Make selection transparent

From the report below, MCA received 620 appeals where 121 were from straight A students with low family income!!! What does it take to get a scholarship in Malaysia?

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Make selection transparent
By HARIATI AZIZAN
Source: TheStar Online, 25/05/2008

Why them and not me? This is the question hundreds of SPM top scorers ask when they fail in their application for a PSD scholarship. With so much ambiguity and the lack of transparency in the selection process year after year, students are crying foul.

DEV does not know what he did wrong. After slogging for his Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) examination last year, he achieved 11A1s and was awarded the Tokoh Pelajar in his school. To guarantee his chances of obtaining a Public Service Department (PSD) scholarship, the former head prefect threw himself into his school's co-curricular activities despite his heavy workload.

He represented his school in debating and hockey, clinching many awards at the district and state level. Coming from a lower-income family, Dev was hopeful of winning a PSD scholarship to study medicine as he had dreamt of.

Guiding hand: A 2006 picture of Dr Wee helping deserving students from hardcore poor families appeal for PSD scholarships.

Unsurprisingly, he was heartbroken to find out that his application for a scholarship under the PSD’s Foreign Degree Programme had been rejected.

“At first, I accepted the rejection as I thought there were probably better candidates out there. Then I found out that an acquaintance from another school with the same academic results and almost similar socio-economic background as me, but who was not as active, got a scholarship.

I think I did well in my interview so I really don’t understand why I was rejected.”

This has been the grouse for many of those who were rejected by PSD.

The attempts by the government department to clarify the selection criteria and process have been futile. Many still feel dissatisfied with the explanations provided by the PSD.

According to the PSD, the selection criteria for the Foreign Degree Programme are academic excellence (70%), interview (10%), socio-economic background (10%) and co-curriculum (10%).

For socio-economic background, priority is given to those with a family income of RM1,500 and below per month; the higher the family income, the lower the points. Meanwhile for co-curriculum, those who held positions in their clubs and organisations or represented their school in district or state competitions score higher points.

The criteria are straightforward in theory but problematic in practice.

As posed by one applicant: “What happens when after adding up all the points, you have 10 students with the same total?”

“What would help is for PSD to be more transparent and publish the names and details of all the recipients of the 2008 PSD scholarships to prove they really are deserving students,” says MCA Youth Education Bureau chairman Dr Wee Ka Siong.

This year, the bureau was swamped with appeals for help from 620 students rejected by PSD. According to a source, this contrasted with the lower number of appeals in the past few years.

“Everyone agrees that you cannot give a scholarship to all the top students but the issue is how can you minimise this annual frustration, especially now that you have more straight-A students? The authorities need to review the selection process,” adds Dr Wee.

A source from the PSD told The Star that the growing trend of students taking more than 12 subjects has made the selection process more difficult.

A student called Kay feels that the authorities needs to cap the number of subjects for SPM candidates or set a minimum number for the academic criterion.

“In 2006, the Prime Minister assured top SPM scorers with a minimum of 10 1As that they would be offered a scholarship if their families' monthly household income was not more than RM1,500.

Last year, students were advised not to take more than 12 subjects but those who took 17 subjects were then praised.

“This year one student sat for 21 subjects in SPM, so what is the limit? It is confusing for us – do we take as many subjects as we can or really focus on the minimum needed?

After all, this is only a ticket for us to get into university, not the grand prize.” she says.

Marc who got 11A1s agrees, “I am not surprised if this year, someone takes 25 subjects or more in their SPM examination.

For the non-Malays, we feel more pressured to take as many subjects as we can because we feel it is more competitive for us even though the Government keeps stressing that the selection is based on meritocracy.”

Dr Wee hopes the authority would bear in mind how this growing trend would disadvantage students from the rural area.

“A majority of students who take up extra subjects are from the town areas where they have better facilities and teachers.

“If the extra subjects are not offered in schools, many take tuition for them. This would really disadvantage the rural and poor students who need the scholarships most.”

Questions have also been raised on the fairness of the interviews, which constitute 10% of the total score.

“Interviews are subjective and even though you have a guideline, the observations and evaluations will be different from one interviewer to another.

“It also depends on the time and day, as one applicant complained. His turn for interview was at the end of the session, and he was told by the interviewer that she was tired, so he had to cut his answers short. How would you feel in his place?” says Dr Wee.

A concerned parent shares that her daughter and friends have told her that the interviewers were not racially diverse.

“How can you not worry whether there is a bias in the assessment? After all, interviewers are only humans.”

A student who declined to be named shares that his interview session was segregated with all the Malay candidates attending a different session from the non-Malays.

Other applicants interviewed, however, were satisfied with the way the interviews were conducted.

Another point of contention is the RM1,500 cap set for the family income criterion.

Many think that the RM1,500 amount is ridiculous as it is too low for a family in the urban areas.

Says a female student: “My family's income is average but above RM1,500; my parents still cannot afford to send me overseas because it is expensive, especially for medicine. Anyway, scholarships for medicine are hard to come by as not many bodies are offering them.”

Marc says he could see many students who attended the interview with him were driven to the interview centre in expensive cars.

“I was wondering why they were eligible for the scholarship. I thought that if their parents had sold their car, they could have used the money to sponsor their child overseas.”

Dr Wee warns of the loopholes as applicants are only required to send in their parents' payslips or other documents as proof of the family's monthly income.

“It is open to abuse, lies and cheating. How does the PSD verify the real family income? I have heard of those who have secret accounts or put their extra earnings in their relatives' accounts.”

He says, despite the Government's assurance of scholarship for straight A students with a family income of not more than RM1,500 per month, the MCA youth bureau received appeals from 121 straight-A students from families with a monthly income of RM1,500 and below, out of which 43 scored at least 10A1.

Syuen who was one of the lucky ones to get a scholarship feels that the Government could reward top students regardless of their family income while awarding scholarships to the needy.

Marc agrees. “I really believe that they need to decide if they want to award scholarship based on meritocracy or their socio-economic background. I think both groups can be awarded scholarships but the Government needs to be transparent with students so that they understand what is at stake and can plan better.”

He proposes that all the scholarship-awarding bodies work together to streamline the process.

“At the moment, students, especially the non-Malays, are sending in many applications for fear that they will not get the opportunity they deserve.

If the bodies work together, then there won't be cases of one person getting three scholarships and some deserving ones getting nothing at all.

More importantly, the selection process needs to be more transparent, then students will not be so upset.

Dr Wee agrees, stressing that this dissatisfaction has caused a lot of rumours and speculations.

“Many feel isolated or that they are second class citizens. If they do get an opportunity to go overseas from foreign scholarship offers, they will not want to come back.

“Even now, we are losing many of our young talents to Singapore, especially in engineering and medicine. It is important that we tap into our young talents regardless of race.”

The Government assures that opportunities abound for those who fail in their applications for a PSD scholarship to study overseas, particularly with their new schemes of scholarships for local universities – scholarship for top SPM scorers for Form Six up to their undergraduate studies at a local institution and scholarships for A-Level students and other pre-U programmes who get into any Ivy League universities.

But as one dejected student who failed to get a PSD scholarship laments:

“But that is another problem. Pre-U programmes at private colleges are too expensive for most people and we know how tough it is for STPM holders to get a place in local university.

“If we get the Form Six scholarship, can they guarantee us a place in local university if we get excellent results in our STPM?”

All students' names in the story have been changed to protect their identity.

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