how they measure it) between those taught in Malay or English.

The policy was in response to the obvious deficiencies noted in students coming out of our national schools: their abysmal command of English, and their limited mathematical skills and science literacy. They carry these deficits when they enter university, and then onto the workplace.

The results are predictable. These graduates are practically unemployable. As the vast majority of them are Malays, this creates tremendous political pressure on the government to act as employer of last resort. Accommodating these graduates made our civil service bloated and inefficient, burdened by their deficient language and mathematical abilities.

This longstanding problem began in the late 1970s when Malay became the exclusive language of instruction in our public schools and universities. Overcoming this problem would be a monumental undertaking.

The greatest mistake was to underestimate the magnitude of the task, especially in overcoming the system’s inertia. Today’s teachers and policy makers are products of this all-Malay education system. Change would mean repudiating the very system that had produced them, a tough sell at the best of times.

In their naivety, ministry officials convinced themselves that such enormous obstacles as the teachers’ lack of English fluency could easily be overcome by enrolling them in short culup (superficial) courses that were in turn conducted by those equally inept in English. Or by simply providing these teachers with laptops programmed with instructional modules!

Even if we had had the best talents devoting themselves exclusively to implementing the policy, the task would still be huge. Unfortunately we have Hishammuddin Hussein as Minister of Education shepherding the change. An insightful innovator or an effective executive he is not. Being simultaneously an UMNO Youth Chief, he was also distracted in trying to pass himself off as the champion of Ketuanan Melayu.

These factors practically ensure the initiative’s failure. The tragic part is that the burden of the failure falls disproportionately on the rural poor, meaning Malays, a point missed by these self-professed nationalists. I would have thought that that alone would have motivated them to succeed.

A Better Way

Teaching science and mathematics in English would solve two problems simultaneously. One, considering the critical shortage of textbooks, journals, and other literature in Malay, teaching the two subjects in English would facilitate the acquisition of new knowledge by our students. With the exponential growth of new knowledge, it would be impossible to keep up solely through translations, even if we were to devote our entire intellectual resources towards that endeavor.

The other objective was to enhance the English fluency of our students. Of course if that were the only consideration, there are other more effective ways of achieving it, like devoting more instructional hours to the subject.

If, as the recent Ministry’s “study” indicates, there is no difference in performance between those taught in Malay or English, that in itself would favor continuing the program because of the twin benefits discussed earlier. Besides, changing course midstream would not only be disruptive but also counterproductive. Our educational system needs predictable stability and incremental improvements, not disruptive U-turns and faddish changes, especially in response to political pressures.

A more important point is this. Altering a politically pivotal and highly emotional public policy requires careful preparation and deliberate execution. If I were to implement the policy, this is what I would do. Lest readers think that this is hindsight wisdom on my part, rest assured that I had documented these ideas in my earlier book, long before the government even contemplated the policy.

Being prudent, as we are dealing with our children’s and nation’s future, I would begin with a small pilot project, analyze the problems, correct the deficiencies, and only then expand the program.

First, I would implement the policy initially only at primary and selected secondary schools, like our residential schools. The language requirements as well as the science and mathematical concepts at the primary level are quite elementary, and thus more readily acquired by the teachers. And at that level the pupils would not have to unlearn much as everything would still be new.

In schools where the background English literacy level of the pupils is low as in the villages, I would have the pupils take English immersion classes for a full term or even a year. We had earlier successful experiences with this with our Special Malay Classes and Remove classes. This strategy has also been tried successfully in America for children of non-English-speaking immigrants. Another idea I put forth in my earlier book is to bring back the old English schools in such areas. As the Malay literacy level in the community and at home is high, these pupils are unlikely to “forget” their own language.

At the secondary level, our residential schools get the best students and teachers. Consequently the program could be more easily implemented there as the learning curve would be steep, and mistakes more readily recognized and corrected. Once the kinks have been worked out, expand the program.

Second is the issue of teachers. Fortunately Malaysia has two large untapped reservoirs of talent: recently retired teachers trained under the old English-based system, and native English speakers who are either spouses of Malaysians or residents of this country. Given adequate compensation and minimal of hassles, they could be readily recruited.

I would add other incentives especially if they were to serve in rural areas where the need is most acute. Thus in addition to greater pay, I would give them first preference to teachers’ quarters.

A permanent solution would be to convert a number of existing teachers’ colleges into exclusively English-medium institutions to train future teachers of English, science, and mathematics. As the present teacher-trainees have limited English fluency, I would begin admitting them right away in January following their leaving school in December of the preceding year.

From that January till the regular opening of the academic year (sometime in July), these trainees would undergo intensive English immersion classes where their entire 24-hour day would be consumed with learning, speaking, thinking, and even dreaming in English. With the subsequent three years of additional instructions exclusively in English, these graduates would then be fully fluent in English.

With such quality programs, these graduates would be in great demand within and outside their profession. With their heightened English facility and mathematical competency, their educational opportunities would also expand as they could further their studies anywhere in the English-speaking world. With such bright prospects, these colleges would have no difficulty recruiting talented school leavers. Our teaching profession would also be enriched with the addition of such talents.

As for textbooks, there is no need to write new ones. The contents of these two subjects are universally applicable. Meaning, textbooks written for British students would be just as suitable for Malaysians, so we could select already available books. With its purchasing clout, the government could drive a hard bargain with existing publishers.

I hope Ministry of Education officials, including and especially Hishammuddin, would heed these factors when they review the current policy. They should continue the current policy, correct the evident errors, and strengthen the obvious weaknesses. The success of this policy would also mean success for our students, and our nation. That is a worthy pursuit for anyone with ambitions to one day lead the nation.

Ambitious USM expansion

I've always had more good things to say than bad about USM and USM's progressive and forward looking VC, Dzulkifli Abdul Razak. He's just announced an ambitious RM450 million expansion plan to build a science and arts park in Penang. I think this plan has got some good ingredients including looking at different forms of funding for this expansion plan. If it works out, hopefully, it can be one of the many good things which Penang can look forward to.


Thanks to one of our regular readers for this link. It is a speech from the new VC of the University Malaysia Sabah, Lt. Col. Prof. Datuk Dr. Kamaruzaman Hj. Ampon. A brief read of his bio and a brief search on google scholar shows that he is a legit academic. His appointment was clearly a political appointment as part of a series of moves by Pak Lah aimed at appeasing the politicians in Sabah and to prevent them from leaving the BN. There was no VC select committee convened to authorize this search. But as far as political appointees go, Dr. Kamaruzaman seems like a pretty good candidate on paper. I wish him all the best in his efforts to build up UMS.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Talk about kiasu

Saw this report about Lukasz Zbylut who applied to 18 colleges in the US and got accepted into 7 Ivy League schools as well as Stanford and NYU (Stanford is not an Ivy League school, for those of you who might not know). He got accepted by 17 out of the 18 schools. MIT rejected him. He's going to Harvard and will reject, among others, Princeton and Yale. Frankly, I think that applying to 18 schools is a bit excessive but you gotta give him props given that he only came to the US about 5 years ago and didn't speak much English then.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

More students at IPTS vs IPTA

It won't be long before the number of students in private colleges and universities (IPTS) in Malaysia outnumbers those in the public universities. The ratio is approaching 1:1, according to a recent Star report. What are some of the implications? What are some of the challenges?

I reproduce the newspaper report below so that we can preserve the statistics on this blog.

GEORGE TOWN: The enrolment at private institutions of higher learning (IPTS) is increasing and almost at a 1:1 ratio with that of public institutions of higher learning (IPTA), said Deputy Higher Education Minister Dr Hou Kok Chung.

He said the 2007 intake saw 167,788 students enrolling for undergraduate courses at IPTS and 190,265 at IPTA.

This, he said, was in contrast to the total number of 365,800 students who are now pursuing undergraduate courses at IPTS and 507,438 at the IPTA.

"The IPTS is getting stronger and more important," he told a press conference Monday after a meeting with senior executives of IPTS at Trader's Hotel here.

Dr Hou said the meeting was a forum to interact with representatives from IPTS to brief them on the latest matters involving the ministry’s policies, and to hear their issues and proposals.

Among the matters addressed Monday were the ongoing establishment audit of 200 IPTS, increasing the intake of genuine foreign students, the issue of lack of teaching staff, and the restructuring of IPTS.

Dr Hou said 17 out of 33 active IPTS in Penang had approval to take in foreign students, adding that there were now 571 foreign students out of the 34,634 IPTA and IPTS undergraduates in the state.

He said the target was to have 80,000 foreign students enrolled in higher education institutions throughout the nation by 2010.

"There are now about 50,000 foreign undergraduates, with about 34,000 of them enrolled in IPTS," he said, adding that there was no quota for the IPTS while the IPTA was only allowed to take in 5% foreign undergraduates starting last year.

My impression of private colleges and universities can be summarized as such:

There will be a gradual differentiation in the quality and reputation of private colleges and universities. In fact some of this is already happening. There will emerge a handful of IPTS which will challenge the IPTA as research universities. Sunway Monash and Nottingham are obvious candidates. There will be other 'home grown' IPTS which will want to or be pushed to the direction of being research universities.
There will also be another layer of IPTS who don't have research aspirations but will be known for offering good facilities, courses and teaching. In addition, I suspect that there will also be some specialized IPTS which focus on certain types of courses - design (LimKokWing) or IT (Informatics). And then there will be a scattering of smaller IPTS which offer 'value for money' courses.

With as many students entering IPTS compared to the IPTAs, their importance will only grow and will have a big impact on the skill levels of the work force, the research activities in our universities, the job creating potential in the education sector and so on.

But there are also many concerns associated with the rapid expansion of the IPTS, including:

1) The quality and number of lecturers needed to teach the growing number of students in these institutions. While a PhD is not really necessary to teach or to teach well, one wonders what kind of quality control the IPTS have in regard to training and equipping lecturers to teach the courses they need to teach.

2) The type of courses being offered. Most IPTS offer commercially viable courses in a small number of areas - business, accounting, computing, economics, engineering, sciences. While the types of courses have expanded with competition and more IPTS, one wonders if these are the ONLY types of courses that should be offered at IPTS. Will there be a separation of markets such that the 'non-marketable' courses such as forestry, archeology, Islamic studies and so on are only offered at the IPTAs?

3) The growing number of foreign students. The problems associated with this are manifold. I generally feel very sorry for many of the foreign students who are given very skewed impressions of what it is like to study in a private college in Malaysia and then are very disappointed when they come here. Some blame has to be attributed to the aggressive agents in countries like China to are given financial incentives to 'recruit' students to come to Malaysia. There are also problems associated with 'students' coming to the country under a student visa as a cover to conduct illicit activities. Generally, I think its a good way for the country to earn foreign exchange and for private colleges to expand but there needs to be a greater level of self regulation on this front.

The expansion of the IPTS has more positives than negatives, in my opinion. It provides another avenue of job creation for the country, it gives different options to Malaysians who want to earn a degree, it earns foreign exchange for the country and it can contribute towards human capital development. But that doesn't mean that there are huge challenges associated with the rapid expansion of IPTS, some of which have been mentioned here.

Monday, June 16, 2008

PTPTN loans - some practical solutions

For those who don't know, PTPTN loans are low cost loans given by the government to students studying at universities in Malaysia. I've always supported the government's moves to track down those who fail to repay their PTPTN loans. If the default rates continue at the current rate, the allocation given to PTPTN might be used up pretty soon.

The loan default runs into many millions of taxpayers dollars and puts the viability of this program in jeopardy. Which makes me ask these questions - why is the default rate so high and is PTPTN the best vehicle to channel these loans?

I don't know what the exact default rate is like but it has to be pretty serious for PTPTN to consider pretty drastic measures to track down those who fail to repay their loans. Some of the measures proposed includes blocking their passports and blacklisting them on credit bureaus which would make it difficult for them to take out housing and car loans.

My sense of why the repayment rate might be low is that those who take out the loans don't think that the government will go after them if they fail to pay back their loans. There is a feeling that the government is too inefficient to go after them or that the government simply doesn't care about them not paying the loans back. After all, many JPA scholars do the same, don't they? Furthermore, there might be a sense of entitlement that I deserve a scholarship to go to university and as such I shouldn't be made to pay back this 'loan'.

Which brings me to the 2nd question. Is PTPTN the best organization to be in charge of managing these loans? Would, for example, giving this responsibilities to banks a better solution?

One of the reasons why these loans are taken up by the government is because banks would not want to give out loans to students who can only pay them back in 3 or 4 years time. Furthermore, these PTPTN loans are subsidized in that they have low or no interest rates (in addition to a management fee) on the grounds of encouraging potential students to attend university and by doing so, provide a public good for the country.

Given this market failure, would it not make sense if the government were to subsidize these loans through banking institutions who have a much better infrastructure to manage these loans (and to collect on them)?

Anyone who is familiar with the credit collections process would be able to tell you that it is a very tricky process requiring dedicated resources and creative ways of pressuring those who have not paid their loans to pay up. I have no reason to think that the PTPTN civil servants are in a better position to chase down these loan defaulters compared to professionally trained staff in private banks who are given financial incentives to chase down loan defaulters. Given this, wouldn't it make more sense from an administrative and efficiency point of view to subcontract loans to university students to the financial sector instead of keeping it as a government function?

If PTPTN does not want to let go of the whole loan giving business, there is also the option for it to subcontract the process of chasing down loan defaulters to recognized credit collection agencies.

Long term, the government has to rethink its role in giving loans to potential university students given that a larger and larger proportion of the population is going to institutions of higher education. I personally don't think that what they are doing now is sustainable. Although there are a lot more complexities involved, I think it makes more sense for the government to allow the private sector to take over this responsibility stepping in only to provide some sort of guarantee or financial subsidy for these financial institutions to give out these loans to students who will only be able to repay them after a lag period.

After all, most banks in developed countries make a good profit from making student loans to potential students, many of them without having any government subsidy or guarantee. Without significant changes, I don't see how Khalid Nordin, the Minister for Higher Education can achieve an 80% repayment rate for PTPTN loans.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

USA For Students Education Fair

USA For Students , a US Education Fair would be held this Saturday, 14th June 10am to 4pm at Wisma MCA.

This event is co-organized by US Embassy, MACEE, American Universities Alumni Malaysia and Discover US Education - KL.

This is the 3rd year such a US Education fair is held in Malaysia, and this year, there will be 51 top US Universities, including Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Stanford etc. A series of seminars would be held too, covering topics from US Education System, Visa, Applications for undergrad and postgrad, interviews, job prospect after graduation etc.

Do check it out at USA For Students !

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Another take on the JPA policy change

This letter was written by a friend of mine, the astute Neil Khor. Many good points raised by him.

Have merit-based system for scholarships
Neil Khor | Jun 9, 08 2:48pm

I refer to the Malaysiakini report PSD scholarships: Publish names, results.

There are many reasons why everyone should be given a scholarship. A student with 11As, who comes from a poor family living in rural Malaysia is definitely someone who deserves support. The government or charitable organisation that supports such a student is uplifting not only an individual but also his family, helping them out of poverty. That is what a government scholarship should ultimately do - better all lives not just the individual.

Which brings us back to the issue of the contentious 45% quota for non-Malays, an increase from 10%. Here is a case of knee-jerk reaction. If urban, mostly non-Malay constituents have rejected the BN, the government - with its great compensatory power - now wants to buy back their votes by giving more non-Malays scholarships. At the same time, this creates an opposite reaction from certain Malay groups, losing them Malay voters.

If the government really wants to take the wind out of the opposition’s sail, they should simply do away with race-based quotas all together. The criteria should be purely merit-based. There must be clear and objective methods of measuring how disadvantaged a student really is. If he or she comes from the rural area, it must be ascertained that the individual deserves the scholarship because of the lack of resources, not merely financial but also infrastructural - lack of good teachers, library etc.

However, if the individual lives in the big city but is the son of a hawker and has to help out in his/her parents, then the individual also needs to be assisted because urban poverty has denied him/her access to the library or facilities at school. Here again, a merit-based system can be implemented. The level of rural or urban poverty can be indexed.

Luckily, Malaysian men are such poor academic achievers and we may not need to provide similar handicaps for Malaysian women, although many deserve such extra help because we still live in a patriarchal society. Attitudes toward female education has changed and here the government can really take some credit for improving the lot of women.

But most importantly of all is quality of distinctions. The education ministry might want to make examinations more stringent to avoid giving the impression that all students are deserving of a scholarship. This does not mean that everyone has to fail but rather the award of a distinction must be of the same quality through time. An STPM distinction in 1992, for example, was regarded as much more valuable than a distinction in the A-Level Examinations in the UK at the time. Similarly, a UM degree of 1996 was acceptable to the Cambridge University for entry into its postgraduate degree programmes.

As for extra-curricular activities, they make for a more rounded individual. But one must be careful not to push people into activities they would otherwise not join simply to earn merit points. Extra-curricular activities give us an impression, particularly at the interview session, of the candidate's maturity and commitment to excellence. The scholarship board can then judge for themselves whether or not the candidate has the right qualities that will ensure he/she actually finishes the degree course.

The BN has to take bold steps to reform Malaysia. No body or organisation will deny a Malaysian a scholarship if he/she has the grades, comes from a disadvantaged background, is an all-rounder and has the track-record of delivery. We are now entering a period of belt- tightening, with less money to spend on development or education as all our resources are channeled to combating inflation. It might be wise for the government to implement a merit-based system that does justice to this new generation of Malaysians.

As for all the various race-based organisations and their detractors, they can still go about promoting race-based scholarships. All they need to do is to set up their own scholarship funds and finance worthy students through those funds. Now that the government has limited resources, it is time to ask ‘what you can do for the nation’ rather than demand for primordial rights. For ‘nothing comes of nothing’ thus by demanding without actually deserving or giving, does more harm than good. There is nothing wrong in wanting to help but it is not right to take away from others just because of the colour of their skin.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Only Malaysian students should be subsidized

I agree with the Khaled Nordin, the new Minister of Higher Education, that only Malaysians studying at our public universities should be subsidized in terms of school fees and not foreigners. He said this in conjunction with a remark that the school fees of foreigners at our public universities will be reviewed.

Let me say why I think only Malaysian students should be subsidized and not foreigners. The subsidies come from Malaysian taxpayers and hence should be used only for the sons and daughters of Malaysian students. I don't see why foreign students, whose parents have not contributed anything into the system should benefit from these subsidies.

A related argument is the fact that Malaysian students who are educated in our public universities will be able to 'give back' to the country in the form of taxes paid as well as providing a more skilled work force. It is less likely that foreign students in Malaysia will remain in Malaysia and do the same.

Foreign universities in the US, UK, Australia, NZ, Canada, have made it part of their business model to charge more for overseas students partly because of the profit motive, partly because govt subsidies are being reduced and partly because of the principles I discussed above. In the US, state universities charge students who are out of state more also based on some of these principles.

Is it ironic that I advocate for this position at the same time as I'm receiving a scholarship from my US university? Not at all. Duke is a private university and is funded by a combination of fees and endowments, none of which comes from the state or from taxes. If there was a private university in Malaysia who wanted to be as generous to foreigners as they are to Malaysians, I would have no problems with that.

I just have a little bone to pick with the minister. He said that fees in public universities cannot be too high because that would dissuade foreign students from coming. I think he should make it a point to improve the standards of our public universities so that higher fees can be justified and won't dissuade foreigners from coming to our public universities.

JPA scholarships - an update

Saw this update on the Star. 161 Indian students received the JPA overseas scholarship, up from 120 last year, an increase of 34% which less than the 400% increase in the quota for non-Bumi students. (from 10% to 45%)

I found the 120 number a little strange. If the previous quota was 10% and only 2000 scholarships were given out, this means that non-Bumi students should have gotten only 200 scholarships. If 120 were given out to Indian students, then presumably only 80 were given out to Chinese students.

The reason I find this hard to believe is that my encounters with JPA students have always led me to conclude that there were more scholarships given to Chinese compared to Indian students. That there would be more scholarships given to Indian students doesn't make sense from an observation standpoint nor does it make sense from a political standpoint. MCA's lobbying power is presumably greater than that of MIC's and as such, it doesn't make sense that there would be more Indian JPA scholars than Chinese JPA scholars.

Please note that I am not making any claims as to who 'deserves' these scholarships more. I'm just trying to look at the figures from a rational standpoint and they don't make sense.

One possibility is that the MIC Minister, S Subramaniam, got his figures for the previous year wrong. Another is that JPA was already awarding more than 10% of the JPA scholarships to non-Bumis. I'm not sure which possibility is more likely.

But if the JPA policy change was implemented this year, then this must mean that most of the balance of the 900 scholarships should have been allocated to Chinese students which is approximately 740 scholarships (taking away the 160 allocated to the Indians). This means that Chinese students are probably the biggest beneficiary of this policy change. If we assume that there were about 150 scholarships allocated to Chinese students before this policy change, this would represent close to a five fold increase!

Remember what I said in this earlier post about some people ignoring the intra ethnic distributional consequences of the JPA scholarship such as the fact that most Malay recipients would be from middle class families? I think that we may also ignore the intra non-Bumi distributional consequences.

It is no surprise to me that the freeing up of this quota system would benefit the Chinese more than the Indians. Not only are there more Chinese in this country, a larger proportion of Chinese are in the middle class, which following the above logic, would be in prime position to capture gains from policy liberalization. Again, this is not an argument for the superiority of one race over another. It's making conclusions based on sound logic.

This story also tells me that we need to be clear about what the JPA scholarships hope to achieve. Is it just to award the top scholars who disproportionately come from the middle classes? Or is it to give a leg up to scholars from the lower classes? There is a trade off between these two objectives. Of course, they can be straddled someone - such as having a proportion of the scholarships means tested - but this trade off will continue to exist.

I'm not jumping up and down just because more Chinese and Indians will receive the JPA overseas scholarship. My thoughts on this topic is well documented in this blog. Most of these scholars won't come back to Malaysia and even if they do, won't serve the government in any way, shape or form. It's still money wasted, in my opinion but since JPA scholarships are not going to go away or be revamped anytime soon, I need to keep writing about it.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

JPA Scholarships - Beyond Racial Quotas

As promised, part 2.

JPA scholarships - beyond racial quotas
Ong Kian Ming and Oon Yeoh | Jun 7, 08 11:44am

Previously, we discussed the political implications of the change in the racial quota for the JPA overseas scholarship allocation. In this article, we want to bring up certain weaknesses in regards to this scholarship which many politicians and NGO representatives do not bring up when supporting or criticizing the latest policy change.

These weaknesses cut across racial lines which should tell us that often, we have to take off our racial lens and look beyond them in discussing issues of this nature.

JPA offers two types of scholarships. They offer approximately 2,000 overseas scholarships and 10,000 local scholarships. The overseas scholarship is obviously the more prestigious scholarship and garners most of the public press and dissatisfaction.

Most of the public is unaware of the cost of the overseas scholarships. A conservative estimate is that one overseas scholarship costs roughly RM200,000. A degree in a university in London or in a top private university in the US would cost more, perhaps between RM300,000 to RM400,000. Using the lower and more conservative estimate, one cohort of JPA scholars would cost the taxpayers roughly RM400 million. While this pales in comparison to the billions of ringgit spent on oil subsidies, it is still no laughing matter.

So if Umno Youth proposes an increase in the number of overseas scholarships from 2000 to 3000, we are talking about an additional allocation of RM200 million, not an insignificant amount.

In addition, the public is probably unaware of the fact that the return on investment, so to speak, from the JPA overseas scholarship is almost non-existent. Almost ALL overseas JPA scholars do not end up working for the JPA or the government. Many of them choose to stay overseas. Those who come back to Malaysia often end up working for the private sector which provides better pay, working conditions and promotion prospects. (Those who are sponsored to do medicine may be the only exception)

Furthermore, almost ALL of these scholars who break their JPA bonds do not pay a single cent back. It is a standing joke among some JPA scholars that when they go back home, they notify JPA that they are back, submit an application form to the JPA and then wait for them to ‘lose’ these forms and release these scholars from their JPA obligations.

In other words, these scholarships are given away, more or less, for FREE to these scholars.

No structure

One may ask – why doesn’t the JPA ask these scholars to work for them or to work for another government department or ministry? The sad fact of the matter is that there is currently no structure within the public service that can fully utilize the skills and smarts of JPA scholars. Unlike the Singapore PSC, the equivalent to the JPA, scholars are not rotated and fast tracked within the different ministries that they might be allocated to.

rais yatim akademi seni convocation 211206 students In addition, there is probably very little appetite among some in the public service who do not want to see smart and capable JPA scholars coming in to ‘shake things up’ and possibly outshine them. Hence the current ‘close one eye’ policy of not forcing these scholars to work for the government or to ask them to pay the bond back in any form or fashion. Again, breaking the JPA bond cuts across racial lines which is not surprising given the current state of our policies.

Can Malaysia really afford this kind of policy? Even Singapore, by far a richer country than Malaysia, is not so generous in giving out scholarships to its citizens without having them to work for it or to pay it back. The Singapore government is infamous for chasing down bond breakers and forcing them to pay back the value of their scholarships, often at punitive interest rates.

There is a school of thought which says that the social benefits of sponsoring these scholars to go abroad and then releasing them to work for the private sector is more beneficial to the country compared to forcing them to work for the government. This argument is flawed in many ways.

Firstly, it ignores the fact that many JPA scholars do not even come back to work in Malaysia. Given that JPA does not release figures of where these JPA scholars end up working (one doubts if they even know), we cannot even be sure of the percentage of scholars who come back to work in Malaysia.

Secondly, it assumes that these scholars would not have been able to obtain other scholarships either from Malaysia or from overseas if the JPA scholarship did not exist. There are many other organisations in Malaysia which provides overseas scholarships such as Bank Negara, Petronas, Telekom and Tenaga, just to name a few. Some, especially Petronas, have much better track records of keeping their scholars or asking those who break their bonds to pay it back.

Thirdly, it assumes that the social benefits accruing from these scholars going overseas to study is somehow higher than if they had remained in Malaysia and did their degree in a public university. This is hard to justify since a smart and motivated citizen would be able to contribute to society whether he or she studies abroad or at home. In fact, one can make the argument that the social benefit of a scholar staying at home would be greater than going overseas since this would increase the overall quality of students in our public universities.

Look beyond racial quota

The social benefits argument clearly does not hold water.

Some of the other criticisms of this policy change also fail to look beyond the racial quota. An example of this is the statement made by ABIM addressing its concern over this policy change on the grounds that the poverty level among Malays is higher than the other communities and indirectly arguing that Malays should be given the larger share of these scholarships.

students protest campus election suhakam 240807 playcardWhat these critics conveniently ignore is the distribution of these scholarships among the Malays. In most countries where affirmative action is practiced, it is usually the middle and upper middle class of the targeted community that benefits from these policies. This is certainly the case in the US where minority students (Black and Hispanic) who are in the top universities come disproportionately from middle and upper middle class families. We would not be surprised if the same is found in the Malaysian context – that the JPA scholars, including the Malays, come disproportionately from middle and upper middle class families. Hence the argument that the previous racial quota should be maintained on the grounds of helping poor Malays is not a sound one.

It is a little saddening that ABIM, a well respected Muslim NGO, would want to deal with this issue that does not directly deal with the issue of Islam. Even from the perspective of justice, it seems that they like other Malay organizations, only care about the issue when changes in racial quotas are involved and totally ignore the distributional impact of policies within the Malay community.

Such arguments also ignore another related change in the JPA policy which is to automatically provide a scholarship to those with 10A1s and above and whose families earn less than RM1,500 a month, regardless of race. Surely such a means tested policy is more just than a blind racial quota from a progressive and an Islamic perspective.

More information is always better than less especially for those interested in researching this area. If the JPA were to collect and then release relevant data on the allocation of these scholarships – race, SPM results, family income, university, whether they return to Malaysia, where they end up working, etc… - then perhaps some of the doubts surrounding the JPA scholarship could be quelled. More importantly, it could guide us towards making better policies in regards to the JPA scholarship.

To summarize, there are more important issues surrounding the JPA scholarship other than the racial quota. Most important is the fact that the returns on investment from these scholarships is almost non-existent since these scholars don’t return to work for the government (if they do come back at all) nor do they pay back their bonds. Given the high cost associated with these scholarships, this situation is not tenable in the long run.

JPA scholarships - who wins, who loses

Since some of our readers are not Mkini subscribers, I'll post my two articles in full here. Hope that Mkini doesn't mind. This is part 1. Part 2 will follow.

JPA scholarships - who loses, who wins?
Ong Kian Ming and Oon Yeoh | Jun 6, 08 12:59pm

Why this sudden increase in the non-Malay scholarship quota? What are some of the political implications arising from this policy change?
Mohamed Nazri Abdul Aziz, the minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, announced last week that the JPA (Jabatan Perkhidmatan Awam or Public Service Department) overseas scholarships allocation would be changed from a bumiputera-non-bumiputera ratio of 90/10 to 55/45.

This is a subject which is close to the heart of Kian Ming, who runs a blog covering education issues, together with PJ Utara MP Tony Pua. In this first article, we discuss the political rationale underlying such a move and what the political impact might be. In the next article, we move beyond the racial and political rhetoric and discuss certain shortcomings of this scholarship, none of which have been brought up by those who are supportive or protesting against this policy change.

The allocation of the JPA overseas scholarship is of symbolic importance for the Chinese and Indian Malysians, since year after year, complaints about top SPM scorers who are of Chinese and Indian descent failing to obtain the JPA scholarships are always featured in our newspapers. Indeed, Malaysiakini has seen a deluge of such letters from disappointed students and parents in the past month or so. (The actual number of non-Malays affected by this particular policy is actually quite small when considering the number of SPM students in one cohort).

tunku abdul rahman tar college 290307 studentsThis is not the first time that the BN has shifted its policy on the racial allocation of the JPA overseas scholarship. It was widely speculated that after the 1999 general elections, the number of JPA overseas scholarships given to non-Malays were increased. But that was never publicised in the same manner as this policy change and the more than four-fold increase in the number of scholarships given to non-Malays took many people by surprise, including Kian Ming, who has been following issues to do with education in Malaysia for some time.

Why this sudden increase in the non-Malay scholarship quota? What are some of the political implications arising from this policy change?

A charitable view of this policy change is that the government finally succumbed to public pressure and to rejecting the large number of otherwise qualified non-Malays and listening to their appeals, time and again.

Of course, one can also see this as a political move to appease the non-Malay voter base which abandoned the BN in large number in the previous election. By changing a policy which has symbolic value in the eyes of the non-Malays, the BN is hoping to win back the hearts and minds and votes among members of these communities.

A more cynical and perhaps nefarious view of this policy change is that it is a subtle political strategy by BN, more specifically Umno, to create a climate of fear among the Malays that their rights are slowly being eroded because of the rise in the power of Pakatan. Of course, this would require a lot of subtle maneuvering on the part of the BN since they are the ones who actually approved this policy change and not Pakatan.

Protests from the usual suspects

To be fair to the government, there actually has been a subtle shift in the language used in defining education policy over the past decade or so. While we may debate the comparability of the matriculation course which is largely taken by Malays, and the STPM course which is largely taken by non-Malays as the entry requirements to our public universities, the word used to define the entry process has been ‘meritocracy’ in the past few years.

This despite the initial protests by Umno Youth which still surfaces from time to time. One does not anticipate that the meritocracy process for entering our public universities will be changed in the near future. Similarly, one does not anticipate this JPA scholarship policy change to be reversed any time soon despite the protests from some of the usual suspects including Umno Youth, Abim and GPMS, just to name a few.

But even the reservations expressed by Umno Youth were couched in terms that were more ‘flexible’, in a manner of speaking. Their representative did not ask for the quotas to go back to the 90/10 allocation but instead proposed that the total number of scholarships should be increased and the allocation quota revised to 70/30 so that no scholarships would be taken away from the Malays while giving an additional allocation to the non-Malays.

school students 220606 01Do we expect the non-Malays to respond to this policy change by swinging their support back to the BN? We think not.

It would take more than just one policy measure of this nature to win back the hearts and minds of the non-Malays. While this may have worked in the aftermath of previous elections when the non-Malay opposition parties performed well, we are in living in a different political environment. Pakatan can always respond to this by promising the non-Malays that they would implement a more equitable allocation policy across the board and not just for the JPA overseas scholarship.

One strategy used by PAS in past elections has been to ask voters and its supporters to take whatever goodies which the BN offers them, including free rice and the like, and then vote for PAS in the voting booth. It is not hard to imagine the non-Malays behaving in a similar fashion.

The reaction among the Malay grassroots has been harder to judge. Kian Ming senses a subtle and gradual shift in the Malay ground in terms of coming to terms with the eventuality of competing on a more level-playing field with the non-Malays beginning with the education realm. The fact that there has been a noticeable increase in the number of Malays performing well at the SPM level has perhaps helped assuage the fears among Malays that they cannot compete with the non-Malays.

The noticeable silence among the Pakatan parties will probably help in not making this issue one which the BN can capitalise on. DAP has not made any statements either in support of this policy perhaps because they do not want to give undue credit to the government, and PAS, not wanting to incite the Malay ground, has not made any statements critical of this policy.

Pakatan has also been helped by the fact that this issue has been overshadowed by other more demanding and headline grabbing issues such as the petrol price hike and the on-going speculation of political crossovers. Under more normal political circumstances, this policy change would have had much more political coverage.

Even more changes to come?

Is this a sign of the things to come, that there will be similar liberalisations in racial quotas in other areas be it in the education or the economic realm?

We are more guarded in this respect. As mentioned before, the push for more ‘meritocracy’ has been an ongoing initiative in the education realm. It would be a stretch to extend this to the business and economic realm, for example, at least in the near future. One would not expect government contracts or top government positions to be suddenly allocated in a more equitable fashion, many of them which currently are not even distributed according to a 90/10 ratio.

One also cannot discount the role of government agency here. Nazri has been consistently unpredictable in his policy statements and decisions but one thing that has been consistent about him is his desire for publicity. He could have pushed for this policy change not only because he felt that it might have been the expedient thing to do but that it would also garner him positive publicity, especially from the non-Malays. Other Umno politicians, who might not want to stick their necks out on the chopping block, would likely not do the same in other policy areas.

To summarise, the significance of this policy change should not be discounted, even if it is limited to one small area of education policy in this country. It is part of a more gradual shift in defining the terms of competition, at least in the education realm. Whether this will translate into the business and economic realms is harder to predict.

While the non-Malays would welcome this policy, the political circumstances of the day will limit the swing in their support back to the BN. The effect on the Malay ground is harder to judge but so far, the grassroot reaction seems slightly muted. It probably helps that the hike in petrol prices quickly knocked this particular issue of the front pages and minds of voters.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Further thoughts on the JPA policy

Further thoughts on the JPA scholarship published in Mkini here and here. If you don't yet have an Mkini subscription, go subscribe!

Friday, June 06, 2008

In praise of good research on race and education

Very often, we talk about issues of race and education without having much survey to back up our rhetoric. I'm sure that myself and Tony are guilty of this more often than not. This is not to say that we should not discuss issues of race and education. Sometimes, there are important links there. Sometimes, there are not. What we need is more quality research into these questions, research which is currently not happening in Malaysia.

This article in the Economist caught my eye the other day. It discusses the state of African Americans / Blacks in the US and how certain policies or cultural practices have helped or hindered their social progress.

One person they highlighted was a young Black economist by the name of Roland Fryer, who at 30, is already a professor at Harvard. He's done some really interesting work on issues of race and education by using pretty interesting research methods. For example, he sampled high school kids to try to find out how popular white and black kids were depending on their kids to test the hypothesis that 'studiousness is stigmatised among black schoolchildren' and found that this was indeed true.

He also has some pretty interesting policy suggestions on education such as giving kids cash incentives for doing well in exams and even giving them free mobile phones.

There are a million and one things which we can do both qualitative and quantitative work on in regard to the education realm in Malaysia. For example, I'd be interested to find if there is a link between spending in schools and exam results. And then I'd use these results to identify the outliers and find out why some schools succeed despite having not much money spent on them and why some schools fail despite having a lot of money spent on them. I'd like to look at the performance of students from the matriculation stream versus STPM and test to see if one was better than the other (even after controlling for race).

One of the main obstacles to better research in this area is that a lot of the data is deemed sensitive by the MOE, the MOHE, the schools and our public universities. If the government were more liberal in their attitude towards this kind of data, they could release this data to certain researchers and then work with them to come up with better education policies.

With this kind of research in hand, one would be able to speak more conclusively and authoritatively on matters of race and education and more importantly come up with innovative solutions to improve the quality of education across the board.

Monday, June 02, 2008

JPA Quota Revised

This is pretty big news. I'm sure many of your readers would have read about how the JPA ethnic quota has been changed from 90% Bumi / 10% Non-Bumi to 55% Bumi and 45% Non-Bumi. It was announced by Nazri Aziz, Minister in the PM's department sometime last week. The responses have been coming in thick and fast. I'm sure that this will not be the first time we will tackle this issue on this blog. Tony would have other insights and opinions. But let me fire off the first salvo.

First of all, I'm not exactly elated or jumping for joy at this news, contrary to expectations. Why? I've said many times in this blog that I think that as long as JPA doesn't effectively bond the overseas JPA scholars to Malaysia, I would prefer to JPA overseas scholarship component to be scrapped altogether. It costs Malaysia a few hundred million ringgit a year without any guarantee of returns. Singapore, a far richer country than Malaysia, would never throw hard earned tax dollars at such a scheme which promises very low returns to investment. You can read my previous posts here and here.

So, even if the distribution of this scholarship has become more 'meritocratic' (which I think it will given the new ethnic quota), there is little reason to celebrate if one looks at how our tax dollars are spent in this regard.

That being said, I never thought that I'd see the day when there would be a policy change in such as sensitive area i.e. JPA overseas scholarships. This is a major shift in the thinking of the policy makers, even if it is in one small area of policymaking. For now, I want to avoid the political strategy behind this move (I'll save that for one of my Realpolitik podcasts and Malaysiakini writeu-ps).

If this is an indication that the government is willing to shift the way it make policy especially in the area of higher education and our public universities, then I would certain welcome it.

My underlying assumption here is that the changing of the ethnic quota parallels a move towards moving to a more meritocratic way of policymaking and of promotions and hiring practices, for example. One can argue that this may not necessarily be the case since it is possible that certain Bumis who have better results and so on might lose out to non-Bumis with poorer results. But I think history has shown that most of the time, it was largely qualified non-Bumis who were denied the JPA scholarships rather than the other way round (if not, why have a quota in the first place?).

Hence, there are good reasons to support this policy on meritocratic grounds. Since JPA overseas scholarships won't be abolished anytime soon, I think that this is the best situation one can hope for. (Of course, my preferred solution would be to abolish ethnic quotas completely and offer scholarships on a purely merit base system but this is politically infeasible)

In addition, there is a means tested component now for the JPA overseas scholarships. From what I understand, those scholars who have been shortlisted and whose parents earn less than RM1,500 a month would automatically be awarded the scholarship regardless of race. This is certainly in line with the component of the NEP which is supposed to help the poor in Malaysia, regardless of race. Again, I think that this is something positive.

But one has to recognize that there may be potential costs when one practices means testing. It's something which many people don't want to say because it is not politically correct. Which is if one shortlists top SPM scorers from low income families, the probability of these scholars getting into a top university in the UK or the US is lower than if a top scorer from a middle or upper middle income family were to have been selected.

Before you guys start throwing barbs at me, recognize that I'm stating a well known finding. I'm not saying that someone from a low income family cannot get into a top ranked US or UK university. What I'm saying that the proportion of students who get into these schools who come from middle and upper middle income families is usually higher. If you look at the top schools in the US, even some of the need blind ones and those with very generous financial aid schemes, you'll find that the middle and upper middle income kids form the largest proportion of students. There are many reasons for this - exposure, support from parents, networking effects - which I won't go into but it's something that we should recognize as one of the by products of 'means testing'. Of course, this doesn't mean that many of these kids can't get into a perfectly respectable university. It all depends on what you want the JPA to achieve and who you want it to reward.

I'm flagging this to show the complexity and consequences of different policy decisions. For example, Tony, in a much earlier post, suggested that instead of awarding JPA scholarships after SPM, we should award JPA scholarships after the students have applied to and gotten into a list of pre-approved top ranked universities. This would certainly be much more meritocratic and would award students based on a more explicitly laid out terms and conditions but again, it would be regressive in that it would probably be advantageous to those from middle or upper middle class families. Those who can afford to spend money on books to prepare a student for the SAT not to mention the expensive application process to many of these universities.

Being someone who likes more information rather than less, I think that many of these questions can be partly answered if more information were revealed to researchers, politicians, activists and the public at large. For example, I would love to see the grade distribution of those who obtained the JPA prior to this change in the quota and after the change in the quota. Did the standards for the non-Bumis fall after the quota was relaxed? Did the standards for the Bumis rise for the same reason? Did the means testing have anything to do with this?

What about the kinds of universities and courses which the respective JPA scholars were admitted to? What was the geographical distribution? How many got into top notch universities? Again, what was the correlation between the means tested students and the kinds of universities they got into?

I hope that I've illustrated the complexity involved in trying to evaluate the merits and demerits of such a policy change. The thing that I dislike about certain groups coming out to protest or to support such a policy change is that they only focus on the ethnicity quota issue without delving deeper into some of the other implications such as the poor return on investment, the implications of means testing, the kinds of schools which the scholars get into and the underlying rationale for the JPA (is it to reward good scholars who can get into top schools or those who come from lower income families?). I admit that I'm sometimes guilty of looking at things strictly from a racial lens but I do try not to. And I've certainly tried to in this particular instance.

SETARA ratings announced

Again, not a particularly sexy topic but one which I've covered for some time now. It was announced a while back, in November 2007, that USM topped the public perception ratings in Malaysia under the Academic Reputation Survey (ARES). Now, it seems that UM has topped the SETARA survey of our public universities.

The aim of SETARA or the Rating System for Malaysian Higher Education Institutions 2007 is to provide an internal, qualitative complementary survey to ARES. For a description of the two surveys, look no other than to the current UKM VC, Sharifah Hapsah, who was one of the main drivers behind the ratings system at MQA before she took the position at UKM.

Two reports in the Star, here and here, document some of the main findings of the SETARA rankings. A more comprehensive report can be found here. Some of the nitty gritty details can be found at the MQA website though I don't think they have released the full details / reports of either the ARES or SETARA rankings on the website.

According to one of the Star reports, Setara involves a quantitative survey where data collected is analysed according to six domains – academic staff (25%), students' selectivity (10%), research (15%), academic programmes (25%), resources (15%), and management (10%).

Most of this data is collected from the universities themselves and evaluated by the staff at MQA.

A total of 17 public universities were rated and placed in three categories – research, broad-based and specialised.

Only UM managed to obtain 5 stars (out of six) among the research universities.

International Islamic University Malaysia and Universiti Teknologi Mara both scored four stars each in the broad-based category, while Universiti Teknologi Malaysia was the only one to receive a three-star rating for specialised universities.

I think one can be critical about the veracity of such ranking systems, especially when UM is capable of obtaining 5 stars out of 6. The danger of inflating the rankings for some schools like UM is that they don't have very far to rise.

Given that this rating system is still in its infancy, I would not be too critical of the findings as of now. I would like to read the reports in more detail if they are eventually released by the MQA but for now, I'm glad that the process of collecting such information is already in place. No doubt the system will be improved over time.

It was also reported that, as a benchmark, the compilers also visited the National University of Singapore, University of Melbourne, Indian Institute of Technology, Mahidol University and University of Technology Sydney to test Setara against those institutions.

We'll be watching this closely.

More endowments needed

Saw this report a couple of weeks back about a businessman, Datuk Ghazali Mohd Yusoff, who gave UKM RM1 million to endow a chair at the Institute for Environment and Development (Lestari) at UKM in memory of his mother. We need more endowments of this nature as part of a long term plan to wean our public universities off public funding. It's a model which most universities in advanced countries led notably by the US (UK and Australia are getting into the act as well) where public funding is being slowly cut and fees are increased at the same time as endowments which can be used to fund chairs and decrease fees for needy students.