AS in life, there is no such thing as a free lunch in education. About the only thing that was free when the Penang Free School was established almost 200 years ago was its name.
Now, even when students don't pay the tuition fees, someone else picks up the tab. In the case of state institutions, that someone is invariably the taxpayer. This is certainly true of the Nordic countries where "free" higher education and high tax rates are central to the social-democratic welfare state. But while the "education" part is certainly fully funded by the public purse, the living costs are not. Though non-repayable financial assistance in the form of outright grants are available to cover living expenses, thanks to the same generous state subsidies which makes it possible to finance the current and capital expenditure of universities, it is means-tested. That is to say, not every one is eligible. In fact, the main way in which the governments in the Nordic countries help to defray out-of-pocket expenses is through low-interest student loans, which are repayable when they graduate and start to work. In Norway, for instance, the basic amount is given as a loan but part of it is converted into a grant depending on a student's academic performance.
This is not unlike the workings of the country's National Higher Education Fund (PTPTN). Indeed, like the Scandinavian countries and virtually every other country around the world, Malaysia makes available a combination of loans and grants, or scholarships as we call them, to increase access to higher education and make efficient use of limited public funds. Yet, in this country where the tax base is narrow and the tax rate low, there is now talk of a higher education which is free for all, which will presumably be subsidised by taxpayers or else by deficit spending in the budget. Undoubtedly, the next general election that is around the corner is what is making people stand up and say we are going to abolish the education loan fund and waive the debt.
But regardless of what opposition politicians say just to win votes, the reality is that the RM43.6 billion that has been allocated to some 1.9 million students is too big a sum to be written off without dire consequences for the nation's finances. Such a populist approach also glibly glides over the complexity of the problem of funding the most expensive level of education. This is added reason for rejecting the attempt to turn student financial aid into a partisan political issue.