Malaysia's study solution
With final exams for her undergraduate degree just weeks away, Edith MacIntyre was thrilled to receive a conditional offer to begin master's studies at the University of Malaysia in July.
However, having racked up a M$26,000 (HK$56,000) debt for a four-year bachelor of education, the 24-year-old knew full-time postgraduate study was a luxury she could hardly afford - staying on at university would mean taking out a second student loan and working full time to make ends meet.
Or so she thought. The Malaysian government in March announced that it would provide scholarships for unemployed graduates to study master's and PhD programmes, making postgraduate courses a more affordable option for graduating students such as Ms MacIntyre.
The scholarships, which will be available to 10,000 master's and 500 PhD students, are part of the government's latest economic stimulus plan to help Malaysia cope with the global financial crisis.
With the unemployment rate expected to rise to 4.5 per cent this year, up from 3.5 per cent last year, the scholarships are designed to increase the number of postgraduate students and prevent more graduates from joining the ranks of the unemployed.
The Ministry of Higher Education's director general, Radin Umar, said the scholarships, which will provide M$10,000 for master's students and M$20,000 for PhD students, were designed to help fresh graduates and degree-holders who had lost their jobs.
'It is one of the incentives to boost the economy towards a knowledge and innovative economy, creating the critical mass for researchers, scientists and engineers, and cushion the economic slowdown,' Professor Radin said. 'During this time, it is best to invest in education, particularly in postgraduate programmes. We believe that soon after the economy picks up, we will have the critical mass to take it up to new heights.'
Professor Radin said graduates needed to have secured a place at one of the 20 public universities or the three government-linked company universities before applying for the funding.
Under the M$60 billion economic stimulus plan - Malaysia's second such plan - the government will also spend M$1.95 billion on building and improving facilities in 752 schools, particularly in rural areas and the states of Sabah and Sarawak. About M$300 million of the funding will be used to improve facilities in government-aided religious schools, Chinese and Tamil schools, and mission schools.
The University of Malaysia is hoping the new scholarships will help boost its postgraduate student numbers and is encouraging those enrolling in its July intake to apply.
'We are very positive that it will work, that students will take advantage of it,' Norhanom Abdul Wahab, dean of the university's Institute of Postgraduate Studies, said. Many students chose to work after completing undergraduate degrees because more than 90 per cent had student loans to repay.
'Not many are willing to pay on their own for postgraduate programmes. They wouldn't want to take another loan for a master's,' she said, adding that most students who pursued postgraduate studies did so with the help of some form of scholarship.
Professor Norhanom said those who did not receive scholarships often worked for several years to save money before returning to studies.
'With the present stimulus package, those who feel that it's tougher to get a job with the current economic climate will be more encouraged to stay at university.'
Professor Norhanom is optimistic the scholarships will lead to more students pursuing postgraduate studies, which will help the country achieve its goal of 16,000 people with PhDs in the workforce by 2023.
'Once these students obtain their master's they will be eligible to proceed to PhD studies. We have to create a pool of master's graduates,' she said. 'It's also in line with our research university status. We need more postgraduate students, we need to be focused more on research.'
The university wants to boost the ratio of postgraduate students to undergraduates. It currently has 10,000 postgraduate students and 17,000 undergraduates but hopes to have equal numbers by 2012.
Professor Norhanom said she had already received e-mails from students who wanted to apply for the scholarships.
'The students are quite excited,' she said, adding that many would be eligible because they only needed a grade point average of 2.75.
'It's not like an elite programme. This is rather low so that many people can apply.'
Isarji Sarudin, an associate professor at the International Islamic University's Higher Education Research Unit, said students who graduate in June would find it even tougher to find work, as they would be competing for a smaller number of vacancies and be up against people who had been retrenched.
'This is a global trend, not only in Malaysia,' he said. 'It's a big problem. The impact of the economic slowdown has increased the number of students who are unemployed.'
While the economic crisis has exacerbated the problem, the issue of unemployed graduates is hardly a new predicament for Malaysia. A 2005 government survey found that there were almost 60,000 unemployed graduates.
Dr Isarji said employers and academic staff reported a number of reasons for the high number of unemployed graduates, including poor English-language proficiency, inadequate communication skills, lack of experience and having qualifications that were irrelevant for the job market.
'Employers say that they don't have a problem with their hard skills, the subject matter, the technical knowledge. However, they are not happy with the soft skills of graduates - communication skills, leadership skills,' he said.
Dr Isarji said complaints about graduates' communication skills were also common in countries such as the US and Britain but Malaysians faced the additional problem of achieving proficiency in English.
'In Malaysia graduates have problems with communication skills in general plus English. Even if they have some form of language proficiency they have problems communicating. This is a double-barrelled problem,' he said. 'In the private sector English is the language of communication. At the university level most of the time Bahasa is the language of communication. There's a mismatch there.'
Dr Isarji was confident that the ministry would receive sufficient applications to reach its target of providing 500 doctorate and 10,000 master's scholarships. However, he questioned the decision to make the doctorate scholarships available only to those who were unemployed.
He said although the scholarships would entice unmarried PhD candidates to pursue their studies, most candidates were married with children and preferred to work full time to support their families while undertaking part-time postgraduate studies.
'It is most unfortunate that they are ineligible for the M$20,000 scholarship because they are not unemployed,' he said.
Meanwhile, Ms MacIntyre, 24, plans to apply for one of the scholarships to help her complete a master of arts, majoring in English literature. Receiving one will not only save her from taking on another student loan, it will also mean she will no longer need to increase her work hours at a language tuition centre from part time to full time.
'If I can focus on getting the loan paid off and my master's is under a scholarship, then I don't really have much to worry about. If I had a scholarship it would take a huge load off me financially,' she said.