Abolish Overseas Scholarships for Undergraduates

Abolish Overseas Undergraduate Scholarships

M. Bakri Musa



Every year at this time the nation goes through its regular spasms of indignation over perceived unfair distribution of scholarships for studies abroad for those with the Sijil Persekutuan Malaysia (SPM).  This being Malaysia, such controversies inevitably and quickly acquire ugly racial overtones, no matter how ‘objective’ or ‘sophisticated’ the arguments put forth.


            I suggest that we abolish all public scholarships for undergraduate studies abroad.  That would at least remove yet another source of racial disagreement.  The fewer such contentious issues we have, the better it would be for Malaysia.


            Public scholarships for studies abroad should only be given to those pursuing higher degrees.  As for the handful of our brightest who secured undergraduate slots at the world’s most competitive universities, rest assured that there will be no shortage of sponsors outside of government if these students were truly in need of financial aid.


            Whatever money left over after funding those pursuing higher degrees abroad should then be diverted to strengthening our local universities, which desperately need the support.


            A candidate with only the SPM regardless of the number of A’s obtained could secure a place only at a third-rate institution in America.  We do not need to send our students there.  Even when on the rare occasions that they do end up at a respectable university, these students have to spend a semester or two doing preparatory courses (essentially Sixth Form).



Cheaper To Hire American Professors


This may surprise many, but it is actually less expensive to hire a full (not an assistant) professor from America than to send one undergraduate there.  Let me review the arithmetic.


            The average American professor earns about US$100K annually; pay her that to come to Malaysia.  Out of that she would probably spend about $40K for local living expenses.  At that level (about RM140K) she would have a lifestyle that would be the envy of her former colleagues in America.  Additionally she would spend $10K for transportation, another $10K for her driver, maid and gardener, and $5K for local holidays.  Then there is the local income tax of about $20K.  At the end of the year she would be lucky to have $15K to remit home.


            The rest ($85K) would be spent locally to benefit the area hamburger joints, satay sellers, and apartment owners, among others.  Imagine the multiplier effect of that spending.


            Contrast that to sending one student to America at an average cost of $50K per year.  That whole sum is lost from the country, with no spin-off or multiplier effect in Malaysia.  Thus in terms of actual foreign currency loss, it is over three times more expensive to send a student to America than to hire an American professor ($50K versus $15K).


            That extra expense would have been worthwhile if we were to send our students to the MITs and Harvards of America, but we are not.  This is true especially of JPA and MARA students, and only slightly less so with Petronas.


            Imagine if our universities were to have a critical mass of American faculty members.  The first impact would be felt at the faculty level.  Those local faculty members would now have real competition and new academic role models, scholars instead of politicians in academic robes.  One reason the National University of Singapore had a quantum leap in improvement was its recruitment of many foreign academics way back in the 1970s, despite the opposition of local professors.


            Our universities need a generous infusion of foreign academics as there is a limited local supply.  Even our so-called top tier universities have fewer than half of their faculty members having terminal qualifications.


            For the students, they would now have not the typical aloof and imperious Third World professor but a more approachable and less formal teacher.  Lastly for the university, it would end up with a scholarly-productive faculty.  That incidentally is the only way for the university to ascend the academic scale.


            Sending a student abroad would only benefit him; the nation would gain later, and only if he were to return.  If he would not, the country could never recoup the loss.  On the other hand, that one professor would directly and immediately benefit local students, the university, and thus the nation.


            We send about 2,000 new students abroad a year at a cost of at least RM350 million.  Assuming that such students spend on average about four years abroad, the total annual budget must be in the range of RM1.4 billion (350 x 4).  Compare that to the 2009 operating budget for all our public universities of RM14.1 billion!



Fallacious Arguments on Meritocracy


I am surprised how otherwise intelligent Malaysians would suddenly have a sudden and almost religious faith in the validity of the SPM as a measure of merit.  One needs only peruse the examination, as well as the syllabus and textbooks on which those examination is based, to be disabused of this misplaced confidence.  If you need further affirmation, just sit in one of those classes and see what the teachers’ expectations are of the students.


            The SPM measures how faithfully the students could regurgitate what the teachers had imparted to them in class.  Thus it is an excellent surrogate indicator of a student’s memory, hard work, and obedience to authority figures.  The first two qualities will get you far anywhere.  I am uncertain of the value of the third.  While it will get you far in the Third World and authoritarian societies, I am certain that it is not an attribute that we should hold at a premium if we were to progress.


            What we need instead is the ability for critical thinking, problem solving, and communicating effectively.  Unfortunately those are not the skills we are teaching and testing our students.


            Nobody even questions the ridiculousness of a student sitting for 20 subjects!  A matriculating American high school student sits for only seven subjects, at most.  The American standardized test, SAT I, covers only three:  English, mathematics, and writing skills.  Even top American universities require the SAT II (or subject SAT) in only three subjects, while students sit for at most five subjects.


            Seven should be enough fro SPM, and focus more on content.  The International Baccalaureate, now recognized as the global standard for matriculation, offers only six subjects, while its middle school program (equivalent to our SPM), only 8.


            Minister of Education Muhyyuddin’s proposal to reduce the SPM offerings to 10 subjects represents the usual seat-of-the-pants decision rather than the result of serious policy deliberations.  He only adds to the muddle.


            Even SAT which has been the most evaluated is not the end all and be all in terms of student evaluation.  Harvard and other top universities could easily fill their slots with class valedictorians and perfect SAT scorers, but they do not.  These institutions recognize that no one test can be valid for all students.  And on any one test, its discriminatory value diminishes rapidly at the extremes of the curve.


            Yet we have those who would ascribe miraculous powers to SPM such that someone with 20 A’s should automatically get a scholarship over another with only 13 or 9!  They are ascribing to the SPM a degree of precision it does not deserve.  The SPM has yet to prove itself as a valid instrument in the first place.


            These misplaced discussions on merit remind me of two items.  I am told that in the old cemeteries of Beijing, the civil service examination scores of the ancient Mandarins were chiseled onto their tombstones!  Nobody bothered to find out how well those Imperial civil servants were at solving the problems of the Empire.  The second was a delightful essay, “Lost in the Meritocracy” I read The Atlantic in 2005 (now available in a book form) by the writer and critic Walter Kirn.  His thesis is essentially that these tests really measure how well you could outwit the test designers!


            Back in my days in high school when examinations were essays rather than the SAT-style multiple-choice fill-in-the-blanks, success was measured on how well you could “spot” the questions, which of course is a variation on the same theme.


            The controversies over SPM are symptomatic of a much more serious problem with our entire school system.  These arguments over scholarships based on SPM distract us from addressing these other more fundamental issues.


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