APRIL 19 — When I jumped off the bus at noon to register at UKM (Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia) not many noticed the scraggly looking teenager with a mega-large bag. It was so large; it had clothes, a chess set and even a typewriter. It was the early Nineties and Kurt Cobain was alive making music.
Every student had about 20 family members coming to send them off. It was that big a deal, going to a public university. There were no private universities and the private “colleges” were only offering twinning programmes at best.
The old ethos: few go to university and many after secondary education join the employment market.
This changed with the great expansion before the millennium, around the time the PTPTN national loan system came around.
Mahathir’s Malaysia was to be a developed nation in record time, and millions of graduates have to line up and march in unison as people in the capital cheered them on with confetti drowning the uninitiated.
This vision required universities opening almost every month, in every state, in every way and many tuition centres around the Klang Valley turning into university colleges. Major government-linked companies were turning their training centres into universities, and Mahathir Mohamad was still riding horses.
The PTPTN answered the money issue. And now on the table sits the proposal to abolish it.
You don’t have to agree or disagree, but you have to realise that the issue is not straightforward. The overdrive the Barisan Nasional (BN) government is in to respond to is the indicator.
Before reverting back to the loan agency, let’s look at the students, and those who have since graduated.
Some have good jobs and can pay the loan back. This group is the hardest to be defended by policy proponents. They also usually coincide being the first-class graduates who get a waiver on the loan.
On the face of it the basic argument that if you take a loan, then you pay back the loan remains. There are no grey areas, just greyness for being morally reprehensible not wanting to pay.
A bit more on that later.
There is a growing constituency of graduates who cannot find jobs commensurate to their education. The national stats show not high unemployment, but if the numbers were filtered to those having graduate-type jobs paying graduate-level pay, then the numbers will start to frighten.
There are graduates today managing only to become clerks. My local supermarket newsstand is manned by a microbiologist looking for a way out. I know some becoming cashiers at supermarkets. After four years in campus they only let you do counter arithmetic and give you a pay no engineering maths is necessary to spend.
There is frustration, and there is a sense of neglect.
They are tempted to ask, “If the degree does not get me a job better paying than a security guard, why pay for the degree? It seems like I have wasted four years just so I can be more indebted.”
As debtors that may be irresponsible of them, but when the state is the creditor then the dimensions shift somewhat.
Who’s saving who?
The PTPTN was the cash cow for many of these new universities.
This was because the government had promised millions of parents that their faith in BN will be met with higher grades in public schools, and then those with those higher grades excelling in universities, before hitting career peaks.
It was a necessary creature to feed the needs of a population told to imagine a future of grandeur for themselves and their families.
Vocational training, for instance, was not part of the great dream. No more plumbers, just doctors and engineers from here on.
However, university education is more expensive. The new universities were not short of students who met the minimum grade, but they were short of students with the minimum financing. PTPTN became the saviour.
Perhaps Malaysians have to bear some of the blame here. Not many raised their eyebrows when mere tuition centres were made into universities. It was rush, rush and more rush.
I am told there was a university certified to train doctors but there were insufficient cadavers. Abandoned malls, shophouses and even homes were turned into the campus. Buildings were constructed and university presidents were appointed.
The whole exercise had to be paid for with university admission. PTPTN loans filled the lecture theatres.
It is no surprise that these things were running parallel with the declining standards in local universities. Volume took over quality. There were that many teaching staff, that much know-how. All the universities zeroed in to getting students without any care about the students’ finances. They stopped worrying about the quality of the student and were anxious to get them signing their loan documents.
Universities run on admissions.
Questions then. Were the universities screened or measured? How many of the universities were taken off the preferred list after the quality of the education was suspect and their graduates struggling to find decent jobs?
Did PTPTN properly vet candidates? Their initial mandate was underprivileged applicants and overachievers. When they extended it to almost anyone going to university did they factor the candidate’s ability to benefit sufficiently from the loan.
PTPTN are not a purely commercial firm like a bank. They have a social agenda, so when students with borderline grades in an ever-slumping SPM (“O” levels equivalent) are taken in by less than scrupulous institutions just to maximise profits, have they taken the best interest of the student at heart or just appeasing their corporate friends?
Mind you, the PTPTN monies are dispensed through the universities. There is a nursing university in the Klang Valley which fines students for breaking curfew, and just lops off the amount from the loan it holds in trust for the students.
The PTPTN, Ministry of Higher Education and universities were working hand in hand to ensure the number of graduates went up, and the promise to an electorate kept.
It really did not matter if the universities were rundown or were just not able to provide value. Money was taken, time was spent, exams were given and certificates were issued. Unemployable graduates with no skills in their own course of study and missing English skills were just collateral damage.
Entitlement and getting while you can
The literal critic as I mentioned earlier needs to be tackled finally.
A loan is a loan on, hard to shake off that point.
It is now joined by the other refrain, nothing free is appreciated. When something is free then people will get used to it and in time claim it is a natural entitlement rather than having a time cap.
We are all citizens, and students on loan and those on it before are just as much citizens as the rest.
I’ll unsheathe the obvious give-away line, if others who have benefited from the state and theirs are amounts exponentially higher than all these students put together, can the students then claim to the state to go after the bigger players first?
This is one my old debate pal would say (and he has been saying so) that two wrongs don’t make a right.
Fine. But can they remain wrong till those with bigger means, better lawyers and more nest eggs settle first their grossly unfair grabs?
Grab is the right word. Some nations are lucky, others are luckier and then there is Malaysia.
If there is wealth in the state, and that wealth is currently misspent, how unacceptable is it for citizens to also make a play for what they can get while they can?
This reminds of the Umno Raya open house in the ‘80s. There food queues were just monstrous, and the monster in everyone emerged as everyone attacked whatever was brought in. Adults and young teenagers like me were just forcing our hands into the large trays of grilled satay. Every person for himself.
It is undignified, but that probably spells the feeling across the country. People know, as much as they support or don’t BN, that much is being distributed to those of a certain class of people. Human nature kicks in.
Students who have been shoddily trampled on through this conveyor-belt education might have a case.
There is wealth in the country, and unless those in power exhibit a willingness to judiciously manage that wealth, then many things can come unhinged.
So where then
I’ll admit I have not destroyed the “a loan is a loan” line. But even my critics have to concede, not all is straight and narrow in the PTPTN debacle.
The abysmal collection rate as of now underlines it. PTPTN is not just a company, it can even blacklist Malaysians from travelling, that’s not something your local bank can do to errant customers.
Many students have been left in the lurch, the universities have been largely protected by PTPTN rather than regulated and pressed by the government agency to give more value to the students, and in a state where state funds are very arbitrarily and selectively disbursed, then can the rest be demanded to stick to arrangements. What about kepimpinan melalu teladan (Leadership through example)?
PTPTN is a mess, but the kids did not start the fire.
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.