JPA Scholarships: A Billion Ringgit Throwaway?

Application for JPA Scholarships will be available again starting 9 April. The Government has mentioned sponsoring only students upon acceptance into top universities and Hafidzi feels it’s an important consideration. He wonders, however, when this will actually take effect as he analyzes the need for such a provision to be implemented as soon as possible.

A total of 559 candidates obtained high distinctions and 10,803 scored straight A’s in the subjects they sat for in the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) examination in 2011, according to the Education Ministry director-general Datuk Seri Abdul Ghafar Mahmud.

Statistics on SPM results have never been disappointing; in fact, they may be the only ones showing positive signs in a disappointing national arena, be it in politics, economics or social issues. The reality is, more students are getting straight A’s year after year. Perhaps the staggering number of exceptional students may explain why Muhyiddin suddenly theorized that our education system is better than that of the US and UK.

Ah, how wonderful to see parents rejoicing over their children’s results:

Of course I am, my son has never scored A’s in Additional Mathematics, Physics, and Chemisty; in fact, praise the Lord that he scored straight A’s!

What a happy ending. In fact, I’ll bet everyone is expecting our tale of educational excellence to continue. But hold on, our beloved Prime Minister has just reversed his policy of giving JPA scholarships; now, they’re available to students with 8A’s and above, not 9A’s. How magnanimous! How confident!

Malaysians, for the sake of our country, wake up please!

Isn’t it alarming that our education statistics have been reflecting a rapid rise in A’s being scored and nothing else for the past 10 years? In the past, there seemed to be more recognition for high-scorers than today. However, a trend of skepticism appears to be emerging among scholarship interviewers and employers who’re beginning to question the credibility of these exceptional students.

 

A for excellence? | Photo: Zulkifli Ersal | Source: http://bit.ly/HmQ9fJ

What exactly does this rise in numbers mean? Are our students getting smarter, thanks to their dedicated teachers? Their own undivided attention in class? Or are the students simply more prepared due to the many generic practice questions available in bookstores and at tuition centers? Is there also the possibility that the grading system has become more lenient compared to years ago?

These are issues that must be taken into account especially in gauging excellence. Sure, these students do work hard. And it’s only advantageous for us to reward them with scholarships to ensure a continuity in their success since they’re the human capital for a modern Malaysia. There’s no denying that. But the issue here involves billions in outflow of public money. Therefore it’s also fair to evaluate if every SPM high scorer should be rewarded solely on the basis of SPM results.

Let’s take the year 2007 for example. A year where 1800 students were sent overseas to complete their tertiary education. Averaging RM500,000 per person, we’re looking at investments of almost RM900 million for that batch alone. If the trend continues in 2012, aren’t we then looking at a whooping sum of RM3.5 billion so far? The public has the right to demand for a justification of such an expenditure. Most especially when the majority of these students are not even enrolled in the world’s Top 20 universities.

Throughout the years, there have been cases of JPA scholars (the so-called SPM high-scorers) flunking their preparatory examinations – i.e A-Levels, Canadian Pre-U, South Australian Matriculation. This is a strong indication of the JPA scholarship policy being ineffective in determining excellence, that SPM achievements do not necessarily measure up to world-standard educational requirements.

Isn’t it also contradictory of the policy that our best students aren’t exceptional enough to be the best among the best? In fact, privately-funded students comparatively have a better admission rate to Ivy-league schools  like Cambridge for example. So look who’s having the last laugh now.

Moreover, in the UK and US, there are universities with large Malaysian admissions on an annual basis where our scholars mingle only among themselves. Don’t be surprised therefore to meet Malaysian graduates from such tertiary institutions who can’t even speak proper English! Does this mean that JPA’s mentality is such that as long as these average academic performers find places in these accepting universities, they’re all good? That their agenda is simply to get them abroad? How many of the ‘international schools’ in the charts below will accept out JPA scholars?

Can our top scorers compete in the top 20 universities worldwide? How do our own universities compare?

Not so long ago, the Government initiated a new policy for JPA scholarships to be awarded only to exceptional students upon acceptance to top universities. Years have passed since the announcement, and the time is ripe to redefine the definition of ‘top university’. Singapore, for instance, will only sponsor the crème de la crème to top institutions while the rest are retained locally.

Possible changes in the policy:

  • Reserving scholarship spots for top scorers at university-entry level
  • Small bursaries for SPM-level students for pre-university courses
  • The pre-university courses would include STPM, matriculation and A-levels

Other issues mooted:

  • Due to O-level results being a poor indicator of A-level performance, it is not an excellent idea to award the scholarships to SPM level students
  • Key to the policy change is to award scholarships to students with very good results and a place at top universities
  • Process of awarding the scholarships must also be ‘fair and balanced’ in order to make sure that all communities in Malaysia reap benefits

(Source: JPA)

JPA’s over-emphasis on overseas education is among the factors that are causing our local institutions to plummet in rankings due to the lack of quality human capital. Lackluster academic performance is what’s making the atmosphere less competitive, as is the lack of initiatives to aim for a higher standard. Look no further than the bane of many of our scholars – the basic grasp of the English Language (or the lack of);  to expect continuous independent research and development progress therefore is unrealistic. How saddening, though, that the trickle-down effects are bastardizing our own efforts to improve local institutions.

Whatever can positively happen to initiatives to revive the glory days of University Malaya, when the Government itself allows an exodus of our brightest, while less undeserving ones grapple for locally available spots?

Whoever rules the Government in future, it’s imperative that JPA’s overseas scholarship policy be revised. Straight A’s in SPM alone don’t equate to the excellence deserving of golden (yes, it’s that expensive) opportunities abroad. Overseas institutions too, aren’t necessarily exceptional just because they’re located in the US or UK where hallowed institutions like Stanford, Harvard, and Oxford are found. More importantly, a more refined approach will ensure meritocracy at its best, while improving the standard of our local institutions with billions saved as well as a better pool of students to choose from.

(Source of charts in this article: http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/; featured image accompanying article on main page courtesy of Mahani Mohamad, source: http://bit.ly/IdcUyW)

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He probably suits best as the baby monkey of Loyarburok; being a 19-year old first-year Law student (like, who else can beat that!). He set up ‘The Malaysian Outsider’ (myrumbles.wordpress.com) for youth empowerment & to increase awareness among Malaysian youth. His daily concerns are shared on Twitter @hafidzirazali

Posted on 7 April 2012. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

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17 Responses to JPA Scholarships: A Billion Ringgit Throwaway?

  1. Grace

    So does this mean that as long as a student who got 9A+ in his or her SPM examination is enrolled in one of the universities listed by the gov, they'll automatically get the JPA scholarship?? No interviews? No written tests? Nothing?? Wow, seems not that challenging…

  2. Thessa

    Correct me if I'm wrong, but there seems to be an argument against the emphasis that we place on scoring straight A's and thinking that that means the student is exceptional enough in his/her education. That argument is perfectly fine with me, and I utterly agree with the ridiculousness of that conception.

    However, I get the implication that most of you that commented here, as well as the writer, Hafidzi himself, base your arguments on our students' inability to get into ivy leagues like Harvard and Oxbridge, as well as other top institutions. I ask you this, isn't this glorification of top universities another form of misconception regarding the measurement of the quality and standard of a student's education? What's wrong if a student, whether sponsored by JPA or not, enrolls in a university that is not the top, and perhaps is even unheard of, yet manages to graduate with outstanding results and is fully competent and comprehensible? Are they any less deserving of respect than those that graduate from ivy leagues? The majority of people would answer yes, although some may not admit it. What is the justification for this answer? What is it that defines an ivy league as a better educational institution? I see it purely as branding. I am not attacking the honour or credibility of these institutions, I am only questioning the solidarity of the 'fact' that non-top universities are any less credible.

    This whole pressure on being the best among the best or the creme de la creme is in itself, an insult to education, which I feel should be a journey of developing one's self into the best possible one that he/she can be-placing benchmarks on personal achievements and striving for personal satisfaction- NOT to be constantly compared with others. Some may argue that comparisons with others are more realistic and reliable to motivate, but I disagree and say that this is only so because of the masses' preconceptions on this. People are no more an individual any more, or perhaps never were, because of so much influence from society as a whole-norms,restriction and the ever-present preference to blend in and be part of a community. People fail to understand that being part of a society does not mean sharing the same identity with one another- it means co-depending on each other BECAUSE of individual abilities and unique identities.

    I am sorry if I seem to have gone off topic or nag too much about this, but I personally feel that it isn't just the rote education system and government policies that are despicable and detrimental to the idea of an education, but it is the very ingrained societal views that is most disappointing.

    • BenG

      Dear Thessa,

      Your views are definitely accurate. Tho we are similar in terms of ideology, we differ greatly in thinking. I see it as it is, in reality. If I criticize something, I am prepared in offering an alternative as a solution, and of course a reason on why I believe in that solution and most importantly, that that solution is possible to be implemented. It is easy to criticize, but difficult in coming up with a plan to solve the problem (applies to ALL, from Bersih, to PTPTN, to politics). For this case, I have not come up with a better alternative other than using ivies or uni rankings as a base point to compare. This is something we are long overdue. We need (as someone mentioned) some soul searching of our own. Where are we headed, what should we do? That is why, for now I am in favour of using these unis as a base in comparison, until I hear of a better selection system (better is also subjective).

      But of course, lets say person A gets admission to Harvard, and he is the only one in. It does not in anyway automatically allows him to obtain the scholarship (The Yayasan Khazanah vs Camb student case comes into mind). He should still go through the same system as the rest, but it does give him some leverage (and that is where the base comparison comes into play). I believe that is what the author wishes for as well. At the end of the day, someone has to do that infamous job of picking who deserves it.

      Cheers.

  3. Hafidzi

    Thank you all for your responses.
    As I've stated above, I'm not against our smartest being awarded scholarships, but SPM results alone aren't the right measure their potential to go overseas.
    No denial that JPA scholarships have benefited students of various background, but if JPA's overseas scholarships main objective is to produce top-class graduates from Top 20 universities, it's timely to play the game as taxpayers' money account to billions of RM for such expenditure.
    People complain of the Gov's porous budget loophole in many circumstances, and it's of my opinion that a stricter measure of awarding scholarships will only ensure the best outcome for the benefit of all.
    After all, our 9A+ students as mentioned by @Kenny and @Richard will still be rewarded JPA scholarships for them to prove themselves once more at higher level.
    Agreeing with @BenG that sometimes what's required by Ivy League schools may be vague for international entry, but at least our taxpayers' money will be justified to spend close to a million RM per student be it if there's only one Malaysian student in Harvard per intake.

    Just so you know, I've a friend who scored 9A's (not even a full A+) and 1B+ who only needed to pass..PASS his English entry exam before leaving to one of the States' public university (come on, where's the quality we're talking about?).
    And oh yea, he wasn't the only one.

  4. Richard

    I totally agree with Kenny. The 9A+ and above students deserve the scholarship. They EARNED IT through their own sweat and tears. They were motivated by circumstances special to each of them that drove them to produce those excellent scores. My son also SPM 2011 leaver failed to even get 5As coming from a residential school having a Father who is a teacher. The glaring reason is the financial factor as everyone knows pre-u and undergraduate education cost has escalated over the years. Those top screres are our future and we must give them the best so that they remain encouraged. For JPA their investment on these top scorers is safe. All JPA must do is withdraw the scholarship if the students fail to fulfill the minimum entry requirement stipulated by the Ivy league universities in their pre-university studies sponsored by JPA. At this stage then the creme la creme will stand out and JPA continues the sponsorship.

    • BenG

      “All JPA must do is withdraw the scholarship if the students fail to fulfill the minimum entry requirement stipulated by the Ivy league universities in their pre-university studies sponsored by JPA.”

      This is a system bound to fail. For one, there is a clear distinction between gaining admittance into an ivy and fulfilling the min requirements of that institution. The fact that a JPA scholar can get even 2400 on his/her SAT (and I am assuming that a 9A+ student can get 2400, which in itself is unlikely), doesn’t even guarantee that individual a place in a ivy, tho it does improve his/her chance a little. Did you know something else, usually schools (even ivies) in the US do not have min requirements, that someone can even get a 1500 on his/her SAT and gain admission is possible, tho unlikely. Only TOEFL will have a min requirement, that is around 100 depending on college (MIT is 105). As for UK, they have min requirements. Oxbridge is an exception, as applicants have to take a written test, an interview (or oral test as mentioned by some), and sometimes, required to take another test (like BMAT, LNAT, STEP etc) depending on course. Finally, satisfying those requirements again does not guarantee a place in that uni. The author’s and JPA’s plan is probably the best solution in solving this crisis.

      PS: Some interesting facts. This year there are no Malaysian who gain admittance into Harvard, and as far as I know, only 1 person for MIT. As for Cambridge, I believe it is between 10 to 20. As for Imperial, maybe 20-30+ (I’ll confirm this number soon). Compared to the hundreds who gained straight A+s in their SPM year (around 2009, maybe 2008 and 2010) something is wrong somewhere.

      However, I am willing to concede that JPA should give them only in Pre-U level (Pre-U level isn’t that expensive as compared to a degree, for 1 person, probably 50k max). If they cannot gain admittance into any good school, its the end of the road for them. And these people must be the poor or middle poor groups (maybe a family income of 5k per month or lower).

  5. Kenny

    I think it is justifiable for the government to grant JPA scholarship for SPM students who score 9A+ and above, base strictly on the results. Every year, there are less than 800 student scoring 9A+ and above, out of over 300,000 student sitting for the exam every year. I am quite sure a high percentage of this 9A+ student, financially, are either average or not really very well to do. That's why they are burning mid-night oil to do well in their studies and hoping to lessen the burden of their family members. Only those rich fellows or those fellows where their children couldn't score 9A+ and above will try to politicise the whole issue and try to press the government to abolish the JPA scholarship to these well deserved students. Please note scoring 9 A's and 9 A+ are hell of a big difference. I'm quite sure not more 10% of those top reputable universities listed above couldn't score a 9A+ out of 10A+ , if given a chance to sit for our country's SPM examination. *** A+ means having a score mark of 90 and above. A- could be 70 marks. It make a hell of a big difference.

  6. Failed education

    Nowadays even the standard of STPM has dropped so low! It was ridiculous that in the old days students did physics experiment up to the accuracy level of 1-2% of standard deviation when the current (actually the drop started since 1999) work in 'groups' and of course, 'help' each other by copying! Just wonder if it were to revert to HSC standard then 0.01% of the current student can pass, may be.

  7. Sai Tak Lam

    In Feb and March 2012, there are frequent adverstisement from Allianze University College of Medical Sciences.
    It reads "For smooth transition to medical studies" Entry requirement
    "Pass in SPM/SPMV with 4B in Mathematics , Additional Math,Physics,Biology,Chemistry or any other technical subjects."
    Isn't this a laughing stock? What type of doctors are we churning out with these type of entrance requirement
    Greatest joke of the year. Very soon we will be having a flying school for those visually impaired students who aspire to be pilots. This example is not to belittle the physically impaired but to make a point if we dont make the cut due to whatever reason, we must acknowledge and move on based on our true capability. Do not create sub standard professionals

  8. Sai Tak Lam

    In Feb and March 2012, there are frequent adverstisement from Allianze University College of Medical Sciences.
    It reads "For smooth transition to medical studies" Entry requirement
    "Pass in SPM/SPMV with 4B in Mathematics , Additional Math,Physics,Biology,Chemistry or any other technical subjects."
    Isn't this a laughing stock? What type of doctors are we churning out with these type of entrance requirement
    Greatest joke of the year. Very soon we will be having a flying school for those visually impaired students who aspire to be pilots. This example is not to belittle the physically impaired but to make a point if we dont make the cut due to whatever reason, we must acknowledge and move on based on our true capability. Do not create sub standard professionals

  9. quality vs quantity

    something has gone wrong in our education system , how can we compete with other nationalities when we're just having an exam oriented education !

  10. wow mom

    Also grants for research an scholarship for masters and doctorate should be checked, audited and their thesis made public. Many hijack ideas, work of others, have ghost writers and lots of cut and paste including the help of google translate and a little editing a paper is completed. When they return to Malaysia their ideas and projects are failures, can't solve current problem and worse they can't market their idea and presentation is horrible. That's why we have serious problems in the country. The wrong people getting the As, grants and scholarship. The wrong people heads and bosses.The wrong people in marketing too. Will the change of government purge and restructure government agencies and the private sector? How? Will well deserving civilians excel in relevant streams including hard jobs? Its all talk but no 1 has come up with a restructure and purge plan later empower and appraise plan. That's I why I feel insecure about this GE

  11. cathy

    The Malaysian govt has engineered society for their own glory since the late 1970s when third graders used to be sent to India to do medicine and this trend has been going on till to date. Until the government change this trend, nothing will change. Meanwhile you have a generation of insular Manglish speaking Malaysians who think they are entitled to privileges and contracts and a good life

  12. victor69

    BN is going to bankrupt this country very soon. ABU now !

  13. C57K

    For the past two years, 2011 & 2012, NO SPM top scorer has been accepted into the Harvard College, a pre Harvard U preparatory course.

    What's does it tell?

    The numbers of A+, that these students got, is been 'devaluated'!

    Yet the blur ME has the courage to tell the world that our education system ranks among the best in the world.

    Ya-loh, top in the world to produce jaguh kampong, so that All M'sians can syok-sendiri!

    • J Tan

      Just a slight correction here:
      Harvard College is the undergraduate division of Harvard University, not a pre U course.
      The rest, such as Harvard Business School, are graduate schools as part of Harvard University.

      I do agree with you that A+ is devaluated

  14. Jung Kian Ng

    I agree that the system in choosing scholars is flawed. But I do not think that ranking is the sole idea of deciding whether one's a good school, as rankings are different from different publishers. Besides, most of them only show how reputable the schools are, does not represent how good an education they provide.