Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The JPA scholarship conundrum

The main protagonists in the ongoing Public Service Department’s (JPA) scholarship controversy are not seeing the forest for the trees. While the reports of civil servants not following a Cabinet directive to grant JPA scholarships to those scoring eight A+ and above in the SPM are worrying, the bigger question which we as taxpayers and voters should be asking our politicians is whether the returns we are getting from our expenditure on these scholarships can be justified.

If the answer to this question is negative, then even if the JPA somehow manages to “perfect” the application process, these scholarships will still be a waste of taxpayers’ funds. Rather than getting worked up over the JPA scholarship allocation process, we should take a step back and ask two fundamental questions.

First, do our top SPM scorers have an inalienable right to pursue an overseas education at the taxpayers’ expense? Second, do these JPA scholars “pay back” sufficient “returns” to justify the billions of ringgit spent on them? My response would be a resounding “No” to both these questions.

Sadly, Malaysians have been brought up in a paternalistic state with the expectation that it is almost a birthright for top performing students to obtain government funding to pursue their university education overseas. In most other developing countries, bright students either find private funding to study overseas or are given places, perhaps with scholarships, to study in local, mostly public universities.

This way, the academic standards in local universities can be raised and precious taxpayer money can be spent on physical infrastructure development which can increase economic activity, or other more worthwhile social expenditure that can be spread across a larger pool of citizens.

The right to study abroad at the taxpayers’ expense should not be seen as something akin to a constitutional right. Even the argument that government scholarships should be given to those who get into top institutions such as Harvard or Stanford in the US or Cambridge or Oxford in the UK have weaknesses in the Malaysian context since JPA scholarships are given out post-SPM and the means-tested component in the allocation of these scholarships is very small.

In other words, there is no guarantee that these top students can get a place in one of these top universities, and for those who do the filter to ensure that only those who cannot afford to attend these universities on their own is very weak.

Even if one can make the case that the country as a whole can benefit from the experience and expertise these JPA scholars will have as a result of their overseas education, the fact is that many JPA scholars do not return to Malaysia to work upon completion of their studies and most of those who do return never get the opportunity to pay back their scholarship bonds by working in the civil service.

Ask any JPA overseas scholar who did not pursue a medical degree and the story will go something like this. They will report back to the JPA on completion of their studies and sit around for a few months waiting for the JPA to contact them. Many of them would seek employment, mostly in the private sector, during this waiting period. Upon the expiry of this waiting period, the JPA would either “lose” their file or send a letter to them stating that a suitable place of employment could not be found, thereby releasing these scholars from their bond. It would not surprise me to find that fewer than 5% of JPA overseas scholars actually fulfil the terms of their bond by working for the civil service.

The arguments over who is entitled to these scholarships will be never ending, even if the application process is fully transparent. There are simply not enough JPA scholarships for all the top academic achievers in Malaysia. This has of course been exacerbated by the government’s promise that those who obtain eight A+ and above in the SPM would be automatically given JPA scholarships (which includes scholarships to local universities).

Not many people are aware of the cost of funding the JPA overseas scholarships. For a single cohort of 1,500 to 2,100 scholarship holders, the cost can be as high as RM2 billion. At a time when subsidies are being cut, the notion of expanding the number of overseas JPA scholarships, especially when many of these scholars do not return to serve the country, seems fiscally and socially irresponsible.

Hence, instead of arguing about who should be entitled to these scholarships, we should pressure our politicians to be held accountable for the larger policy question — whether our taxes are being spent wisely, regardless of who gets the scholarships. If the government still insists on funding these scholarships, we should ask for a more systematic approach to ensure that the experience and education of these scholars are put to good use in the civil service, by putting them in the Administrative and Diplomatic Services (PTD) class of civil service officers, for example.

If restructuring the civil service to accommodate JPA scholars is too difficult, administratively and politically, then other proposals should be examined. I am strongly in favour of severely limiting the number of JPA scholarships given at the undergraduate level because of the low level of returns to the country.

I believe that a better use of these funds would be to channel them to postgraduate students, either at the Master’s or PhD level, with the stipulation that these scholarship holders must return to Malaysia and apply to work in a local public or private university, so the academic and research capacity of our institutions of higher education can be bolstered.

These are the policy discussions we should be having, given their longer term economic impact, rather than focusing on the nitty-gritty of who gets the JPA scholarship. Unfortunately, we, as voters and taxpayers, are not sending a clear enough signal to our politicians, who are leading the charge in “not seeing the forest for the trees”.

Ong Kian Ming holds a PhD in political science from Duke University. He is currently pioneering a Masters in Public Policy (MPP) programme at UCSI University.

This article appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, May 26, 2011.

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