Free education ‘possible’, say economists if government can control corruption

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(The Sun Daily) - "If the government wants to do it, they just need to stop wasting money on things like BR1M, free tyres, RM100 for school children, petrol subsidy, and divert the money to tertiary education"
Free tertiary education is possible if we cut down on "unproductive" spending, Malaysian economists have suggested.
Their comments were solicited by theSun in the wake of national debate on the issue that has been stirred by an exchange between undergraduate K.S. Bawani, and Suara Wanita 1Malaysia (SW1M) president Sharifah Zohra Jabeen, at a forum in Universiti Utara Malaysia. The video of the exchange has gone viral on the internet.
Chief Executive of Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS), Wan Saiful Wan Jan said the current government is capable of reducing the cost of tertiary education.
"If the government wants to do it, they just need to stop wasting money on things like BR1M, free tyres, RM100 for school children, petrol subsidy, and divert the money to tertiary education," he said.
He noted that the recent "free tyres and cash rewards" seemed to take precedence above cushioning the cost of tertiary education.
It is only a matter of re-juggling priorities and putting tertiary education as priority above other "unproductive" spending, he said.
"The cost will be removal of the wasteful spending and we will not receive the cash handouts and subsidies anymore," he added.
The national education budget has been slashed from RM50 billion in 2012 to RM37 billion in 2013, which is a drop from 20% of the total national budget to 15%.
Economist, Khoo Kay Peng, speculated that this is largely associated with government cash handout programmes such as BR1M and BR1M 2.0, and the RM200 rebate for smartphones.
"The cut is unnecessary. Funds spent on one-time cash handouts and rebates do not create a lasting impact on the economy," he said.
Ideally, Khoo sees that education funding should occupy 20% to 22% of the GDP.
Another suggestion by economists to fund free tertiary education is to cut the defence budget.
The director of Centre for Policy Initiatives, Dr Lim Teck Ghee, said the expenditure used in defence can be cut back to cushion the cost of tertiary education.
"If we cut back expenditure in sectors such as the defence sector where the rationale for large budgets is not sustainable and reduce the cost of doing business due to rent seeking, patronage and opaque government procurement, it can generate tens of billions annually," he said.
While it woud be great to have blanket tertiary education, economists argue that it is not a civic obligation to provide free tertiary education for all, neither is it economically-wise in the long run.
Wan Saiful pointed out that we already have a deficit budget and blanket free tertiary education will increase the deficit.
"I must add at this point that making tertiary, or any other level of education free, is not a good move in the long term. It may not have a disastrous adverse impact now, but in the longer term the country will not be able to afford it.
"The deficit spending incurred by the Najib administration will be a burden on society long after Datuk Sri Najib (Abdul Razak) and his ministers have left us," he argued.
On civic-responsibility, he said education is ultimately the responsibility of parents and individuals.
"It is immoral to pass that responsibility to others through the machinery of government and taxation. If we want society to help each other, than we must encourage voluntary help, not coerce people through taxation.
"Our society today has become overly reliant on government so that voluntary help is diminishing," he said.
Dr Lim does not favour blanket tertiary education as he said not everyone cannot afford university fees.
"Students from rich families can afford to pay a portion of the tuition fees and they should be made to do so," he said.
Along with easing tertiary education fees, Lim also suggested reform of the higher education sector.
He noted that 10% of government expenditure is presently allocated to higher education. "We have to ask if we are getting value for our tax money being spent on higher education," he said.
He highlighted large numbers of unemployable graduates, the low academic standards, and the poor quality of research especially in public colleges.
Instead of free tertiary education for all, funds can be used to enhance the quality of public tertiary education system.
"Free tertiary education should be for those whose parents earn a low income," said Khoo Kay Peng, who is also a political commentator.
He highlighted that the government allocates RM200 million annually to retrain unemployed graduates.
"It speaks volumes of a need to revamp the tertiary education system if an undergraduate has to be retrained after just spending four years on his education," he said.

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