THE government’s highest budget allocation of over RM50bil to the Education Ministry, and RM14.4bil to the Higher Education Ministry is a commendable nod to the importance of education for Malaysia’s future development.
We must acknowledge that 2020 has taken its toll on all educators, students and institutions, as many continue to grapple with quality access to education in light of technological and financial limitations.
The decision to pushback the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM), Sijil Tinggi Persekolahan Malaysia (STPM) and other national examinations emphasises the urgency to move schools and institutions towards digital transformation.
Without sufficient platforms, devices and support for teachers and students who are moving fully online for the first time, delays in student learning journeys – such as the postponement of these examinations – have put the majority of Malaysian students at a disadvantage.
This also creates significant impact on higher learning institutions which may lose more than six months’ of new intakes in 2021, on top of the strains they already faced this year.
In the longer term, these delays may affect the country’s competitiveness and talent pipelines as businesses rebound and strategise for growth post Covid-19.
Having served in both financial and operational roles within the education industry, these realities are very close to my heart and are a cause for real concern to the education sector’s long term sustainability, especially among private learning institutions.
While the assumption is that tuition fees can cover the financial commitments for these institutions, the decrease in student numbers and added commitments to meet the “new normal” in education may push many institutions into the red within the next year.
To deliver good quality, innovative learning amid today’s pandemic-challenged and IR4.0 world, we cannot ignore the commitments and investment needed for secure digital infrastructures and fair access to devices and networks, and the retraining of educators who now fully serve within digital spaces.
Private institutions, which did not embark on digital transformation pre-pandemic are already facing financial challenges in the delivery of today’s requirements.
For example, the establishment and maintainance of education platforms and networks must not only be user-friendly, but regularly updated with the highest levels of online security.
Comprehensive, and now necessary, online platforms are not just about having a good learning management system.
These platforms also require digital structures that provide alternative assessments, repositories of information, online enrolments, administrative functions, analytics and collaborations that are preferably not hosted by an external third party.
While seeming exorbitant, the reality is that until Covid-19 vaccines are available for every individual worldwide, we will continue to require at least a hybrid form of teaching and learning to maintain the high level of safeguards for our students, educators and wider communities.
Investing in these software packages as services requires a sizeable annual budget commitment, which includes additional costs such as withholding tax.
This is often borne by the institution – on top of the cost of the services and other statutory payments they have to pay. Access to devices is equally as important.
While the laptop allocation for 150,000 school students under the Cerdik fund is a lauded response to a critical challenge faced by most households, no such consideration has been made for students entering higher education.
Assuming that students entering private higher education will already be equipped for the rigors of online learning is a far cry from reality.
Especially with unemployment reaching the all-time high of 5.3% in Malaysia this year, and impacting many M40 households – the main income group for local private institutions.
Likewise, we cannot assume that private educators are perfectly set up for digital education.
While many have skyrocketed their skills and knowledge of various online tools such as Google Classroom, Genia.ly and Zoom this year, training educators in technologies and shifting them away from just recording lectures to curating engaging and meaningful content is now more important than ever.
Engaging without physically seeing students, reinventing assessments in lieu of traditional examinations, keeping collaborations going while ensuring privacy and security are prioritised, and even being alert to the emotional and mental stressors that students are facing are now part of what educators need to be trained to do.
All this while working behind a laptop miles away, and simultaneously managing their own children and households.
Although strong steps have been made towards IR4.0 with RM42mil being allocated for the National Digital Network and RM1bil being issued to the Industry Digitalisation Transformation Fund, it’s necessary to realise that beyond the ICT industry, there is a dire need for digital transformation in other sectors as well.
A dedicated government budget allocation for investing in technologies and retraining educators would significantly ease the commitments of private learning institutions as they reinvent their daily teaching and learning activities online.
With private higher institutions supporting close to 600,000 Malaysian students in 2019, it is hoped that in the coming months, there will be more opportunities for discourse among these institutions, regulators and agencies on these and other pressing matters
impacting the private education sector.
Through collaborating together and learning from one another, new opportunities may arise that will create equitable opportunities for students from all backgrounds and institutions.
Tan Lin Nah is the chief executive officer of INTI International University & Colleges. A Fellow of the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants with over 20 years of experience, Tan is passionate about reinventing education for IR4.0. The views expressed here are the writer’s own.