THE Covid-19 pandemic has taken a toll on the global education sector - and Malaysia is no exception.
To add salt to the wound, foreign students enrolled in private universities only returned to the country on Jan 1, almost half a year after the lockdown was first announced.And it has been one obstacle after the other for these students.
In a recent qualitative research conducted by Universiti Malaya (UM) and Xiamen University Malaysia, the authors examined the adverse effects of the pandemic on international students in Malaysian public and private universities.The research, titled “The impact of Covid-19 pandemic on international students’ experiences in Malaysia”, states that foreign students have major concerns as a result of academic, administrative, social, financial, and emotional challenges they have been facing due to the pandemic.
UM Faculty of Languages and Linguistics deputy dean (postgraduate studies) Dr Sheena Kaur, who was also the research head, and her colleague senior lecturer Dr Ali Jalalian Daghigh, as well as Xiamen University Malaysia assistant professor Dr Prasana Rosaline Fernandez, authored the research which was funded by UM Covid-19 Related Special Research Grant.
Focus group interviews among 28 students, seven administrative and five academic staff were conducted online for the research, from October 2020 to January 2021.Out of the 28 students, 19 were undergraduates and nine were postgraduate students.
“The research suggests specific plans to improve the quality of online instruction based on students’ feedback and their adaptability. “These findings can provide stakeholders with insights to better understand and address the challenges that international students face in Malaysia.
“Moreover, by drawing on foreign students’ experience of the Covid-19 crisis and its challenges, they will be able to tackle probable future crises (whether short-term or long-term) and empower the overall positive learning experience of these students.
“This is especially important in sustaining the long-term goals of the Malaysian higher education industry in attracting international students, ” Sheena told StarEdu.
Their research addresses the core challenges and provides possible solutions, Ali Jalalian said, (see problems and recommendations) to the deteriorating impacts of the pandemic on higher education in Malaysia. Further studies can be conducted by involving higher-rank stakeholders, including relevant agencies and ministries.
Prasana Rosaline said some of the difficulties the foreign students faced include being locked inside their campuses because of the lockdown.“They were bored eating the same food and being in the same environment.
“Some of them found sitting in front of the laptop boring as they missed the interactions during teaching and learning, ” she added.
She said that there were, however, some positives that came out of this for the foreign students – their lecturers could in fact monitor their understanding of the topics taught.During online lessons, she said lecturers were reported to have more control over their classes and they could answer their students questions immediately.National Association of Private Educational Institutions (Napei) president Assoc Prof Elajsolan Mohan said the recommendations are not unrealistic and that most universities will be able to implement them.
The delay in getting their visas renewed amid the pandemic, for example, is one of the biggest challenges foreign students face, according to the research.
Elajsolan said higher education institutions (HEIs) must be sensitive to the needs of their international students and be student-centric in providing such services.
“We are constantly going through new guidelines and procedures issued by the Immigration Department from time to time, and we find ourselves adjusting and keeping up with these changes as procedures get altered by the week.
“Therefore, it is vital for the visa units in universities to be accessible to assist the students in time of need, such as when a student is stranded at the airport due to immigration matters, ” he said. He, however, acknowledged that the cost of implementing these recommendations is a factor of concern.“These recommendations are good but there are costs attached to their operations. Colleges that have (smaller funds) would have difficulty unless the government allocates special funds.
“Under normal circumstances, there would be no problem, but in the current situation, most of them are grappling with financial sustainability issues and are hardly able to keep their heads above water. Some have even closed down, ” he added.
To better manage Covid-19 challenges faced by international students, Education Malaysia Global Services (EMGS) has developed a comprehensive website with travel information for HEIs and students intending to study here.
“EMGS circulates the latest guidelines and bulletins through the Student Application and Registration System (STARS) which all registered HEIs have an account with.“We have also deployed a team from the International Students Arrival Centre, which is a unit based in KLIA, to work with the National Disaster Management Agency of Malaysia at the main entry points to assist and facilitate HEIs and students in the process of checking in and out of Malaysia, ” EMGS chief executive officer Mohd Radzlan Jalaludin said, adding that new students who arrive will be given assistance to ensure that their entry into the country is in accordance with all the necessary procedures.
According to Higher Education Minister Datuk Seri Dr Noraini Ahmad, the pandemic has affected over two million students in 20 public HEIs, 435 private HEIs, 36 polytechnics and 104 community colleges.
“The main challenge is to ensure all HEI students are able to study well no matter where they are.
“The most effective method to ensure the continuity of education and maintaining students’ access to learning is through online platforms, ” she said during the launch of the higher education electronic resource consortium on April 1.
The ministry must ensure that all students have equal access to education, she added.
“Problems of Internet access, unaffordable data plans, unconducive environments and device ownership issues such as laptops, smartphones and tablets become a hindrance to online teaching and learning activities.“Several initiatives are underway to address these existing constraints. We are planning to upgrade the Malaysian Research and Education Network (Myren) from 500Mbps to 20 Gbps for public HEIs in the 12th Malaysia plan, ” she said, adding that these would enable students to obtain materials through online library services either from their campuses or from home.