The Minister of the Malaysian Higher Education once said[1], “The Ministry will anchor on, and promote, internalization higher education. The Ministry is talking about internationalizing the students’ experience, developing the international dimension of the curriculum, increasing global competitiveness through various types of collaboration and partnerships, and of course, also to raise the attractiveness of the Malaysian higher education provision to a much wider global audience.

When the preliminary National Education Blueprint was launched, it was toted to produce students with ‘HOT’ (Higher Order Thinking) skills. It is also toted to produce knowledgeable students with strong leadership qualities and better bilingual proficiency.[2] However, what it does not address is the possibility of creating a higher education that is free, fair and accessible to all walks to students notwithstanding the diversity of their backgrounds, and abilities.

According to Higher Education Minister, Khaled Nordin, it was impossible to provide free tertiary education as the cost was too huge and at the same time, it was essentially an individual investment.[3] The Ministry talks of internalizing the changes of a student’s education and implanting HOT skills. What are missing though are holistic changes that must be made towards the general landscape of the Malaysian education experience. The Minister is wrong on one thing; higher education is not an individual investment. It is the investment of the community. Education and knowledge can only lead to one thing, a better future for the community as a whole. Listing higher institution as an individual investment is bankers talk, not an educator’s philosophy.

The Minister insists in the continuation of PTPTN on the basis it is an individual investment. Yet, he does not discuss solutions on how to make higher education more accessible without the need to rely on the PTPTN to gain entrance in higher education institutions. He talks of internalization of students’ education but higher education according to the Ministry is an elite institution available only to those with money.

Sweden, Cuba, Brazil, Argentina, Norway, Finland, Chile, Venezuela, Denmark. All of these nine countries have one thing in common. The governments in these nine countries offer free education to it’s’ citizens. Could Malaysia be in line in the same category as these nine countries? The right to access to education is written in Article 13 (2)(c) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in which the covenant speaks;

The State Parties to the present Covenant recognize that, with a view to achieving the full realization of this right: Higher education shall be made equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education.

The Malaysian government may not be a signatory to this covenant but 70 other countries are. Those above stated nine countries that offered free higher education also have another thing in common with each other. All nine countries stated above are signatories to the Covenant.

Yet, in Malaysia, tertiary education is not free. The Malaysian government only spends 4.1 percent of Malaysia’s GDP in education. This is counter-intuitive as countries such the likes of Namibia, Vietnam and Bolivia spend more on education than the Malaysian government. Even Cuba spends 12.9 percent of its GDP on their country’s education.[4] Also to be noted is that the Malaysian government has slashed the total national education budget as much 20 percent; from RM50 billion in 2012 to RM37 billion in 2013. Notably, as Najib decreases national spending on education, his administration has also allocated RM200 million to retrain undergraduates that have spent four years in higher education.

Sweden, one of the world’s proponents for free education in its 2013 Budget allocated SEK 46.2 billion for defence (RM22.3 billion), SEK 10.2 billion (RM4.9 billion) for taxes, customs and enforcements and at the same time, allocated a whopping SEK 57.1 billion (RM27.6 billion) for education and academic research, SEK 22.0 billion (RM10.6 billion) for financial support for students and SEK 10.5 billion (RM5.1 billion) for integration and gender equality.[5]

The possibility of providing free education to Malaysians is not a mere myth. Amongst the idealistic solutions is the Malaysian government ending wastage. Wastage such as failure of the Ministry of Higher Education to monitor Ministry sponsored students to ensure they have met the target of the Ministry of at least 60 percent of IPTA academic staff be equipped with PhD qualification or its equivalent by 2010.[6] Wastage worth RM1.02 billion was spent from 2006 to 2011 for this cause. However, the program was met with failure. According to the Ministry, the factors affecting the results were family problems, exceeding the age limit and that the candidates were not ready for it.[7]

The end result is the failure to reach the target of highly-skilled employee but rather a glut of low-skilled employees under the current governmental regime. The wealth felt by the developed nation of highly-skilled citizens can never be felt under the current regime, unless the entire system is overhauled revealing a democratic education system, free from political influences and wholly inclusive catering to all students even the poor and the marginalized.


The Malaysian Experience

Education under the current Malaysian regime was not meant to be free. When the PTPTN Act was passed in 1997, it was to allow more students to have access to study loans. Although in a way, it did help the poor Malaysians to gain access to education formerly impossible, it did however, lead to a mushrooming of private universities and branch campuses of foreign universities that offered full degree courses for a high price. The steep reliance of the government on PTPTN holds not only the public universities at ransom but also Malaysian students. With the failure to gain entrance into public universities, PTPTN is a sure way to gain access to education in private universities. It forced poor Malaysian students rejected from public universities to bury themselves in student debt for the rest of their lives.

According to Local Housing and Government Minister Datuk Seri Chor Chee Heung, he said RM44.62 billion have been disbursed, of which RM23.78 billion was given to 1,371,754 public university students (IPTA) and RM20.84 billion for students in private universities (IPTS).[8]  However, the only sure way for free education to truly come true, is that Malaysia moves away from the racial based quota in universities entrances.

When the Private Higher Educational Institutions Act (PHEIA), National Council of Higher Education Act, and National Accreditation Board Act (NABA) were enacted, it was to open the doors to expand places at higher education institutions and to produce qualified labour force to match industrial demands while cutting Malaysia’s overseas education bill worth billions.[9] Yet this situation caused two paradoxes of the Malaysian higher education system.

It caused the ethnic segregation between Bumiputeras and non-Bumiputeras in which Bumiputeras would normally attend public institutions of higher learning and non-Bumiputeras would normally attend private institutions of higher learning. This would in turn cause a second paradox in which private higher education tend to benefit from the developed areas more than those from rural areas.[10] Leaving the poor and marginalized to fall between the cracks from both public and private domains.

This paradox has in turn churned a segregated community both in ethnic and also financial segregation. The inequality between both private and public institution of higher learning has also caused not only segregation in the community, it has also been a source of approximately 40,000 unemployed graduates in which, 21 percent were from public institutions, 27 percent were from private institutions, 28 percent were from polytechnics and 35 percent were from community colleges.[11] Meanwhile, the oversupply and competition has resulted in the opening of 37 private universities, 30 private college universities, 7 international branch campuses and 414 private colleges.[12]

To counter the overdependence on the PTPTN, Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak launched the Skim Prihatin Pendidikan 1Malaysia (SPP1M) with the noble intention to assist students at the tertiary level to obtain additional study loans.[13] If being buried by debts from PTPTN was not enough, it can be expected that Malaysian students to buried under more study loans.

The question is whether study loans such as the PTPTN and the SPP1M would free higher education from freeloaders or would it constrain the system even further? Malaysia is suffering from a case of oversupplied graduates with no or lack of vital soft skills that have not only saturated the unemployable of the job market but at the same time, reduced the quality of employees in the Malaysian job market.

Pakatan Rakyat in its GE-13 Manifesto pledged that the PTPTN will be abolished as well the fees of public institutions will be borne from the government and private institutions will be subsidised. The pledge to release the higher education from the shackles of student loans is there but what is yet to be seen are the mechanisms that will ensure the free higher education in Malaysia post PAKATAN’s pledge is the assurance of quality graduates as opposed to quantity.

The challenge falls onto the Ministry of Higher Education. Without reforming the Ministry, none of the aspirations or ideas of which this article provides will ever come to life. The Ministry needs to listen to the students, parents and graduates rather than political backbenchers. Changing its’ policies in revitalizing the higher education to a more democratic and independent sector should be its’ priority instead of placing the students in courses they do not choose and forcing the students to conform to political and also administrative whims.


Community’s Initiative with Private Backing

The Malaysian spending on education may dwarf its’ spending on military defence but quantity does not ensure quality. In other countries, the community have stepped up to ensure their children would receive the education they so deserve without the intervention of neither the government nor politics. In an American town, Kalamazoo, Michigan, the city once rife with school dropouts and poverty, a scholarship was spawned in 2005 to give every single student in Kalamazoo a chance to further their tertiary education free in any Michigan universities.

The scholarship is blind to family income levels, students’ grades and even to disciplinary and criminal records. From 2005 until 2012, the program, Kalamazoo Promise[14] has paid out USD$35 million to 2,500 Kalamazoo students. The scholarship also allowed a timeframe of 10 years for each student to complete their studies. The other objective of the scholarship was to enhance the broken economy of Kalamazoo in which a better educated community will equate to a more innovative work force, which in turn will increase the tax base of the community and create a more attractive business environment.

Post Promise scholarship, more students have stayed in school, thus, causing the school district to hire new teachers and better school facilities for the district. As a whole, 90 percent of Kalamazoo high school students have opted to go college and test scores of Kalamazoo students have steadily improved for the past several years.

As the rate of continuing higher education gets more expansive with each passing year, yet the door to education for the lower middle class and the poor is slowly closing leaving the opportunity to learn only to the brightest and richest. Hence education is losing its’ objective as a gateway of knowledge to a mere representation of one’s’ position in society.

Rising costs of higher education is not a situation isolated to one country. In Malaysia, the costs of higher education are either borne by the PTPTN, government scholarships and for the affluent, by their own parents. It’s severity has caused the PTPTN to turn into a cash cow for all higher institutions and at the time, the quality of education received by the students are deteriorating to a worrying level.

This also means the commoditisation of education must end by replacing the legislators and also heads of universities with educators and not a market advocators. If one wants’ their child to learn, they will hire a teacher to educate. If they want their sundry shops to earn profits, they hire an entrepreneur to make money. Just as Kalamazoo launched a program to make education an accessible necessity, Malaysia needs to take a similar stand.

To date, there are at least 60 universities nationwide (public and private). 24 percent of 184,581 graduates are employed.[15] That being said, there are only 1.65 million taxpayers out of the 12.8 million Malaysian workforces. This is because there is only 29 percent of skilled labour in Malaysia[16] .

Projects such as the 100 storey tower should not be on the forefront of development. Instead, the funds for the 100 storey tower by PNB should be channelled into a trust fund for public universities to be used by students to fund their research and broaden their knowledge. PNB, Najib’s administration and also the Malaysian public should take cue from the secret donors of the Promise program that acts in the interest of providing a hope for poor students to further their studies without having to worry about family finances. Or maybe the possibility of a free higher education seems too impossible for the stomach to digest?


Paid Courses versus Free Online Ivy League Courses

On the other hand, free online college classes or MOOC (massive open online courses) are exploding in America and across the globe. MOOC differs from the ordinary paid online classes in the sense they feature well-known professors in courses in which those courses are free. All that is needed is a computer and an internet connection. These professors commit to these classes while not being paid with the intention of teaching students who are eager to learn. Most people especially the marginalized and the poor do not have access to quality education, are educated by  MOOC courses offered online such as the artificial intelligence course conducted by a Stanford professor that educated approximately 23,000 students worldwide.[17]

With the invention of the internet, classes of students connect with the professor and the students interact with the professors and other students online at the same time they are educated with quality education on their own time. While most free online courses are not credit transferable but a university in America has already made MOOC credit courses transferable to its college[18]. Sites such as Coursera are already in partnership with 33 universities that include Berkeley, Princeton, Duke, Caltech, Stanford, John Hopkins and many more prestigious universities to provide online courses.

MOOC’s could be a good case study to provide an alternative to the Malaysian education experience in which it allows student who are in search of education but because of financial constraints are not able to do so. The possibility of free higher education is limitless. Players such as Coursera, Udacity may have rolled on the wagon of free higher education but its’ idea have garnered over USD$100 million of private venture capital investment in 2012 alone as well as support from Google and Pearson to make the idea successful.[19]

Malaysia needs to take note of MOOC primarily because they offer higher quality of education to all students minus the boundaries related to the current financially burdensome education system. A good quality education leads to a brighter future.

The National Education Blueprint (NEB) launched in 2012 was launched to ensure only the top 30 percent of graduates will be recruited for teaching. The questions remains are how different would this be from previous policy of least 60 percent of IPTA academic staff is equipped with PhD qualification or its equivalent by 2010? The government failed to ensure the success of that policy. New policies would not change the situation if the legislators and ministers implementing have not learned their lesson from former failed policies. This would only remedy a bleeding wound with an ointment.

The NEB may be completed and whilst Malaysians awaits the announcement of the official launching of the blueprint, Malaysians should take the time to ponder, would it be worth leaving the current regime in office at the sake of our children’s future? If yes, then there is nothing to stop that change.


Closing Words

Is free higher education a modern legend? As proven by several countries as well as by several private initiatives, it is not. It is proven that if one has the will to create and welcome change, sidelining personal interests for the better future of coming generations, it is possible. Is it cheap? No. Is the current education regime any cheaper? Also, it is no. Is it a viable concept? Probably yes if given a chance. Is it any better than the current education regime? It is debatable. But is it a lost cause, not worthy of our time and attention? No. Education is not only for students. Teachers and also legislators from time to time also need to be re-educated, not just for themselves but for the ones they teach.

Sometimes the best things are not free. They are expensive and risky. But how can society move forward, break new boundaries if those risks are not taken? The Malaysian government and education ministry is already known for its’ flip flopping education policies and yet the concept of providing free higher education seems completely lost to them. Free higher education is as taboo as liberal thinking and thinking outside the box in the current education regime. The current Ministry wants students to reach for the stars but students must take the provided rocket to reach. Any other vehicular options are off the table. The mistake committed by the current Ministry is prioritizing profits and monetary losses over investing in quality education.

The higher education in Malaysia must be stripped of its market value and replaced with an educator’s perspective or a parent’s perspective. Both these groups have the natural instinct to want what is best for their students and children. What is best for children is good education and good education is good education when it does not discriminate any sections of a community.

But how do a community and government compensate the market value of education with free education? As shown as examples in countries such as Sweden, Chile, Argentina and other countries that provide free education; it lies on the shoulders of the government. As such as can be seen the Promise program of which; more graduates equals to more skilled employees that in turn will open more businesses, as such in turn, increase tax rates in that community and that will help to flourish the community as a whole.

To retain the market ideology currently in place, Najib’s administration has to increase the taxpayers’ rate to justify the PTPTN spending or take from other coffers within his reach. And in order to increase the tax rate without incurring the wrath of Malaysians, Najib’s administration needs to increase the number is taxpayers in the country. In order to increase taxpayers in the country, Malaysia needs to increase skilled workers as opposed to importing foreign labour workers. But the current education system does not churn out highly- skilled workers. The current higher education system, does however churn out unemployable graduates from the result of unqualified education that is smeared with politics, regulatory crisis, as well as legitimation crisis. All this is because Najib’s administration is afraid of students with opinions (Bawani’s case at point).

Hence, free higher education is possible through the independence of the education system, regulatory players and a reformation of Malaysia’s education system.

The only losses in a free education are that some parties would not gain any monetary gain from providing free education to aspiring students. Students’ not having to worry about money is a focused student. He/she is a student in search of knowledge that can benefit not only themselves but also the community that gave them the opportunity to learn.

A fair good education means not only elevating one sections of the society to higher plateaus, but elevating all sections of society for the greater good of the society as a whole. It is the duty of not only the parents, educators but also the legislative and the executive to ensure that no child gets left behind particularly those in the remote rural areas, unreachable by your typical Perodua Kancil. A just administration is an administration that takes that into consideration a community’s investment instead of a Minister who lists higher education as an individual investment.





[1] MOHE, Speech Minister Of Higher Education Malaysia Y.B. Dato’ Seri Mohamed Khaled Nordin At ‘Malaysia In My Heart’ Dinner Reception With International Students In Malaysia, 30 Oktober 2012,

[2] Bernama, Education System Overhaul To Produce Students With ‘HOT’ Skills, 9 September 2012,

[3] NST, Opposition Plan ‘Irresponsible’. 9 April 2012,

[5] Swedish Government, Central government budget revenue and expenditure 2013,

[6] The Star, A-G’s Report: Higher Education Ministry Fails To Monitor Progress Of Sponsored Students, 16 Oktober 2012,

[7] ibid

[8] The Star, 1.99mil Students Received PTPTN Loans Worth RM44.62bil, 12 Ogos 2012,

[9] IJAPS USM, Paradoxes Of Higher Education Reforms: Implications On The Malaysian Middle Class#, Januari 2009,

[10] ibid

[11] The Star, 40,000 graduates still unemployed, says study, 22 September 2012,

[12] Bangkok Post, Higher Education In Malaysia: Quantity Over Quality, 11 Februari 2013,

[13] MI, Tertiary Education: PM Launches SPP1M Loan, 6 Februari 2013,

[15] MI, Young, Jobless Malaysian Grads A RM500m Strain On Taxpayers, 9 Oktober 2012,

[16] MI, Government Needs More Taxpayers, Says Finance Ministry, 20 September 2011,

[17] PBS News Hour, How Free Online Courses Are Changing the Traditional Liberal Arts Education, 8 Januari 2013,

[18] KansasCity, Online Classes Raise Questions About Future Of Higher Education, 5 Januari 2013,

[19] Guardian UK, MOOCs: A Massive Opportunity For Higher Education, Or Digital Hype?, 8 Ogos 2012,

4 thoughts on “Free Education in Malaysia: Not a Fantasy

  1. Have you ever considered creating an e-book or guest authoring on
    other sites? I have a blog centered on the
    same ideas you discuss and would love to have you share some stories/information.

    I know my subscribers would appreciate your work. If you’re even remotely interested, feel
    free to send me an e mail.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s