THE National Security Council and Higher Education Ministry decision to allow students to return to campus from Jan 1 is much welcomed.
While higher education institutions have worked hard to deliver quality education solely through online platforms, it is all too clear that hybrid methods remain best, especially taking into consideration the need for practical lessons, labs and other hands on training sessions that are integral to the learning experience.
Allowing international students back on campuses ahead of their local counterparts is commendable as the former have experienced greater challenges in keeping up with online learning.
With many of them learning in different time zones, experiencing slow Internet connections, and facing security measures that may be different to what Malaysians experience, opening the doors to international students improves their learning experiences, and also sets the stage for the country’s continuing aim of being a regional, if not global choice, for safe and exceptional education.
However, while higher education institutions gear to welcome back students, there are concerns that faculty and campus administrators will need to quickly take into consideration.
Chief among these is the need to juggle face-to-face and online lessons until local students return in March.
This creates significant pressure to have facilities and infrastructures that can support faculties to double hat, manage possible repetition of lessons, and work to curate assessments and even final examinations that are suitable for both local and international groups in these first three months.
Additionally, campuses with live-in facilities or hostels will now need to quickly turn over not only learning facilities but living facilities to prepare for the arrival of these students.
Ensuring guidelines for the use of amenities, the availability of vendors on campus – particularly food and beverage operators, and having emergency service teams available are just some of the quick changes that must be made while implementing sanitisation and social distancing guidelines.
To manage these requirements, faculty and administrators will need to quickly come together to determine timetables, faculty load management and the organisation and re-opening of previously unused facilities to prepare for the return of students.
While initial returning numbers may be small, considerations should be made to stagger the number of students on campus at any given time, as well as the frequency of students returning to campus.
This not only minimises potential exposure from the use of public transportation, but it also creates a more manageable teaching environment for lecturers whose safety is equally as important.
Contact tracing, temperature monitoring and visitor control will also need to be brought up to speed as baseline security measures.
Handling larger groups re-entering campuses in March and providing emergency responses will require operations leaders and security personnel to re-evaluate their internal measures, in order to effectively and calmly respond to issues amid the continuing sense of high alert.
Additionally, increased, scheduled cleaning efforts must be ongoing even before students are allowed back to campus, and administrators should put in place a means to monitor these efforts, especially where third party vendors are engaged.
This is to ensure the highest levels of hygiene possible in classrooms, restrooms and public spaces within the campus.
Stocking up and making hand sanitisers readily available throughout the campus will also be a part of standard operating procedures (SOP) prior to students returning.
Beyond these physical efforts, gearing up to welcome students back to campus will also require administrators to ensure emotional and mental well-being is prioritised.
With high numbers of new cases still being reported daily, there will be a sense of anxiety at all levels.
Students, parents, educators, support staff will be worried about how they can keep themselves safe.
Maintaining regular communications and offering clear guidance before teams and students return to campus, planning and ensuring a clearly defined SOP is put in place ahead of time, is a priority.
A dry run of how the initial days will pan out can provide a sense of assurance not only for students and their families, but also for staff returning to campus.
There can be no ambiguity in operations. Leaders at all levels and departments must have a clear and aligned view of how to manage day to day functions, as well as the emotional well-being of their teams.
Lecturers’ welfare and support will be especially crucial as they continue to serve at the frontlines of student development and security.
As we re-open our doors, the journey to improve capabilities in online teaching and learning will ensure learning continuity.
Educators must continue to innovate and see how best to engage and support students through technology and remote learning while ensuring they are not overwhelmed with managing the international students who will be returning this month and the local students who will be back in March.
Now is the time for the higher education sector to shake off the stupor of the last 12 months, and renew its pledge of empowering the next generation of game changers who are living through the greatest crisis of our time and have experienced learning in a completely different manner than their predecessors.
How we adapt and rebuild will be the turning point of Malaysia’s higher education.
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.
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