On the 9th of May 2015, IDEAS Education Unit organized a discussion session titled “Should Education Be Free?” which took place at Institut Intergriti Malaysia (IIM). Moderated by Tamanna Patel of IDEAS Education Unit, the discussion featured Wan Saiful Wan Jan (Chief Executive Officer of IDEAS), Hasbullah Faudzi (Universiti Terbuka Anak Muda’s representative), Datin Azimah Abdul Rahim (Chairman of PAGE Malaysia) and YB Dr. Ong Kian Ming (Democratic Action Party, Member of Parliament, Serdang) as panelists.
About 40 participants attended the session representing local business communities, NGOs and research institutions. Parents and students were also present at the discussion. All participated in the Q&A session which followed thereafter.
The discussion tackled three key questions with respect to the idea of free education – whether education in Malaysia is really free, who is paying the price of free education and what role should the government play in education.
The discussion began with Hasbullah Faudzi highlighting the invalid assumption that education is or can ever be free as government is funding it through taxation, thus making it not free. He then emphasised the need to re-think the provision and quality of education as communal good rather than the usual public versus private debate. He suggested the utilisation of the “wakaf” model in educational provision.
Datin Azimah had the audience ponder the indirect consequences of a supposedly free education. She provided examples such as the additional fees are charged to parents by public schools to compensate for the lack of funding from the government to conduct extra-curricular activities. She also argued that the problematic issue in Malaysian education is not the policy per se, but rather the implementation, accountability and transparency of stakeholders involved. Additional points made by Datin Azimah included striking a balanced, healthy relationship between schools and parents as parental support is very important to a school’s development.
From a statistical point of view, YB Kian Ming reiterated that education is not free, and redirected the question at hand to examine whether the education spending in Malaysia is cost-effective. Besides Malaysia’s rankings TIMMS and PISA, he pointed out the disparity of educational achievement, gender and urban-rural gap, enrolment, and high drop-outs rates among marginalised groups e.g. the Orang Asli, and those from Sabah and Sarawak. He advocated for more creative policies such as government partnership with private organisations or community based initiatives to solve education issues in Malaysia at its grass root level. He also emphasised on the need for more experimentation in solutions used to address the various disparities.
Wan Saiful took a more historical approach on his presentation. He commented that government intervention in educational provision is a relatively new phenomenon. He gave examples of early education in the US, UK and Malaysia’s sekolah pondok which demonstrated the initiative of private individuals, religious institutions and charitable institutions who were responsible for providing education for the masses. He also agreed with the fact that education in Malaysia is not free and this, has burdened the bottom 40 percent of households. Citing evidence from IDEAS’ research project “Giving Voice to the Poor”, he remarked some of the costs that have to be borne by lower income parents in ensuring their children are able to attend school, such as buying uniforms, travelling between home and schools and, providing their children with money to buy meals. He then proposed to an alternate education funding mechanism e.g. the voucher system as to fund the children rather than schools and teachers.
Question and Answer Session
The question and answer session followed shortly after, with questions from the audiences that ranged from the topic of engaging parents to participate in school’s activities, political agenda that encourages low quality of education in Malaysia, re-assessing the financial allocation for education spending, and whether the involvement or partnership with private organisations within the free market framework is really the solution for Malaysia’s education issues. In addition to this, participants expressed their views on the 1Bestari spending and the voucher system not being the only solution to the country’s education woes.