This year, 4,888 students from the Bottom 40 group were offered a place at fully-residential schools in the country. FILE PIC

EDUCATION can help any hardworking person but not everyone can attend a good school or a world-ranked university.  One common barrier is money.

Balqis, who was from a rural school in  Bachok, Kelantan, scored 6As in her  Ujian Pencapaian Sekolah Rendah examinations last year. 

She was one of 4,888 students from the Bottom 40 (B40) group offered a place at a fully-residential school for this year’s school session.

Despite coming from an economically-disadvantaged household, Balqis can become as clever, if not cleverer, than a pupil in Putrajaya who scored the same results.

Last year, the  Education Ministry announced its decision to restore the spirit of fully residential schools by offering students from a mean household income of RM2,848 to gain access to quality education for this year’s enrollment. It is also to stop the risk of these boarding schools becoming another privilege of those with money.

The policy change is not only to recognise these pupils who often face large obstacles on their road to education, but it is also a well-deserved validation of the hard work involved.

A well-balanced boarding school should have a good representation of students, socio-economically. The new policy saw a 15 per cent increase of students covering the 60 per cent quota from the B40 income group in boarding schools.

Balqis’ parents were delighted with the offer, but they had second thoughts.  They realised sending their daughter to study in one of the best  boarding schools in the country with little money can be a real challenge for them. They were not sure if they could afford it.

In reality, the increase in quota does not come close to keeping pace with the costs when one enrols in a boarding school.

The culture of the boarding schools has led to many extras required from their students, which  are not  necessarily optional and can increase spending.

The cost varies from one school to another; from PTAs to co-Op fees  to some school s insisting on uniformity for essentials. For example, students may need different pairs of shoes for different parts of a school day and they may only be allowed to use bed sheets sold by the school co-op.

Let’s not start on calculating the costs for those extra revision books and an iPad for each student  to experience the 21st-century learning experience. Even middle-income families will feel the pinch.

Balqis’ story is not unique,  and students from the B40 group who received the same offer would also be in a similar situation.

According to the Khazanah Research Institute’s (KRI) The State of Households 2018 report, B40 households earning of an income of below RM2,000 were left with only RM76 after expenses. 

Add to that all the costs and other factors, it is not hard to see how a smart, determined student like Balqis will struggle to take the next educational step even if her parents are able to cover the school costs for the next five years.

Another KRI report, the School-to-Work Transition Survey 2018 revealed that family status also has some impact on whether they attend private or public institutions of higher education.

Those who consider their families ‘poor’ are more likely to attend public institutions where the fees are subsidised by the government. Even so, the main source of funding for tertiary education at these institutions is from loans.

I recently discovered that the same pre-university course that my son attended is now double the fee it used to be a few years back. With the costs of tertiary education continuing to rise, the pressure is enormous on students from lower-income families.  

Universities,  on the other hand, are faced with a conundrum: Besides making sure the quality of the institution, it is also determining how to meet students’ financial needs and balancing the institution’s budget.

In spite of our belief that education is the engine for climbing the socioeconomic ladder, financial issues are central to students from low-income families.  The reality is that socioeconomic inequalities in the access to education persist in this country.

The current situation disproportionately limits opportunities for young people from low-income backgrounds. It is not a surprise that they don’t focus much on studying or preparing for a path that can lead them to future success.  

How do we tackle this issue?  It won’t be easy with the lack of financial resources for this group of people.

University applications are harder to tackle on intelligence. Identifying the best courses, choosing  the right universities and applying for financial aid are all tough to do without know-how for low-income students.  

We need to find better ways of finding low-income students with the ability to succeed. We also need to be better about letting these students know what  financial aid is available.

For a start, it is important to relook at the costs required for them to study.

Small interventions might not result in a complete transformation for them, but it is important for us to find good places to start.

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The writer, who left her teaching career more than 20 years ago to take on different challenges beyond the conventional classroom, is NSTP’s education editor for English content