The higher education ministry and universities are facing increasing pressure to address concerns about growing numbers of students being too poor to eat properly, following the publication of a survey and media reports suggesting that many students cannot afford the cost of a meal a day.
A survey of 25,632 students in six public universities, carried out by the Muslim Volunteer Malaysia association and published in the New Year, found that 96% of students questioned felt burdened by the economic situation and 74% had no money to buy meals.
More than half of respondents could only spend MYR5 (US$1.14) a day on eating. Some 44% said they only eat rice with fried egg and some 41% said they only eat instant noodles.
According to The Star there have been reports from many student organisations that students can often only afford to spend MYR1.50 (34 US cents) a day on food due to increased living costs, and in some cases are fainting from missing meals.
The report said the problem is not new in universities but has been exacerbated by the rising cost of living – Malaysia is currently suffering a severe economic downturn and rising inflation.
According to the Malay daily tabloid, Harian Metro, a psychology student at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia was taken into hospital with ruptured intestines caused by poor eating habits, which she blamed on having only MYR30 (US$6.83) a week to spend on food and other basic necessities.
After claims that students were starving went viral on social media, the Muslim Volunteer Malaysia, or MVM, President Muhammad Jantan issued a statement on Facebook stressing that their survey results did not make any claim that students were starving, and that the issue was “being abused by some parties” to blame parties or the state and “this action is not fair”.
“This is not profiling research to find fault,” he said. The aim was to show the reality faced by students and look for action to solve the situation and “reduce the burden of survival [for] students so that they can focus on the lessons”.
He told The Malaysian Insider that the issue was about how students manage their finances, including the study loans they receive.
The Star has documented the different ways that student organisations are providing assistance to students who find it hard to meet the cost of meals.
Many of the programmes involve 'suspended meals', a system in which better-off students pay in advance for extra food, which is then given away to students who can’t afford it.
For instance, the student council of the International Islamic University Malaysia started a ‘Project Suspended Meals 2.0’ programme on 21 December, in which a student buys a coupon worth MYR2 or MYR4 (46 US cents or 91 US cents) and pastes it on a board for other students to claim later.
Meal coupons were also introduced for students of Universiti Malaya last week in a joint effort by the Muslim Undergraduates Association and the Darul Hijrah Foundation. Students have to call a programme representative to claim them and collect them at the café counter, The Star reported.
In Universiti Putra Malaysia, a group of female students ran a free food programme which gave meals to 150 students last April. The university’s students also give free food to students who can’t afford it on selected days, supported by donations from other students.
Universiti Tun Husseinn Onn Malaysia has been running a food and welfare aid programme for the past four months, giving MYR300 to MYR400 a month to eligible students in food aid, The Star reported.
Response to reports
In George Town last Monday Professor Adnan Hussein, chairman of the Public University Alumni and Student Affairs Deputy Vice-Chancellors' Secretariat, said he was worried that “some quarters” were playing up the issue for “other purposes” and dismissed the idea that students were going hungry on campuses across the country.
He said in a statement: “As the secretariat responsible for the well-being of university students, we are truly shocked with the report claiming that public university students are suffering from hunger and starving due to financial problems.”
However, Higher Education Minister Seri Idris Jusoh said universities are encouraged to have programmes for the disadvantaged and agreed on Monday to look into the problem.
And while several universities have denied there is a problem at their institution, they have also said they take the issue seriously.
Professor Hassan Basri Awang Mat Dahan, deputy vice-chancellor (student affairs and alumni) at Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia or USIM, said USIM had not received any reports of students going without food due to their financial situation, according to a report in Free Malaysia Today.
But he said the university had nevertheless taken several pre-emptive measures, including urging students, their room-mates and student representatives to report any cases without delay. In addition, rejected applications for financial assistance would be reviewed and a Fund for Food and Fees programme would be created to provide support to 200 underprivileged students in April.
Dr Rohana Yusof, deputy vice-chancellor (student affairs) of Universiti Malaya, or UM, one of the top universities, denied that there were any cases of students going without food to pay for their education at UM.
“As of recently there have been many sensationalised reports about students having to starve on campuses. We from the UM student affairs department (HEPA) would like to stress that there are no such cases in UM as reported by many,” she said in a statement, according to the Malay Mail Online.
In a statement on the UM Facebook page, she stressed that UM supports many students through loans and scholarships, and with direct financial assistance under a number of welfare programmes.
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