Malaysian universities given funds to ‘weather the pandemic’

Budget, seen as ‘remarkable commitment’ to education, could be leveraged to improve IT and teaching quality

December 1, 2020
Source: iStock

More than 20 per cent of Malaysia’s 2021 budget, equalling MYR64.8 billion (£12 billion), is set to go to education. This will make the sector the largest recipient of state aid in the country’s largest-ever budget, which has passed parliament but whose details are still being debated.

The Education Ministry will receive MYR50.4 billion, while the separate Higher Education Ministry will receive MYR14.4 billion.

The South-east Asian nation has been investing heavily in schooling in recent years. State education expenditure was MYR60 billion in 2019 and MYR64 billion in 2020, making up 19 per cent and 20 per cent of those budgets, respectively.

It is hard to compare past years directly with 2021 because of structural changes in the ministries, but “overall, the education portion of the yearly budget has been rising steadily”, said Norzaini Azman, professor of higher and adult education at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM).

She told Times Higher Education that “the budget showcases a remarkable commitment to improving our national education system”.

Much of the focus is on giving public higher education institutions the “funding needed to weather the pandemic”, she said. The budget leans towards “need-based financial aid” and stabilising funding for “marginalised-serving institutions” such as vocational and technical colleges.

She felt there were opportunities for higher education institutions to “leverage on the need for upskilling”. For example, they could develop executive education classes because some new graduates will be given government vouchers to take professional certificate courses. “Funding for retraining is a wise investment strategy,” she said.

Professor Azman said the MYR50 million investment in upgrading university internet infrastructure was “extremely critical”, while an additional MYR50 million to upgrade laboratories and lecture rooms was still in “no way sufficient” to equip all classrooms with tools for digital, remote learning.

There are still some cuts that will hurt, like a 16 per cent drop in funding for the Higher Education Scholarship, a highly sought-after programme for study at both local and overseas universities.

Sharifah Munirah Alatas, a lecturer in strategic studies and international relations at UKM, told THE that while the budget was generally sufficient, the government lacked a “master plan” or “sense of urgency” during the Covid pandemic.

“We have good policy papers, committees set up with impressive names and equally impressive salaries and lofty plans, but implementation has always been lacking,” she said.

She recommended setting up short-, medium- and long-term mitigation strategies for Covid for the next year.

She also suggested that some funds be used to improve teaching quality. “We need to review and revamp our teacher training programmes and retrain all the teachers and administrators,” she said. “If teachers are substandard, all other efforts for education reform will be futile.”

Even with financial aid on its way, students and teachers have been shaken by sudden cancellations, postponed semesters, delayed exams and restrictions on movement. Dr Alatas recommended that the ministry employ counsellors to engage with young people via social media.

“Our higher education minister has yet to address these very human problems,” she said. “I have my own students who seem depressed, underperforming and genuinely filled with anxiety.”

joyce.lau@timeshighereducation.com

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