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Budget 2017: Education loses out again

Another Budget has come and gone. As the Education Exco for Selangor—Malaysia’s most industrialized state—I combed through Prime Minister Dato’ Seri Najib Razak’s speech for policies or initiatives that could help improve the state of education here and in the country as a whole.

The results—needless to say—were disappointing.

The most worrying part of the 2017 Budget was the massive cuts to the operating budgets for public universities in Malaysia.

To cite just two examples, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s budget was cut to RM352.7 million from RM512.33 million previously (a 31.16% drop), whereas Universiti Teknologi MARA’s budget was slashed from RM2.23 billon to RM1.67 billion (25.2%).

As the media reports also indicate, overall, the combined 2017 operating expenditure for 20 public universities will fall by 19.23%, i.e. from RM7.57 billion to RM6.12 billion.
This of course follows from severe cuts from the previous years.

The people understand that austerity is necessary, especially in these times of global economic uncertainty.

Nevertheless, couldn’t the public universities have been spared?

Surely a solid higher education—which is accessible as well as relevant to the demands of the workplace—is the best way to help the B40s and M40s that the Prime Minister spoke about?

Couldn’t more savings have been found from the RM15.9 billion allocated to his Department, which is, by the way, still a colossal sum?

I am not advocating simply throwing money at our public universities.

They of course have a lot of proving to do—after decades of questionable results, they must show the people of Malaysia that they are really capable of producing competitive graduates as well as top-notch research.

But on the flipside, it’s going to be hard, if not impossible, for them to do more with less and less resources at their disposal.

Apart from that we can also see how the PERMATA programme, which is supervised by the Prime Minister’s wife gets an improved budget allocation from RM36 million in 2016 to RM85 million in 2017, and increase of more than 100%.

The issue with PERMATA is that it is a programme that is not given under any ministerial portfolio even though it is a programme that is related to education, or at least welfare, however it is positioned under the Prime Minister’s Department.

Are we really clear on the benefit of the programme, to the point that its allocation can be improved dramatically?

Of course, it’s not all doom and gloom. It’s good that the government allocated RM4.6 billion to TVET institutions, as is its plans to transform nine unused Teachers Training Institutes (IPGs) into Polytechnics and Vocational Colleges.

But then again, this begs the question, why did these IPGs become “unused” in the first place?

This again highlights the poor planning mechanisms of the Federal Government and makes one very nervous about the upcoming “transformation.”

The whole process will cost RM400 million—no mean sum. What exactly will it be spent on?

These and other shortcomings means that we cannot help but conclude that this is an anti-education Budget, one which grows and grows an already obese government at the expense of the true interests of the Malaysian people.