IT’S the time of the year again for the recurrent stories of heartbreak and despair.

News of rejections of top Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) scorers for Public Service Department (PSD) scholarships for foreign degree programmes have hogged the headlines over the past week.

Scores of bright, evidently deserving students who had achieved remarkable results – between 14 1As and 10 1As – have been reportedly by-passed over others with seemingly lower scores. And as in past years, questions are being raised over the pro­cess of selection, with allegations of discrimination and unfairness being bandied about.

Some RM832mil has been allocated for foreign degree scholarships, more than double the RM413mil set aside for those pursuing courses in local universities.

The scramble to study abroad is understandable. Only 8,363 out of the 15,084 candidates who applied for these scholarships were shortlisted for interview. But with places available for only 2,000 students under stipulated critical courses, it is inevitable that more than 75% of those shortlisted will be rejected.

Stiff competition is not the issue, especially with the increasing number of brilliant students each year. The contentious issue is how the PSD picks the successful ones.

There was much optimism last year when the allocation ratio for bumiputra and non-bumiputra students was revised from 90:10 to 55:45 with emphasis on meritocracy. The formula was based on 70 points for academic excellence, 10 for co-curriculum activities, 10 for family economic background and 10 based on interview.

The PSD has since changed the formula to 75/10/10/5 but the fundamental question of transparency remains.

A recent announcement by Minister in the PM’s Department Tan Sri Bernard Dompok that 10% or 200 scholarships would be set aside for students from Sabah and Sarawak with the remaining 20% being given to excellent students, 60% for other bumi and non-bumi students nationwide and 10% for the disabled has further clouded the issue.

With so many outstanding students being rejected, ministers representing the Barisan Nasional in the Cabinet have called for a review of the existing process. What we clearly need is a system that is transparent and does not raise questions of unfairness or discrimination.

The PSD can do this by outlining the criteria for selection based on places for courses and publish the list of successful applicants with their results based on the selection formula.