Student welfare at Universiti Teknologi Petronas (UTP) is strengthened by the contributions of its generous alumni to its zakat fund.
The impact was immediate. A recently formalised zakat-funded mechanism to support financially-challenged students at UTP has borne the exact results it was rooting for – the undergrads stayed on course.
Zakat for poor students is not a new idea, but here’s a fresh take on it – UTP alumni are channelling some of their zakat funds to their alma mater to help a new generation of students.
Most Malaysian universities do have zakat funds for needy students. “For us, the unique feature is support from alumni,” says Mohamed Noor Rosli Baharom, zakat and waqaf management unit director at UTP. “They feel good about it because many were in same situation before.”
Mohamed Noor Rosli Baharom.
This year, UTP’s zakat fund has helped 850 students, with disbursements totalling RM2.7m assigned to tuition, hostel fees, monthly allowance and general expenses. Zakat funds can also be used to support overseas internships, an important feature of UTP’s academic programmes.
Starting 2018, 120 students from B40 families were given full sponsorship amounting to RM2.1m for foundation studies.
Mohamed Noor Rosli says applications for financial help are expected to grow noticeably. That’s why UTP’s management searched for meaningful ways to leverage on zakat funds and for innovative ways to increase contributions.
Muslim staff in UTP, alumni and Petronas staff were paying the requisite 2.5% of their income to zakat collection done by UTP, all of which was sent to the Perak State Islamic Religious Council.
UTP formed a pilot zakat fund in 2012 and became a zakat administrator. With the Council’s support, 50% of that money is channelled back to the university.
Specifically, these funds are for Muslim students who fall into three of the eight categories of zakat beneficiary – miskin (poor), gharimin (in debt) and fi-sabilillah (educational purposes).
“The Council helped us formulate criteria for a student to qualify,” says Mohamed Noor Rosli. “First, we get an understanding of the student’s financial background. Selection is done after a panel interview. Some come from real poverty.”
In one case, the household income was RM400 a month – a single mother who ironed clothes for a living. Some students ate only one meal a day. Many come from homes where a family member is sickly or has a disability, but all of them are highly motivated and determined to succeed.
Over the years, the university realised that to help students, it needs to have funding on a continuous basis. A student must be able to continue their studies.
In the last five years, the sponsorship landscape has changed. Sponsoring bodies are generally on the decline, and shrinking budgets at institutions have meant that there are significantly fewer fully-sponsored undergrads.
“If we do nothing, eventually families will send their children to public universities or to none at all,” says Mohamed Noor Rosli. “Yes we are a private university, but we belong to the nation and want to be accessible to everyone, so we looked for ways to be open to all.”
For zakat contributors, the heartfelt change is being able to see how funds are being used. The university’s monthly collection of zakat amounts to some RM250,000. Typically, zakat goes into a state-managed fund, which disburses money to the poor but it’s not always visible.
“Now we can see exactly where the money goes and how it impacts students,” says Mohamed Noor Rosli. “It creates a new kind of bond between students and staff. It’s now a tool to motivate students and also strengthens the sense of belonging among students.”
In its quest to complement traditional financial sources, UTP is looking at other Islamic instruments, among them waqaf which in modern parlance means crowd sourcing. Very simply, if zakat is directed at individuals, then waqaf is directed at communities.
Nazarul Hafis, 20, Electrical & Electronics Engineering
“I want to be like Elon Musk. He thinks without boundaries. My dream is to be a leader in engineering, start my own corporation and create jobs, especially for fresh graduates. I see myself in communications and mobile technology.
“I feel lucky that staff and faculty at UTP really care. When I told my HOD I was short of funds, he directed me to financial help. Now I get allowances from the zakat unit. Earlier I received a bursary from Yayasan UTP. My PTPTN covers only half my needs.
“This aid is crucial because I get very limited support from my family. My parents are MLM agents and my siblings have families of their own. I’ve lived away from my Sitiawan home since 12.
“At MRSM Kepala Batas, Penang, I learned survival skills. There’s no time to do part-time work here. Every subject is exciting and I love what I’m doing now.”
Prasad Madhavan, 23, Mechanical Engineering
“I graduate in November 2018 and hope to work in the oil and gas industry. My next mission is to support my parents who worked really hard to educate three boys. I want my dad, who is my hero, to take a break from his security officer job in Singapore and be with my mum in Kluang, Johor.
“When I scored 10 As in my SPM, I received a Petronas scholarship for the UTP foundation programme, after which I got a full Yayasan UTP scholarship for my degree – a huge financial relief to my family.
“The past four years have been amazing. My seven-month internship at Schlumberger Penang offshore tools manufacturing team was pure professionalism. Someday I’d like to start and grow my own company.
“I’m inspired by Elon Musk who makes the impossible possible. For my final year project, I’m working on a battery design which I hope will be patent-able.”
Nur Hayati Megat Jamal.
Nur Hayati Megat Jamal, 20, Petroleum Geoscience
“It is a big relief to my family. I applied for aid from the zakat unit and it resolved my financial issues. My PTPTN funds just barely cover tuition fees and my parents are paying the rest.
“I’ve learned to be very, very frugal. My retired parents (both civil servants) moved to Pekan Kati, Kuala Kangsar, to care for my ailing grandmother. They live on the rubber smallholding started by my grandfather. It’s so rural, I don’t always get a cellphone signal. I have three older siblings who are now working.
“At UTP, I’ve made many friends and feel cared for. My lecturers always look out for me, especially in my clueless moments. Petroleum geoscience is a tough course, but it’s fascinating. I’m learning about the Earth’s formation right now. I see myself working offshore, perhaps for a multinational and doing research.”
Nor Adela Dinyati.
“They have a history of straight As and they are outstanding in so many ways,” says Nor Adela Dinyati, Yayasan Universiti Teknologi Petronas director.
“But there are days when even the best students are short of funds, and that can make the difference between finishing a degree or dropping out. That’s when we can step in to make things right.”
Since 2010, Yayasan UTP has offered scholarships and bursaries to students to tide them over tough moments, when there was simply not enough money to pay for tuition and other costs.
“It’s a financial problem which affects our goal of transforming lives,” says Nor Adela. “Once they graduate, they get good jobs and go on to a better life and ignite the chain of helping family and community. That’s important.”
By taking a 360-degree approach and seeking partnerships in the real world, Yayasan UTP has smoothed the rough edges of student life and gets them going.
Yayasan UTP offers 10 undergraduate scholarships a year. An additional 20 scholarships are supported by Yayasan Peneraju, a bumiputera development initiative of the Economic Planning Unit.
Another 10 scholarships are supported by corporations and usually lead to employment. For post-graduate studies, Yayasan UTP offers 10 scholarships a year, two of which are supported by private companies.
“Overall, seven companies are contributing to full and partial scholarships. Some are tied in with manpower projections,” says Nor Adela. “We are engaging more.” This year, YUTP introduced education grants for 100 students per year, bringing the total of student sponsorship to RM10m a year.
UTP’s policy of getting all students on an overseas experience also presents financial hurdles. Many parents just manage to pay for tuition, hostel and living costs and have no more funds.
“We have a student development programme that looks into this. Last year, we sent over 250 students overseas and spent about RM1.5m. By targeting high quality, unique outings in all destinations, we stretched funds so that more could have an amazing experience overseas,” says Nor Adela.
These sponsored outings include academic competitions, exchange programmes, internships, research attachments, short camps, tournaments, leadership programmes, field trips and expeditions.
“We also have a fund for student enterprise,” adds Nor Adela. “A student with a viable startup idea can get provisional funding to get things going. For faculty, we have research and innovation grants. We are moving some 30 to 40 projects worth some RM15m a year. These are related directly or indirectly to oil and gas and energy.”
Yayasan UTP receives funds from alumni, corporations and from Petronas. This year, Nor Adela is working on new funding mechanisms attractive to donors and building ties with partners and collaborators. By working with UTP’s zakat unit, the foundation has expanded its reach to beneficiaries.
“We want deserving students to finish their course,” says Nor Adela. “My job satisfaction is watching transformation happen right before my eyes. We help them, now they help others, starting with their own families.”