Social mobility is crucial to the maintenance of a healthy liberal society. Inflexibility will have elites entrenched within the state apparatus and eventually becoming de facto dictators themselves, unless there is some sense of altruism among the elites. The monopoly of power itself is illiberal in so many ways.
There are ways to address the concern about social mobility and its illiberalness. The provision of education to the masses is one of them.
Education grants individuals the confidence to overcome haplessness. It provides the tools for individuals to rationalize the world and then encourage them to take fate into their own hands. With a good education, individuals will no longer be dependent on holy men’s words or beg the political elites for benevolence. Individuals will have their minds sharpened to make their own decisions. Education permanently grants individuals the motive for self-initiative for secular improvement and that is the engine of social mobility that will later help in creating a dynamic society that is liberal.
It is in this sense that equal access to education — basic education — is important.
The ability to read, write and count open up the doors of opportunity. Without these basic abilities, individuals will be disenfranchised from society. The disenfranchised will forever begin a race hundreds of steps behind, even before the race begins. They will likely form the underclass. Once one becomes an underclass, without intervention, it will be incredibly hard to break out from it. That calcifies social stratum and makes the journey towards an authoritarian society one step closer.
No self-respecting liberal will want to live a society with calcified social stratum. Permanent political monopoly is harmful to a free society. An intervention is required and justified and that intervention is the provision of mass education. That is the liberal rationale for basic education for all.
There is a limit to that rationale, however. Indeed, the rationale for education at the tertiary level changes. At the upper level, it is less about mass education than it is about meritocracy and specialization.
Not everybody has the aptitude for university education. That is why upper-level education has to be more meritocratic than primary- and secondary-level education. Even if it opened all without any filter, many would fail to make it to the end.
Under a meritocratic setup, those without the necessary aptitude must consider other tertiary options besides university education. The continuous pursuit of university education without the necessary aptitude will prove disastrous because there is heavy cost involved in terms of time and money.
To put it in another way, a meritocracy system will try to prevent a person from embarking on a costly journey that may end in failure anyway. It tries to save both time and money of the person and the society.
If one assesses the rationale for education at the individual level, it is mostly all about finance: one pursues university education with the expectation of earning higher wages in the future than he or she would without the same education.
Even without the explicit financial intention, it is generally true that the financial reward of having a degree is potentially tremendous. According to The Condition of Education 2011 published by the National Center for Education Statistics of the US Department of Education, those with a bachelor’s degree on average earn USD40,000 for the whole year in 2009. Those with high school diploma on average earn only USD25,000 for the year. The number will differ in Malaysia but the wage premium still exists.
The danger is that when one gets stuck in the system and fails to earn the degree. Another danger is that the degree earned does not give graduates a sufficient wage premium; not all degree commands the same wage premium. There are many reasons for that and one of them is quality of the degree.
In both cases, both the dropout and the graduate will learn that the cost of their university education will be too high compared to the returns of a university education. The education becomes less worthwhile.
The Malaysian problem is that there is or was a large-scale affirmative action with respect to university entrance. The proponents of affirmative action effectively and foolishly extended the rationale of mass education that is relevant to primary- and secondary-level education to the tertiary level, while ignoring the very different nature of tertiary education.
As a result, too many were encouraged to attend university and other higher education institutions without sufficient meritocratic consideration. Accommodation was made by rapid and significant expansion of places through the establishment of new education institutions. On the sideline, a state-backed mechanism—the PTPTN—was set up to help students to finance their education cheaply, and indirectly, to support private higher education service providers financially.
With the affirmative action and the disregard for meritocracy, quality eventually suffered. That affected the wage premium of those degrees.
This is probably what is happening to those who are unable to repay back their PTPTN loans. After having gone through university and other equivalent institutions and after having financed the cost through borrowing, they discovered the papers they earned did not command the wage premium necessary to make the education debt not a burden.
This can be linked directly to the issue of PTPTN and education debt. First of all, the financing option provided by PTPTN is cheap and it is effectively a subsidized financing option. On top of that, the cost of education at public universities is also cheap. The deputy prime minister was reported as stating that between 85 per cent and 95 per cent of tuition fees at public universities is borne by the government. The tuition fee itself is heavily subsidized.
Yet, graduates are having trouble repaying those cheap loans. When they are having trouble repaying, then it is likely that they are not earning enough. That in turn implies that their wage premium does not justify their investment in a university education. Further down the line, it suggests that those graduates should not have obtained their university education in the first place, if one assesses the issue strictly from a financial lens.
But they did obtain their university education, thanks to affirmative action. The graduates financed the cost of university by borrowing from PTPTN, an instrument of affirmative action. Now, what they have found is that the very instrument that enabled those graduates to become graduates is the very instrument that debased their papers, making the education debt a burden.
If that is still unclear, then let this be written: the debate about PTPTN debt in Malaysia is really a debate about the cost of affirmative action in the education system.