Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Stimulus Package for Post-Grad Students

Kian Ming at Education Malaysia blog shares his opinion:

One area affected by the mini-budget or stimulus package that was announced yesterday is postgraduate education in Malaysia. All the details are not out yet but here are some of my preliminary thoughts based on the following Star report.

Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak said it would finance tuition fees and research grants up to RM20,000 for every student pursuing a PhD locally and RM10,000 for students pursuing a Master’s programme.

“A total of 500 places at PhD level and 10,000 at Masters level in public universities as well as at Universiti Tenaga Nasional, Multimedia University and Universiti Teknologi Petronas will be offered,” he said.

Higher Education Minister Datuk Seri Mohamed Khaled Nordin was happy that the stimulus package took into the consideration the needs and problems faced by fresh graduates during the current economic slowdown.

“Not only are there several schemes for unemployed graduates, the Government is also helping them further their studies by providing financial aid,” he said at the Parliament lobby.

Right off the bat, I want to state that I am not against increasing the number of postgraduate students in Malaysia. In fact, this is probably a necessary step if we want to increase the R&D capacity in our country. But there are a few caveats here, caveats which I have discussed before in previous posts. These include - having a sufficient number of professors who can teach and guide these postgrad students and having a selection process that is rigorous enough such that only well-qualified students are admitted into these postgrad programs.

The remarks of the Higher Education minister do not inspire confidence in me. It seems to me that he sees the increase in the number of postgrad places in our public universities as a way to decrease graduate unemployment. In fact, his remarks seem to imply that these scholarships should be given to unemployed graduates!

In any economic downturn, especially in the US context, a larger number fresh graduates will opt to go to graduate school because the opportunity costs associated with grad school is lower - fewer high paying jobs under current market conditions and so on. But many of these students, especially those who can get into the top graduate programs, would have found a job if they didn't choose to go to grad school albeit one which may not meet their high expectations. These are not students who go to grad school because the alternative would be unemployment.

Perhaps the Higher Education Minister was quoted out of context but it really does seem to me that he doesn't 'get' postgrad degrees. He may really think that it's a good solution to solve unemployment in the country. If these students cannot get a job in the private sector or in government, why not ship them off to do postgrad degrees which we i.e. the taxpayer will foot the bill for?

At least the Education Minister seems to 'get' the picture a little bit better:

Meanwhile, Education Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Tun Hussein said the 1,000 additional posts for graduate teachers, who would be hired on contract, would enable the ministry to address the shortage of teachers in certain sectors.

These teachers will be put to productive use, hopefully, in areas where there are teacher shortages, both geographically as well as by subject. The academic 'bar', so to speak, may not be as high as that needed for a PhD student.

The costs associated with selecting a large group of students who are unsuitable for PhD programs are far greater to the taxpayer as well as in terms of human resource management. There may be high drop out rates, dropping of standards to allow sub-par students to obtain their PhDs, frustrated PhD students who are not well guided by their professors, etc...

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