Monday, May 29, 2006

Scholarships - University Acceptance Important?

Two weeks ago, I wrote on Scholarship Heartbreaks and made several concrete suggestions as to how the Scholarship criteria and process should be reformed. I've also separately written on how the reform can take place while still maintaining some form of affirmative action for the bumiputera students in Scholarship Quotas. It's a win-win situation for all Malaysians.

If you read the online forums, newspaper columns and even politician's statements, there are plenty of complaints with regards to straight As students being denied scholarships. In my opinion, straight As students do NOT automatically deserve scholarships. (However, they do deserve automatic places in courses and universities of their choice, barring exceptional circumstances such as over-demand in the medical faculty).

However, if the candidate is a top student and is able to secure a place at an elite university, then his request for a scholarship should definitely deserve greater weight.
Overseas undergraduate scholarships should only be confirmed and awarded after the students have been offered a place at a top university. Why should scholarships be awarded to the students even before they have qualified for a place at a top university overseas?
Calvin Teng appears to be the case of a candidate who is possibly not provided with the "added advantage" in the current system. Based on the proposed new system (by me), he will at least have a better opportunity in receiving a scholarship from the Government.

Calvin has already gained acceptance into University of California, Berkeley to pursue a degree in Mechanical Engineering. In the US rankings of US universities, Berkeley is ranked 20th overall, but joint second with Stanford University, after Massachusetts Institute of Technology for Engineering. In the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) global rankings, Berkeley is ranked 6th in the world overall, and 2nd for Technology. Unlike our local college wannabees, no one will dispute that Berkeley is indeed a "world-class" university.

I've spoken to Calvin over the phone and he definitely sounded fluent and is a positive and confident individual. The only "glitch" in his SPM was a '2A' for his Biology, out of 10 subjects. He was the top student and debater at St Xavier's in Penang and his impressive list of extra-curricular activities and achievements is probably too long for me to put it down here. Calvin's musically talented as well, being the youngest violinist in Penang State Symphony Orchestra.

Unfortunately for Calvin, after attending an 30-minute interview with Jabatan Perkhidmatan Awan (JPA) for the JPA scholarship as part of a group of 10 (or so) individuals, his application was rejected. And given that his parents are middle income earners, a degree at Berkeley will not be possible without scholarships or financial aid.

Calvin is not alone in his plight. Wei Shen from Teluk Intan, who has completed his STPM (and got 5As) last year has qualified for both Cambridge University in Britain and Cornell University in the United States as highlighted by the Star but is facing difficulty raising the necessary financing.

So the question I have for JPA and other relevant government agencies in administering our national scholarships is this:

Which is more important and which makes more sense for Malaysia?
  1. Award overseas undergraduate scholarships to post-SPM students who have yet to undergo pre-university programmes or examinations, and have not secured any placements in top universities overseas? This has often resulted in students being sponsored to study in 2nd or 3rd tier universities in Britain and the United States, as well as being sent to other 3rd world countries. OR

  2. Award overseas undergraduate scholarships only to students who have successfully completed pre-university programmes or examinations and have received conditional or unconditional acceptance into the top-rated and most selective universities in the world, such as University of California, Berkeley or Cambridge University, UK?
Or to put it more bluntly, why should I sponsor a student to study in Sumatra, Indonesia? As a citizen and tax payer of this country, the answer is obvious.

In Calvin's case, I'm confident that his intelligence and resourcefulness will take him places, even if he couldn't get to Berkeley this time round. However, it is imperative for the scholarship policy to be reformed to ensure that we are rewarding and incentivising the best in the country, even after taking into consideration affirmative action policies.

Footnote: If there is anyone out there who seeks, and is able to provide assistance to Calvin, please email me separately.


Anonymous said...

Thank you tony for highlighting calvins plight. :)

Anonymous said...

Some of the suggestions will never happen here, might as well accept things as it is now.

Anonymous said...

I would've prefer not to bring up this comparison yet again, but place the Berkeley offer on the table and I bet a couple (at least) Singapore agencies would counter him with scholarship offers. This may sound defeatist to some extend ("Why subject Calvin to 6 or 8 years of quasi-indentured service in Singapore? Why shouldn't the Malaysian government do good by him? ..."), the fact is our JPA declined to sponsor his education. So absent a good samaritan, sponsorship by our tiny city-state neighbour is likely the next best thing. If Calvin cannot line up his financial backing in time for Fall 06 admission, I would suggest that he request for deferred admission until 07, apply for scholarships down south and take courses in one of the better private colleges for transfer to Berkeley.

Anonymous said...

Response to Tiara:

While I agree with your thesis, we are getting into the debate between idealism versus pragmatism. Perhaps a reminder is in order here: that we are proposing changes to the JPA bureaucracy. Having a list of acceptable universities (arrived at by a reputable group of people in and out of the academia) would be much easier for our beloved civil servants to adminster, and perhaps reduce the opportunity for rent-seeking (e.g., who is to prevent Cik Rose from arguing for the inclusion of Physical Education major in the University of Kenya---"look at their world-beating marathoners"---when by coincidence, her nephew is accepted there?).

Another pragmatic consideration re. diversity of educational institution is the purpose(s) of awarding scholarships from JPA (or more generally, government-linked entities). It'll be hard to justify sending a kid to, say, Julliard for composing, while denying another a chance to ETH-Zurich for engineering when calculating the cost-v-benefit for the taxpayers. I am all for a rich dude establishing a foundation to give kids to Julliard or College of the Atlantic free rides. Provided he did not make his fortune milking the taxpayers through some shady government contracts---sorry, talk about being a pragmatist myself...

The attitude of "No straight A/No Harvard admission/... and now my life is over" needs to be changed, but is an all-expansive government scholarship guideline the right "vehicle" for promulgating that change?

Anonymous said...

It's a shame that so many students are being denied to study at the university of their choice due to financial reasons.

Referring to the two earlier comments:

I thought the point of JPA scholarships are to reward academic excellence, and train students for academia and professional careers.

Going off-tangent, many top universities (in US at least) combine academic excellence with leadership opportunities, extracurricular activities and "holistic" education. And they provide generous grants and fellowships to do so - because they have the financial means (Harvard's $25 billion endowment must go somewhere.... ). Only at these rich universities do students get fellowships (aka free money) to backpack throughout Alaska, join a travelling circus, volunteer in Ghana, study music festivals in France, build homes in Nepal.

Anonymous said...

It's such a shame when we here of stories like these.

Referring to the two earlier comments:

I thought that JPA scholarships were to promote academic excellence, to train academia and professionals? Then isn't it only wise that we send students to great academic institutions?

And going slightly off-tangent: Top universities in US probably support 'alternative' education as much as these other not-as-well-known colleges do, if not more. These universities have the financial backing to do so: only at these universities will you get financial support to join a travelling circus for two months, to study the music festival culture in France. Admissions are not only based on grades - there are a heavy emphasis on extracurricular activities. These universities produce not only talented individuals in academics, but also activists, leaders of non-profit organizations, great sportsmen and sportswomen. Why settle for one, when you can have both?

Anonymous said...

I have known some families who are middle-class professionals parents and still manage to get various scholarship for their kids who are just average academically with less than average leadership potential. It's who you know that matters..all the time

Anonymous said...

To Tiara, as it is our gov is already having so many problems administering scholarships based on simpler criteria such as academic qualifications (which are so much easier to measure). I think what you're proposing is not possible and practical currently. We're not even a first-world country. So emphasis will definitely be given to sciences and engineering first.

Anonymous said...

Hm... I wonder why Singapore does not face similar problems in awarding scholarships and university places even though a large proportion are awarded to foreigners. Malaysia can't even cope with just awarding scholarships to locals. Maybe they're more just and fair? Based on merit instead of race or nationality? I think this is where the real problem lies in top scorers not getting their scholarships and university places. All other considerations are secondary. Maybe JPA and the local unisshould tidy up their act. But I don't think this would happen in the near future.

Anonymous said...

nice blog here..

i would like to ask u or any reader a favour.
currently, i'm doing an assignment paper of comparing the system and culture of malaysian and australian secondary school based on my own observation ( i already did both observations in mlysia n australia)
i'm a 3rd year student of b.ed tesol in australia and i'm not quite sure about the malaysian system.
i was thinking of stating that malaysia's education system is quite towards exam oriented. is that correct? because i tried to find books and reliable informations or references but it seems that there's not much info in the internet. anybody care to comment? or share informations with me.
your cooperation is highly appreaciated. thanks heaps.

Anonymous said...

Seeing guys get into Cornell and Cambridge, I feel like shit. But nevermind.

Anonymous said...

When I went to get my visa done at the US embassy, I saw a number of students who were awarded the JPA scholarships. The universities they are attending? Purdue. Go figure that out yourself.

Anonymous said...

Don't go to Berkeley to study or any where in the eastern seaboard. Earthquakes and Tsunamis await you.

Chen Chow said...

Great that Tony is highlighting the case of Calvin and Wei Shen. Actually, I do know of Wei Shen's plight, as he has worked very hard to prepare for SAT and do US universities application while being a STPM student. Not many STPM students bother to take the efforts to take SAT and apply for top tier US universities, or rather not many has the awareness to do so.

I have met Wei Shen, and have seen his determination in applying for scholarships. He has tried quite a number of scholarships, but none turned out well. I was the one that connected him with Star Education editor to get his case highlighted. And it is my hope that hopefully, he would be able to fulfill his dream in studying in top tier universities, like Cornell University or Cambridge University.

I believe he would be happy to get full or partial scholarship or loan to help him cover the fees needed to realize his dream.

Anonymous said...

I actually admire these dudes' characters. If I knew funding would be hard to come by, I wouldn't have bothered to apply for UK/US universities to begin with.

Having said this however, I wonder if competition for placement in top UK/US universities would have been much tougher had most students applied regardless of bleak future financial support...

Anonymous said...

I would advise Wei Shen to contact the college to which he was accepted at Cambridge, the intercollegiate admissions folks and the Cambridge Commonwealth Trust (based at the University) and enquire about the Commonwealth Trust bursaries. There exists a bursary scheme for Commonwealth nationals at Cambridge, and many Malaysians get money from it every year. The quantum depends a lot on your financial status and can be quite generous, although it will not cover everything. That said, I know some JPA scholars who also got Commonwealth Trust funding despite already being sponsored, which I personally think is wrong. If Wei Shen is as talented as I am sure he is, Cambridge looks forward to receiving you! (But don't count on doing further training here given the new immigration rules, although things may be different in a few years' time.)

Anonymous said...

All succesful applicants would receive a pack from CTF and I think Wei Shen would have applied for that fund.

Wei Shen said...

Thank you for highlighting my plight and your concern is both an encouragement and a consolation to me. Thanks Tony, Chen Chow, and others who are aware of my plight. Your advice helped me a lot. I tried the Cambridge Commonwealth Trusts and I havent got any reply from them. I will continue to search for sponsor.

Anonymous said...

Hi Wei Shen, I'm the Anonymous of Wed May 31, 02:32:04 AM.
I forgot to mention in my last post the Jardine Scholarships. These are tenable only at selected Oxbridge colleges (more on their website) for 3 years, after which you will have to find other sponsors. Someone I know was a Jardine scholar and was very well looked after. There are other scholarships, like the Gates Schoolarships, which can be applied for to cover the cost of the subsequent 2-3 years if you're doing a long course like medicine. I don't know if the closing date for Jardine scholarships is already past though. Good luck anyway, and keep your fingers crossed for the Commonwealth bursaries (I think they are still in the decision-making process).

Anonymous said...

Tsunamis' don't faze me, I'm a Penangite anyway ;-)

Thank you Tony for highlighting my case and everyone here for your comments. Well, I did know that applying for entry into US universities would be arduous, though perhaps not as exacting as securing funding. Regardless, just like Weishen, I found the experience to be a journey that made a better person. Of course, I applied for universities like MIT that offered financial aid and I have to admit I believed in myself enough to think that I stood a chance despite the 4% international admission rate! But where engineering's concerned, Berkeley's the best I've got. In retrospect, perhaps I could have waited like most of my Malaysian peers and sat for STPM/IB/A levels before applying. Nevertheless, I saw that ever so faint yet enticing glimmer of hope and went thru the application process while preparing for my SPM. Now that nearly half a year has come and gone, I'm left humbled, a little poorer and stuck with no financial aid. But regretful? NO. As it is, I've sent a bunch of letters out to corporations, both Malaysian and American. I wonder how the people over at Ford in Irvine, CA must feel after getting letters from some Malaysian seeking funds. And yes, I am already enrolled in a pre-U program here in Disted-Stamford College, Penang; I'm taking the 11-month A-Level course. On a more cheery note, I've got my interview with Astro coming up, although I must say that I am still racking my brain on how to persuade them to sponsor a Mechanical Engineer. They did sponsor someone to do EECS at MIT though. (There's that faint glimmer of hope again....)

As for Singaporean scholarship programs, I did send letters over to the likes of A Star and Sembawang, but I was a tad late in persuing that course of action because their application window opens early in the year when the A-level results are released.

So yes, I didn't get into Harvard, but life's not over. From now till August when I have to pay my first bill at Berkeley, maybe some CEO may see my potential and give me an affirmative answer. Otherwise,I am happy that I have done my best for year 2005-006. When that's over, year 2006-2007 awaits.

p.s. this blog rocks. Tony, keep up the good work.

Anonymous said...

"No Harvard, my life is over" mentality? I've never heard of it before. I mean, it's really great if a person can get Harvard, but since when did Harvard become the only good university out there? And since when did universities become the "be all and end all"? Geez...

Anonymous said...

Oh come on, does it really matter which uni u come from? It's rather silly to say that only Ivy Leagues and Oxbridge are the BEST.

Good students shine anywhere.

Anonymous said...

Yes, it does.

University of Central Lancashire and University of Oxford. Which one would you prefer?