Sunday, February 28, 2021

Education might have to take one for the team, economist says on ‘Covid-19’ budget

Public universities might have to tighten their belts as funds are needed to combat the Covid-19 pandemic.

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Despite receiving the lion’s share of allocations in this year’s budget, the education sector could see a cut in allowance for next year as the health ministry will need all the help it can get to battle the Covid-19 pandemic in the country, an economist warns.

Barjoyai Bardai from Universiti Tun Abdul Razak said the 2021 budget, to be tabled on Nov 6, would likely see a reduction in allocations of between RM2 billion and RM30 billion for several sectors including supplies and public and transportation allowances.

“That would be enough,” he told MalaysiaNow. “We might have RM250 billion more in expenditure there including from education, higher ministries and others.”

Last year, a total of RM297.02 billion was set aside for the 2020 budget – a 5.5% reduction from the year before. The education ministry received the biggest portion of RM64.1 billion.

This time around, though, Barjoyai said public universities could be expected to tighten their belts including by slashing allocations for management and staff expenditure.

Barjoyai said it would be difficult for the government to maintain allocations for education given the huge amounts that would need to be spent on the Covid-19 situation.

The bright side, he said, was that universities could also save by continuing to hold classes online, as has been the norm since spikes in daily Covid-19 cases put various parts of the country under recurrent lockdowns, pushing students from physical lecture halls to virtual.

“The new normal and new methods of learning which do not require students to be on-campus could cut down on expenses for public universities,” he said.

Likewise, he predicted that the allocation of scholarships for students to study abroad would be scrutinised to determine the need for them to travel overseas in person, or whether they would be able to complete their courses online.

The Yang di-Pertuan Agong recently reminded MPs of the importance of the budget to ensure that allocations can be made for the public health sector and frontliners in their battle against Covid-19.

But Bumiputera Education Leadership Foundation CEO Muzzamil Ismail said the budget should prioritise education, especially that of the youth whom he said had suffered the most job losses since the pandemic was detected in the country in February.

“The focus should be on improving the quality of education and creating career opportunities for the youth,” he said when contacted.

“The government should channel funds towards the development of employee skills, technical and vocational training, access to facilities in rural areas, and digital infrastructure.”

He also urged the government to broaden the scope of the budget to include digitisation, citing education and business as two fields where this could take place.

Economist Yeah Lim Keng from Sunway University meanwhile doesn’t expect allocations for education to change by much in the 2021 budget, given the sector’s importance to human capital development.

“It would be better to increase deficit spending so that the social and education sectors have the funds to operate and develop,” he told MalaysiaNow.

“This is important to ensure social stability by protecting the poor and the unemployed.”

Yeah believes that education will survive the challenges posed by the pandemic – survive and adapt, with the use of digital technology and online learning.

He also suggested that the government postpone spending for non-essential sectors such as the military and infrastructure, saying this could increase economic growth in the short term.

But Barjoyai said it would be difficult for the government to maintain allocations for education given the huge amounts that would need to be spent on the Covid-19 situation.

He suggested that the government seek long-term alternatives to generate funds for other sectors affected by the pandemic.

In the short term, though, he said it would be hard to find immediate solutions or new sources of funds as the government would need to slash spending in order to tackle Covid-19.

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