Make it truly free

  • Education
  • Sunday, 16 Sep 2007

Education has once again received a sizeable portion under the national budget. What do people have to say? 

A TOTAL of M30bil for primaryand secondary educationalone under the 2008 Budgethas left National Union of theTeaching Profession (NUTP) secretary-general Lok Yim Pheng quiteoverwhelmed. 

“It is such a huge amount of money. The NUTP feels that the Government has given a lot to the people through the education sector,” she says. 

The allocation, she adds, is “a sign that the Government is going all out to provide free education for all, particularly the very poor groups”. 

With five school-going children, budget goodies such as free textbooks come as a big relief for Theseira andVellu, seen here with four of their eight children.

Highlights of the budget for education that affect students directly include the provision of free textbooks for all children irrespective of family income under the Textbook Loan Scheme and the abolition of school fees. Examination fees were abolished last year except for the Sijil Tinggi Agama Malaysia, which will also be abolished effective next year.  

Students from families with a monthly income of RM1,000 and below will get a free uniform set to join a uniformed body.  

Reaching the needy 

Praise aside, Lok cautions that “all measures outlined in the budget must be implemented well, with money properly disbursed and utilised so that the benefits reach the needy groups”. 

To achieve this, she calls on the authorities to give priority to integrity. 

“In order for free education to reach every child, groups of totally neglected children must be seen to,” she adds. 

These groups include “stateless” children – who cannot attend school because they do not have certificates – and orang asli students as well as those from other indigenous communities located in remote areas. 

“If aid does not reach them, then we are not maximising the opportunities and benefits given through the new budget,” she says emphatically. 

Another situation that needs to be addressed is that of students not receiving aid although they are entitled to benefits such as free food, free tuition and utility allowances. 

Lok believes this has resulted because such needy cases are not reported to school authorities and the class teachers concerned have not carried out in-depth investigations. 

To Datuk Dr Denison Jayasooria, executive director of Yayasan Strategik Sosial, the think-tank of MIC, the provision of free textbooks and the abolition of school fees is a welcome move for poor families. 

However, he believes that for poor students to truly benefit, these perks must be “complemented by measures which improve accessibility to education and the quality of education received”. 

Like Lok, he cites the orang asli community and others who live in the interior. 

“Children from whole villages don’t attend school because of the distance. In these circumstances, the issue of free text books and the abolition of school fees don’t matter.” 

As regards the quality of education, he stresses that measures such as the provision of free textbooks, while laudable per se, are not enough for poor communities.  

Therefore, he calls for “alternative packages within the school system” to cater for needy groups like orang asli students, slow learners and the urban poor, by providing smaller classes, more teachers and the like. 

Dr Denison also questions the rationale behind the move to provide free textbooks for all. 

“Why should the Government subsidise the education of rich students?” he asks. 

Thankful for free textbooks 

One parent who can attest to the existence of needy students who do not receive aid is Joanne Theseira of Penang.  

The 39-year-old housewife with eight children says only her son in Year Six has managed to get books under the Textbook Loan Scheme. Four of her other children who attend secondary school have failed to get this aid despite the fact that her husband, Penang Water Supply Corporation worker K. Vellu, only earns RM900 monthly. 

“One of my sons was told that he would get the books but he waited and waited and then was told there was no stock.”  

She estimates that the family spends about RM1,000 a year on textbooks, revision books and stationery for the five in school. As such, the provision of free textbooks and the abolition of school fees under the recent budget will be “very helpful”. 

Theseira also hopes that more aid will be given out to families like hers. The family receives assistance from a church but “there are other things to pay for like pocket money, bus fare, stationery and tuition”.  

The family, she notes, would not have been able to manage if not for help received from her two oldest sons, aged 20 and 19. They left school early to attend skills training programmes at Montfort Boys Town and now work as a lift technician and apprentice car repairman respectively.  

“Everything is very expensive these days,” she says.  

For teachers and schools 

The perks for teachers under the 2008 Budget include increases in allowance for special education teachers from RM100 to RM250 per month and for graduate substitute teachers from RM85 to RM150 per day. 

Schools funded and managed by trusts and charitable bodies will also be given income tax exemption – a move aimed at benefiting vernacular and religious schools. 

Dong Jiao Zong (United Chinese School Committees' Association of Malaysia) chairman Dr Yap Sin Tian, however, says the 1,344 Chinese primary and secondary schools will not gain financially from the tax exemption. 

“This measure will ease the task of filing income tax returns, but will not give monetary value to Chinese schools since they have never made any profit from their operations and have always depended on public donations to cover deficits,” he says. 

It will be helpful, he adds, if the schools are given direct annual grants for their development needs and tax exemptions are granted to donors instead. 

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