14th General Election (GE14)
Tertiary students are saddled with soaring textbook costs.

AS of October 31, 2016, the Planning, Research and Policy Coordination Division of the Ministry of Higher Education in Malaysia reported that the total number of local public university student enrolments are at 532,049. Additionally, the UNESCO Institute for Statistics reported 806,587 enrolments from the short cycle tertiary level to PhD across the world from Malaysia as of the year 2015.

Back in March 2009, the Dewan Rakyat reported that 4,800 students became dropouts or expelled from public institutions of higher learning every year. The 4,800 students of course did not look like much when stacked against half a million students as it only constituted less than a single per cent of the total yearly enrolments.

However, the fact of the matter is that this number does still exist and is quantifiable. Therefore, it would be remiss to simply dismiss this statistic. Perhaps when we narrow our focus of the importance of education to mere national and familial duty, it can seem insignificant, so, bigger numbers can help paint a more compelling picture of the higher education landscape.

Let’s zoom out and look at a place where many students from all over the world go to further their studies — the United States of America. With funding from the illustrious Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the nonprofit New York City-based organisation known as Public Agenda (which is also non-partisan) conducted a study called, “With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them”.

The study aimed to understand a report by the US Department of Education, in which it is said that only 20 per cent of young people who begin their higher education at two-year institutions graduate within three years, with four-year institutions seeing four in 10 students receiving a degree within six years. In which the question becomes, why do students leave school without finishing?

The prevalent belief locally according to former Deputy Higher Education minister Dr Hou Kok Chung and former Deputy Education minister Datuk Dr Wee Ka Siong back in 2009 was that unsatisfactory academic results, disciplinary issues, and involvement in crime are the main factors for students dropping out of college.

The Public Agenda study notes through a survey in the United States that the top two main factors given by students in America seem to be a need to work for money and an inability to afford college tuition and fees. A largely financial issue it seems, a sentiment shared across western countries where education is expensive and even more so for international students coming into these countries to further their studies.

The fact of the matter is that education outside of public institutions has become an industry that spins a very expensive wheel for the fate of future working adults.

With college textbooks and supplies costing an average of 1,200 USD (RM4900) per year in countries like the US, the financial wall that must be climbed only gets taller with changes in the economic landscape across the world.

Overall, it can look quite bleak to those holding on to dreams of furthering their studies as it’s at this point a basic requirement for getting into a career that can sustain a comfortable life through it’s financial backing. Higher education has become an investment that asks a substantial threshold to enter. But does it have to be?

According to Study Malaysia, an online Malaysian education system guide the cost of studying overseas can be astronomical especially in STEM fields.

Malaysia still sits comfortably within a safe zone of cost-effectiveness and high-quality tertiary education. Where they state that for example, a three-year UK engineering degree program in Malaysia through a foreign university franchised degree program is estimated to cost RM68,000 which is contrasted by the tuition fee of RM21,700 per semester at the host university in the UK itself. Of course, those numbers become even more enticing with the lower cost of living in general locally when compared to other nations where students tend to flock towards pursuing a higher education.

I often state that education is a means of preparation for future working adults, which means it allows them the ability to seek a job that fits the requirements of future employers. However, this does gloss over a very important notion given the idealistic view I hold regarding education. I have stated it earlier in this article and I will state it again; education is expensive. On a personal note, I myself have taken some cost-effective measures in pursuing higher education. I started by going through a diploma program in my chosen field at Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM); a public higher education institution. As soon as I finished, I took off to the University of Iowa in the United States to further my studies at the undergraduate level with my credited subjects from UiTM carried over to the university. I will be graduating in May 2018 and this has helped by decreasing the cost by half for such a programme.

I do admit that I worked part-time at an on-campus cafe in the United States to help pay for my living expenses.

In a perfect world, education in general would be free thanks to the government’s initiatives to make education accessible to all (at the expense of increased tax rates). While countries such as Germany, Norway, Sweden adopt this ideal for almost completely free higher education, there are still many factors to consider when thinking on the financial cost of education such as travel and the cost of living.

Our own government does help in taking off some of the financial burden with initiatives such as the National Higher Education Fund Corporation (PTPTN) that gives out study loans to students pursuing tertiary education in Malaysia. Certain private corporations have stepped up as well to provide scholarships that can be invaluable to prospective students, especially when some will offer scholarships to the less popular non-STEM subject academic disciplines that a student may want to pursue.

The act of pursuing higher education is paved in gold, there’s no beating around the bush regarding it. This is mere fact. But with some planning and help from the government and maybe even a corporation, one can lower the financial wall that needs to be climbed to enter higher education. And of course, the most important factor being the ability to scale the wall to get to the other side and graduate in your chosen program of study.

With the recent 2017 SPM examinees entering the world of becoming prospective higher education students, 2018 is a whole new stage of figuring out what to do next. And even if these prospective higher education students are just turning 18 years old and might not consider themselves adults just yet. It is time to take the first step into the adult world by understanding the value of money and its place in the world of higher education.

Emillio Daniel is an adventurous English and Creative Writing student at The University of Iowa in the United States. Email him at education@nst.com.my.

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