Of budgets and losses
Not surprisingly, the education sector has received the highest allocation under Budget 2022 at RM67.1 billion. Of this, the Ministry of Education will receive RM52.6 billion and the Ministry of Higher Education RM14.5 billion.
As far as the Ministry of Education is concerned, it is public knowledge that teachers’ emoluments normally amount to 80% of its budget, or RM42 billion in this case. Of the balance of 20% or RM10.6 billion, RM450 million or RM150 per student will be allocated for Early School Aid; RM1 billion for school maintenance and renovations; RM746 million to upgrade dilapidated schools; RM50 million for special needs schools to purchase equipment and for improving facilities (including the building of eight special needs blocks in two schools); RM400 million to provide free milk daily under the free school meals programme; and a one-off payment of RM100 to each teacher, totalling, say RM45 million, under the Special Incentives for Teaching Aids.
These allocations amount to RM2.691 billion, which leaves RM7.909 billion, the purpose for which is not known. It is our hope that a large portion of this amount can be put aside for teacher training to develop 21st century learning in schools. As the world speaks of a new normal in education, we should capitalise on our strength. Our new strength is that 21st century learning is here to stay and funding is crucial to take hybrid learning to another level. It is 21st century learning that will bridge the learning gap as well as remove the excessive burden on teachers by turning students into self-motivated learners.
The question that begs to be asked is whether our children are receiving the full value of the seemingly generous budget.
We would like to see that the items provided for under Early School Aid will be beneficial to the students so they may begin the new academic year with confidence and their parents can enjoy some savings too. Insofar as special needs education is concerned, there appears to be not just a lack of teachers but also specially trained ones for the various types of challenges faced by the students, while some schools do not even have toilets designed for wheelchairs, let alone easy accessibility to classrooms.
The problem with free milk in the past was the refrigeration facilities during transportation and storage on the school premises prior to consumption. School maintenance, renovations and the upgrading of dilapidated schools is an annual, large expense but often, the quality of work is questionable as evidenced by past and present Auditor-General’s Reports.
The Auditor-General’s Report tabled at the Dewan Rakyat on Oct 28 contains the audit of the federal government’s financial records for the year 2020. The audit revealed colossal losses of RM620.07 million, of which RM499 million arose from the pandemic and RM2.18 million from the Education Ministry, among others. This may appear insignificant until one looks closer. The members of parliament should debate these losses.
The education budget for 2020 was a whopping RM64.1 billion. Of this, RM735 million was allocated for maintenance and repair of schools. From this amount, RM135.35 million was put aside for government-aided schools (sekolah bantuan kerajaan) comprising SJKC (sekolah jenis kebangsaan Cina), SJKT (sekolah jenis kebangsaan Tamil), SM (sekolah mubaligh) and SABK (sekolah agama bantuan kerajaan).
Yet, oddly, the Auditor-General in his report (Pages 167 to 190) chose to audit SJKT, which received a mere RM33.08 million. However, in view of the lockdowns, only three SJKT in the Klang Valley with a total allocation of RM2.33 million were audited. But even among these three schools, there were substantial losses amounting to RM2.18 million, or 93.5% of the contract value. The audit revealed that RM1.25 million was lost largely due to the difference between an excessive quotation (RM1.56 million) and the market price (RM0.31 million), or rather, a jaw-dropping mark-up of 503%, and a further RM930,000 for non-compliance. Specifically, RM130,000 was paid out to the contractor for uncompleted work, RM390,000 for work that was not according to approved specifications while RM410,000 was paid out without confirmation of work done. While the losses may appear comparatively small, it is still a loss of hard-earned taxpayers’ money, and heads should roll so that this matter is not repeated. Kudos to the Auditor-General and his team for spotting this.
Several reasons were cited by the Auditor-General for these losses, and they are not rocket science. The guidelines were not adhered to — sole contractors were appointed directly without considering other parties, and there was no attempt to seek more than one price quotation and thus the best value.
We would be extremely naive to think that this is all of the losses incurred by the ministry. There appears to be a trend with regard to these matters. Future audits should focus on the higher-value contracts where bigger-scale manipulation may happen. The education budget is, after all, the largest allocation in the budget and the right thing to do is to ensure that our children get their billion ringgit’s worth. Otherwise, we adults would have failed them big time.