She bought him a dictionary as a gift. But, on registration day, Nik returned the dictionary to Gee, asking her to instead give it to someone who would benefit from it, as he was not taking up the university’s offer.
Deterred by the high cost, Nik confessed that there was no way he could afford it, even with the salary from a job he had taken, hoping to aid him in this pursuit of life.
With a sickly mother and no other source of income except from his sister, who also had to postpone her final year of studies to take care of their mother and work at the same time, there was no way for him to even think about continuing his studies.
New expenses have stretched funds for tertiary education farther than the basic costs of accommodation, food and drink.
However, with Gee’s persistence, which included driving Nik all the way to Penang on the same day, he made it for the registration.
What he did not know was that USM has initiatives to help underprivileged students like him until his study loan is approved.
I frequently hear similar stories of struggling students like Nik from friends like Gee working in the academia, but never to the extent of starvation, as alleged by some parties from a non-governmental organisation’s survey among university students recently.
The claim that three out of four students were too broke to eat had invited manifold discussions on social media — from students’ bad spending habits resulting from low financial literacy to their lack of tenacity.
While many agreed a student’s university days has never been a time for students to splash the cash, some were also nostalgic of their own experiences as students during the earlier era of higher education, when tuition fees could probably be paid by working odd jobs during semester breaks if one wanted to.
This stereotyping of students — having the latest handphones, hanging out at coffee joints and travelling to college in their own cars — is very familiar, but it needs updating.
As it is, tuition fees are not as what we used to pay, scholarships are not in abundance as they used to be and our expectations have risen on how much we think universities should do to prepare students for the job market.
Today, having a part-time job is not only a financial necessity for some students; many are also working to increase their future employability.
The real issue for students (and parents who have to fork out the money) is not starvation, but survival and managing finances.
Students like Nik do not suddenly become wealthy when they enrol in university and study loans sometimes fall far short of covering their full cost of attendance, which might result in them eating less than what their bodies need or cutting meals to make ends meet.
Parents are often sandwiched between caring for elderly parents and their own children, while trying to meet their other obligations. So, the burden gets heavier.
Higher education nowadays requires stretching funds farther than the basic costs of accommodation, food and drink. New expenses have appeared over the last few years, which are easily overlooked.
For invaluable technology, money has to be set aside for an entry-level laptop. Many, like Engineering, Information Technology and Design students, understandably want to invest in more powerful devices.
In the same vein, smartphones or tablets are a student expense unique to the last few years or so.
While assuming that each institution has free Wi-Fi connection, Internet access was not a necessity for previous generations like it is today.
Although textbook costs are not a new expense, they remain largely overlooked.
While for some courses students only have to print out a few essays in black and white, some assignments require colour diagrams that are expensive to print.
Clearly, the true cost of tertiary education is greater than anticipated.
Financial aid from the National Higher Education Fund Corporation (PTPTN) — the country’s main funding agency set up to ensure that all who are eligible to enrol in institutes of higher learning get a fair chance to do so — provide a “life-changing experience of university” for Malaysians like Nik.
Maximum funding is only for students or parents listed as recipients of the 1Malaysia People’s Aid (BR1M), in which the monthly household income of recipients must be lower than RM4,000.
Students from a household with a monthly income of not more than RM8,000 can get 75 per cent funding, while students from families with a monthly household income of more than RM8,000 are eligible for 50 per cent funding.
It is an “investment” into the future that many students are not in a position to make without taking on punishing debt, and some cannot manage once they graduate.
PTPTN claims that more than 500,000 borrowers have yet to start repaying their loans.
PTPTN has now had to reduce the amount of loans by five per cent for public universities and 15 per cent for private universities.
With borrowers not making repayments, the funds will be drained and cannot revolve.
Today, Nik is halfway through his studies in USM, financed by a PTPTN loan and supplemented by a good sum of money through a part-time job at the university, inputting data for research.
He is required to start repayments six months after completing his studies.
Students like him, in which education will be a means to social mobility, are working harder than ever before, combining academic and financial pressures to develop balance and hone employability skills.
In two years’ time, Nik will be out and ready for the job market, with a university degree and also a meaningful reminder, permanently written by Gee on the same dictionary, of how far he has reached in life.
It says: “When the going gets tough, the tough gets going.”