Gaps in Malaysia’s Urban and Rural Schools

Gaps in Malaysia’s Urban and Rural Schools

Outline: Gaps in Malaysia’s urban and rural schools

  • Introduction – background information on the topic to include relevant statistics that put the issue into perspective, showing the disparity between urban and rural schools. Includes the specific figures on schools in urban and rural locations, as well as the illiteracy percentages with respect to age. The figures are intended to show that there is a significant divide between learning outcomes reported for urban and rural schools. Gaps in Malaysia’s Urban and Rural Schools
  • Discussion –
    • Understanding Malaysia’s education system – background on Malaysia’s education format, starting from preschool to higher education. Showing how many years students take at each education level, funding, instruction language, and examination formats.
    • Education inequality in Malaysian rural and urban schools – discussing the disparities between rural and urban schools in Malaysia. Indicates disparities in education accessibility, and causes of the disparity between urban and rural schools.
    • Addressing the urban-rural education gaps through grants and scholarships – discussing the use of scholarships and grants in Malaysia. Financial aid allocations in percentages. Cost of education and implications for rural and urban populations.
    • Rural and urban schooling expenditure differences – cost of education in urban and rural schools, and items attracting the expenditure. Proportions of incomes spent on education, comparing rural and urban school parents. Expenditure implications for schooling attitudes and outcomes.
    • Education gaps for rural and urban schools – performance differences for urban and rural schools. Effects of scholarships and grants on school completion and performance.
    • Developing a better financial aid policy – identifying the shortcoming of the achievement-based approach applied to financial aid management. Proposing the application of positive discrimination policy. Justifying the proposed policy.


  • Conclusion – a recap of the main points presented in the paper.
  • References – alphabetical list of references used in APA format.

Gaps in Malaysia’s urban and rural schools


According to 2017 demographic figures, Malaysia has a population of approximately 31.1 million of which about 9.64 million (31%) are 18 years of age and younger. 7.78 million Malaysians (25%) reside in rural areas. In 2015, Malaysia reported significant school enrolment rates among the population aged 18 years and younger. The net enrolment ratio was 80.75 % for pre-primary education, 99.52% for primary education, and 73.4% for secondary education. The out of school figures for the same year were reported at 14,470 for out of school children, and 201,525 for out of school adolescents. The illiteracy figures were reported at 131,139 for persons between 15 and 24 years of age, and 1,441,790 for persons older than 14 years of age. The literacy rate is reported at 97.61% for persons between 15 and 24 years of age, 93.73% for persons older than 14 years of age, and 63.12% for persons older than 63 years of age (UNESCO, 2019). At a glance, these figures show that Malaysia has made significant education achievements, however, a closer review indicates existing educational disparities and inequalities that disadvantage rural schools when compared to urban schools. The present paper discusses the education inequalities that exist between students in Malaysia’s urban and rural areas with regards to grants and scholarships, and proposes strategies for addressing these inequalities. Gaps in Malaysia’s Urban and Rural Schools


Understanding Malaysia’s education system

Malaysian education system formally begins when children reach 4 years of age. At this time, the government recommends that all children should attend preschool. Primary education formally begins when a child turns 6 years of age, in which case the child is expected to enroll for the school that begins on the first day of January. The government has mandated that primary school attendance is compulsory for all children, with the expectation that they would complete the six years of primary school. Students who have successfully completed the six years of primary education are allowed to proceed to attend five years of secondary education that has similarly been made compulsory by the government. The Malaysian government enables attendance of primary and secondary education in public institutions through a free public education system that sees all students proceed to sit for the public common examination that facilitates their efforts to attend higher education. Malaysia’s education system includes kindergarten and preschool education that targets children between 4 and 6 years of age, primary education for six years that targets children between 6 and 11 years of age, secondary education for five years (three years in lower secondary and two years in upper secondary) that targets adolescents between 12 and 16 years of age, and pre-university (post-secondary education) that could take between one and two years targeting teenagers between 17 and 18 years of age. Upper secondary education offers four learning options that include religious, vocational, technical, and academic education. Post-secondary education offers three learning options that include STAM for one year, matriculation certificate for one year, and STPM (form 6) for one and a half years (Study Malaysia, 2015).

Higher education is offered past secondary education, targeting teenagers who are 17 years of age or older. There are four options for higher education. The first option is diploma and certificate education targeted at persons 17 years of age or older. The second option is teacher education and training institutes that target persons 17 years of age or older. The third option is Bachelor’s degree for three to five years targeting persons 18 years of age or older. The final option is post-graduate education (including Ph.D. and master’s studies) that go on for between one and five years (Study Malaysia, 2015).

The government recognizes that it has a multicultural population and seeks to reflect this in the schools categories that are intended to reflect the identity and needs of different populations. In fact, it has six categories of schools at the pre-tertiary level. The first category of schools are private and government kindergarten schools that follow the national preschool curriculum. The second category is public and government-funded national schools that follow the national curriculum and take the corresponding national examination. The third category is government-aided schools that are similar to the second category of schools except that they are divided into Tamil and Chinese instruction schools. The fourth category is privately funded schools that follow the national curriculum and take the corresponding national examination. The fifth category is independent Chinese schools that apply a unique curriculum running for 6 years that use Chinese as the instruction language. The final category is foreign system schools that apply a foreign curriculum and includes expatriate and international schools that either use English or other instructional languages that are not indigenous to Malaysia (OECD, 2019).

There are two categories of schools at the tertiary (higher education) level. The first category includes public colleges, community colleges, polytechnics and public universities that are funded by the government. The second category are tertiary institutions not funded by the government to include foreign university branch campuses, university status institutions, and non-university status institutions (Guan, 2017). Gaps in Malaysia’s Urban and Rural Schools

The government funds basic education at both the primary and secondary levels, and has made considerable efforts to fund tertiary education. In fact, students attending public universities are advantaged by government subsidies for their school fees. Students attending private universities do not enjoy similar subsidies, and have to pay the full fees. Other than government subsidies for school fees, students attending higher education have access to other financial aids that include study loans, grants, and scholarships from companies linked to the government, state foundations, public services department, national higher education fund, and ministry of education (de Haan, 2010).

Different instructional mediums are used at different education levels. In public schools at the primary level, the medium of instruction is dependent on the type of schools. National schools instruct students using Bahasa Malaysia (the national language) with English offered as a compulsory second language subject. National-type schools are vernacular schools that conduct student instruction using either Tamil or Chinese with both English and Bahasa Malaysia offered as compulsory language subjects. In public schools at the secondary level, the medium of instruction is Bahasa Malaysia with English taught as a compulsory second language subject. Arabic, Tamil, Chinese, French and other indigenous and foreign languages are offered as additional language subjects. At the tertiary education level, learning instructions are typically offered in Bahasa Malaysia for public institutions, English for private institutions, and English for postgraduate programs (Study Malaysia, 2015).

Education inequality in Malaysian rural and urban schools

Despite having made significant efforts to improve the educational levels of Malaysian through free public primary and secondary programs, and subsidized tertiary education, significant inequalities exist between rural and urban schools. In this case, equalities (in the present context) are interpreted as indicators of education achievement and accessibility. Education achievement is the measure of performance in the examination that reflects students’ mastery of specified acceptable values, skills and knowledge. Education accessibility is the equal opportunity that is offered to all children of school-going age to attend school where effective learning takes place with adequate facilities regards of demographic peculiarities and differences (de Haan, 2010).

Measured by the results for public national examinations, students in rural schools performed worse than their counterparts in urban schools. This is an indication that the problems of education inequality are still far from being resolved despite government attention and intervention. In fact, this is not a new problem and was identified in the early 1960s when the government presented a new economic policy that sought to eradicate poverty in rural areas while restructuring institutions and society so that public stratification did not occur at the location or ethnic group levels. In this context, education was identified as an important long-term tool for addressing the inequalities (OECD, 2019).

However, the results have been far from ideal since it is not equitable so that urban and rural schools results greatly differ. As it is, significant differences can be seen. This is especially so for the Malaysian government’s commendable efforts to improve education accessibility (through free and subsidized education programs) but failed to address the achievement and participation concerns, or even the basic facilities and infrastructure discrepancy for the rural versus urban areas. The discrepancy extends to differences between aborigine and mainstream populations, as well as political and economic discrepancies that result in differences in educational and psychological readiness for educational successes (Sundaram & Hui, 2014).

In order to present adequate strategies for addressing the existing education inequalities and discrepancies noted between urban and rural areas, there is a need to first understand the cause of the inequality. Historically, the Malaysian government’s approach to education has been to build education infrastructure and facilities in urban areas to match the rapid economic developments taking place in these areas. The result is that education institutions in urban areas have adequately manned and equipped when compared to schools in rural areas that have been given a lower priority that matches their slow pace of economic development. These gaps in educational facilities have translated into gaps in opportunities, resulting in the achievement differences that are currently being reported for the two areas. The implication is that the government intentionally applies unfair education facilities and resources allocation strategies that advantage students in urban areas while disadvantaging students in rural areas (Arnove & Torres, 2007).  Gaps in Malaysia’s Urban and Rural Schools

To put the issue into perspective, approximately 39% of secondary schools and 69% of primary schools are in rural areas. However, most of these schools do not have the required learning facilities and infrastructure. Quite a large number of them do not have access to adequate electricity thus limiting their capacity to use information and communication technology (ICT). In addition, schools in rural areas are largely manned by untrained volunteer teachers who are unable to manage learning and student requirements competently. The government has made some effort to address these concerns and improve the situation. Through the ministry of education, the government has offered school-based training programs that improve the competency of untrained teachers. In addition, the government has constructed ICT laboratories with the appropriate infrastructure and equipment thus reducing the digital divide. Besides that, teachers in rural areas are now offered training in remedial teaching to address the higher rates of failure reported among students in rural schools (Guan, 2017).

Addressing the urban-rural education gaps through grants and scholarships

There is a consensus that education is a key vehicle for engendering economic development and achieving equality in Malaysia. However, the distribution of learning resources and its consequent effects on urban and rural education attendance and performance remains a serious issue in the country. In fact, in spite of the rising focus by the Malaysian government to target rural schools for grants and scholarship assistance, urban-rural disparities in access to education remain a problem. The national education assistance programs have continued to increasingly emphasize quality, equity and accessibility, strengthening delivery systems as well as improving the performance of students in rural schools while reducing the performance gaps between urban and rural schools. They apply an achievement-based criteria that particularly targets financially disadvantaged students who are performing well in school and likely to drop out owing to financial difficulties. The policy has ensured that 26% of the government’s development fund is allocated towards education efforts. 16% of the amount is allocated to support primary school efforts, 25% is allocated towards secondary education efforts while the remaining money is allocated towards tertiary education efforts. These financial programs cover less than 5% of students. On average, RM 1,740 is spent on every student in secondary school while RM 440 is spent on every student in primary school. The private sector has complemented the government efforts to address the education gaps between urban and rural areas. But, their efforts have been targeted at tertiary education levels (OECD, 2018).


It is important to note that the cost of education is not only borne by the government, but also be parents’ guardians/carers/parents. The parents can either bear the cost of education directly through personal expenses that support schooling activities, or indirectly through taxes. In fact, parents must meet some costs as they send their children to school. These include costs associated with meals, equipment and books, school uniform, tuition fees, and other charges. While many of these costs are standard charges that are determined by individual schools in consultation with the government and parents as stakeholders, there are expenditures that widely vary based on location to include extra tuition and reading materials. Parents in urban areas tend to spend more on their children than their counterparts in rural areas. While some of these parents do not have difficulties in covering the total cost of education, some of the poorer parents in rural areas require financial assistance through educational support programs such as hostel facilities, loans for education material, scholarships, grants and subsidies. For instance, the 2001 to 2003 financial year saw the government spend approximately RM 728.1 million on financial assistance to benefit 2.5 million students who were largely from rural areas and low income families. This implies that students requiring financial assistance received RM 290 on average towards their schooling endeavors for the three-year period. In 2007, the government allocated RM 310 million towards financial assistance for 1.5 million students from rural areas and poor families (Hassan & Rasiah, 2011).

The more recent figures indicate that the government allocated RM 312 to assist 3.1 million children in primary and secondary schools. The program targets students from households that earn less than RM 3,001 (Star Online, 2015). In addition to direct funding from the government, it has facilitated scholarships and grants from the private sector. These private sector funds are targeted at enabling deserving and high performing students from rural and poor backgrounds to access quality education that allows them to meet their full potential. The funding programs have been leveraged to broaden the range of quality education options available to students from underprivileged backgrounds. Although the government has made considerable effort to reduce the performance gap between urban and rural schools through financial support for education activities, education is not totally free and the parents who receive assistance must still spend on educating their children (OECD, 2018). Gaps in Malaysia’s Urban and Rural Schools

Rural and urban schooling expenditure differences

The financial assistance programs have had a profound effect on the cost of education in Malaysia. Students in urban schools spend 22% higher than their counterparts in rural schools, with the higher costs associated with pocket money, transport, school uniform, stationery and textbooks. Even though the cost of education is lower for rural schools when compared to urban schools, the burden of school is still a concern when considering the parents’ ability to pay. Malaysian parents are noted to spend approximately 26.9% of their income in educating their children. Parents in rural school have lower incomes and must spend approximately 33.8% of their income on educating their children, when compared to their urban counterparts who spend 22.8% of their income. This difference has created a perception among parents in rural areas that educating their children is burdensome, an issue that is put into sharp contract by inequality concerns when it is considered that they earn less than their urban counterparts but have to spend relatively similar amounts on educating their children. In addition, the differences have created a situation in which students in rural areas have less money to spend more on extra books and tuition, thereby disadvantaging them when compared to students in urban areas who have more to spend on extra books and tuition thus resulting in better education outcomes (Hassan & Rasiah, 2011).

Education gaps for rural and urban schools

Despite policy efforts being made to target rural schools for scholarships and grants, there are education achievement gaps between urban and rural schools. The figures indicate that rural schools are underperforming urban schools with the gap widening with the increase in education level. Still, the scholarship and grant programs have achieved some positive results. The specific figures show that rural schools underperformed urban schools by 8% in 2005 and 3.8% in 2011 for UPSR scores. The gap increased to 10% in 2005 and 8% in 2011 for SPM scores. The implication of these figures is that although there is no actual widening of the inequality gap (in fact, the gap is narrowing), there are considerable differences between education performance in Malaysia’s urban and rural schools. This is an indication that the scholarship and grant management policies are having limited effects (Ministry of Education Malaysia, 2013). It is important to note that although the policies have some effects, they are minimal. That is because only 59% of students from rural areas and 67% from urban areas are able to use the scholarships and grants to graduate. In fact, a considerable number of students are likely to drop out despite the aid owing to financial difficulties since the aids only cover some costs and their parents who are already financially burdened must spend a considerable percentage of their earnings to keep them in schools (OECD, 2018).

Developing a better financial aid policy

The results of the analysis reveal that the financial aid have only partially addressed the gaps between rural and urban schools. Although the policy has targeted students in rural schools for higher financial aid allocations when compared to urban schools, the reality is that a gap still exists. There is a need to practice a positive discrimination (affirmative action, preferential treatment or reverse discrimination) policy that provide additional financial aid on top of the normal scholarships and grants. The new policy would use a quota system to accord students in rural areas (who face considerable financial challenges) special treatment in the provision of financial aid since they are members of a disadvantaged group, thus departing from the achievement-based approach applied to financial aid management. The change in policy would be justified that financially disadvantaged students in rural areas are underrepresented in the educational structure and have lower average economic statuses than their counterparts in urban areas. This change in policy would allow the Malaysian government to offer equality of opportunity for students in urban and rural areas, ensuring that the quotas of rural and urban students are equalized in relation to the total population. The argument to justify this approach is that membership in rural and economically disadvantaged groups depressives students the opportunity to access education. The change in policy would not only make education more available, but would also shift educational attitudes and ambitions for rural students through eliminating financial constraints as a limiting factor for schooling (Guan, 2017). Unless a positive discrimination policy is applied to manage financial aid for Malaysian schools, the gap between students in urban and rural schools will continue. Gaps in Malaysia’s Urban and Rural Schools


One must accept that education inequality between Malaysian urban and rural schools is a reality. In addition, one must acknowledge that the government’s efforts to address the inequality through compensatory efforts have realized less than the desired outcomes. In fact, the financial aid programs that management scholarships and grants have only reduced the gap with considerable differences still noted. The financial aid policy (both government and private managed) have somewhat reduced the financial burden on parents. Still, the parents in rural areas earn less than their counterparts in urban areas and must spend a larger proportion of their earnings to education their children even with financial aid. This is reflected in the lower proportion of students in rural schools graduating after receiving financial aid when compared to their counterparts in urban schools. The proposal is made that a positive discrimination policy should be applied to target rural populations with more financial aid quotas instead of using the achievement-based approach.


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de Haan, A. (2010). Towards a new poverty agenda in Asia. New Delhi: SAGE Publishing India.

Guan, L. H. (2017). Education and globalization in Southeast Asia: issues and challenges. Singapore: ISEAS Publishing.

Hassan, O. & Rasiah, R. (2011). Poverty and student performance in Malaysia. International Journal of Institutions and Economies, 3(1), 61-76.

Ministry of Education Malaysia (2013). Malaysia education blueprint 2013-2025: preschool to post-secondary education. Putrajaya: Kementerian Pendidikan Malaysia. Retrieved from

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Star Online (2019). Three million students get school aid. Retrieved from

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Sundaram, J. K. & Hui, W. C. (2014). Malaysia@50: Economic development, distribution, disparities. Singapore: World Scientific Publishing Co. Pte. Ltd.

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Gaps in Malaysia’s Urban and Rural Schools