Universities’ crippling cuts are partially reversed

After two years of suffocating budgets cuts, Malaysia’s public universities finally have a little breathing space.

The 2018 Budget announced last week increased the operating budgets for Malaysia’s 20 public universities by 9.8% for the coming year to MYR6.7 billion (US$1.6 billion). This hike partially reverses the crippling cuts of 19% in the budget for this year and 16% for last year.

Notably, the five main research universities, reeling from cuts in the previous two years, received increased operating budgets for 2018 ranging from 20% to 37%. But despite these hefty hikes, the budgeted allocations for the coming year for the five universities are still lower than they were for 2016, let alone 2015.

The 2018 allocations for seven other universities remain unchanged, while three incurred small cuts of up to 2%.

The Ministry of Higher Education welcomed the increase in its own allocation from MYR12.2 billion to MYR13.9 billion. A scholarship provision of MYR900 million through the ‘MyBrain15’ programme would help 10,600 undergraduates and doctoral students, and in-house masters and PhD courses would promote lifelong learning among civil servants.

The allocation for research, development and commercialisation in universities has also been almost doubled, to MYR400 million from MYR235 million this year.

This increase, it is hoped, would benefit the research universities, which have seen some progress in climbing the QS World University Rankings, and enable them to break into the top 100. For instance, the University of Malaya leads the pack of five Malaysian research universities in the top 300 of the QS World University Rankings 2018, having crept up from 167th spot in 2014 to 114th spot now.

One academic who is teaching at the University of Science, Malaysia or USM, one of the five research universities, reacted cautiously, saying it is still too early to say how the increase in funding will be used. “We will have to wait and see what the priorities are and how it will be distributed among faculties and departments competing for such funds,” he said.

“There hasn’t really been much talk within the university about the budget increase. I guess it’s good news for us. It is still less than 2016 but it’s better than getting more cuts.”

The last two years of cuts had been difficult for teaching staff as there was a freeze on hiring, contract staff were terminated and teaching workloads increased, he said. Some 6,000 lecturers in public universities, including professors, out of a total of 35,000 were reported to have lost their jobs last year due to budget cuts.

“Hopefully with this increase in funds, it will help to alleviate the teaching burden – by hiring more quality staff and offering more course options for students,” said the lecturer. “It would of course be nice if they could restore the funding to what it was before.”

The budget increase comes at a time when Prime Minister Najib Razak, with his administration reeling from corruption scandals, prepares for a crunch general election in 2018, hoping to stem a further loss in popular support, which dipped below 50% in the 2013 polls.

Alternative budget

Ahead of the national budget, adding to the pressure, the opposition coalition, Pakatan Harapan, announced its alternative budget, saying that it would seek to provide free education in public universities.

It would retain allocations for higher education that had been reduced over the last few years in a bid to improve the quality of public universities, and graduates would only be required to repay study loans when their salaries exceed MYR4,000 a month.

The coalition said it could find funding through a MYR20 billion reduction in corruption and leakages on top of a reduction in the present large budget allocation to the prime minister’s department.