Breathing life back into higher education


Noraini: The reopening of varsities will only involve fully vaccinated students, and academic and non-academic staff.

CAMPUSES across the country are set to reopen in stages next month.

While Oct 15 will be a busy day for many, the Higher Education Ministry has assured that the safety of students and staff is their top priority.

Higher Education Minister Datuk Seri Dr Noraini Ahmad has announced several initiatives under the updated and tighter standard operating procedures (SOPs) that would ensure the welfare of everyone within the ecosystem.

These include free RT-PCR swab tests at government clinics for students entering Sabah, Sarawak and Labuan and a 20% fee reduction worth RM175mil to benefit 555,340 public higher education institution (HEI) students for Semester One of the 2021/2022 academic session.

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Noraini has also encouraged HEIs to provide self-test kits for students when they return; additionally, they must have isolation rooms for those exhibiting Covid-19 symptoms or confirmed positive cases.

“Most of the 1.2 million students in HEIs nationwide have undergone online teaching and learning (PdP) for more than three consecutive semesters.

“This has been a big challenge for all those involved in the ecosystem, especially in terms of their psychology and mental resilience in undergoing the educational process.

“As such, to ensure the sustainability of the quality of the country’s higher education, while placing the safety and welfare of students as a priority, the ministry will implement students’ physical return for lessons on campus in stages, as approved by the National Security Council,” she said on Sept 14 during the announcement of the SOPs for HEIs.

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As part of the ministry’s KPT Prihatin initiative and in line with the “Keluarga Malaysia” (Malaysia Family) concept, she said mental health-related programmes and counselling services such as tele-counselling and personal mental health management will be provided.

The reopening of varsities, she stressed, will only involve fully vaccinated students, and academic and non-academic staff.

To ensure their return runs smoothly, Noraini said the ministry is working with the Covid-19 Immunisation Taskforce (CITF) to speed up the vaccine rates for the campus fraternity before HEIs open their gates next month.

This initiative is done through the VACC2Campus programme.

The ministry, she said, projects that 100% of HEI staff and students who are eligible to be vaccinated and are registered with the MySejahtera app will receive both doses of the vaccines by the end of October.

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At the moment, Noraini said 66% of students and 90% of HEI academic and non-academic staff are fully vaccinated.

“Therefore, I call on all HEI students and staff who have yet to be vaccinated to do so immediately.

“They can walk in to any vaccination centres to be vaccinated.

“They only need to show their student or staff card and their MyKad, while new students who are still waiting for an appointment on their MySejahtera app will need to present their MyKad or passport together with their offer letter,” she said.

She has also urged HEIs to make careful planning by identifying students, determining their travel schedules and ensuring the campus fraternity goes through a rigorous health screening process.Students’ movements between states have been carefully divided into two categories, she said.

Those returning to campuses in Peninsula Malaysia only require a permission letter from their HEIs while students entering Sabah, Sarawak and Labuan are subject to the SOPs enforced by the respective state governments.

The latter must obtain a permission letter to cross states from the Royal Malaysian Police and must undergo the RT-PCR swab test, Noraini said.

The test can be done for free at government health clinics for students.

Where their PdP is concerned, Noraini said lessons will be conducted via a hybrid mode, and for courses or programmes conducted online, students can choose to learn online in their respective localities.

Varsities also have the option to conduct lessons completely online, she added.

“Activities involving laboratories, workshops, studios and research (on campus) can be carried out in groups, guided by the established SOPs,” she added (for the detailed SOPs, see infographics).

Malaysian Association of Private Colleges and Universities (MAPCU) president Datuk Dr Parmjit Singh said Noraini had engaged actively with, and sought the views of, the higher education sector on the reopening of campuses.

“The measures announced are prudent as the number of daily infections is still relatively high.

“We fully support the requirement that only those who have been fully vaccinated and have fulfilled the 14- or 28-day post-jab period are allowed to enter campuses.

“This will ensure that our campuses continue to be safe ‘bubbles’ for all.

“For the same reason, we also support the suggestion that students return to campuses in stages,” he told StarEdu.

Parmjit, who is also the Asia Pacific University of Technology & Innovation chief executive officer, said most institutions are prepared to conduct lessons in a hybrid mode, which is likely to continue until next year.

Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia deputy vice-chancellor (Student Affairs) Prof Datuk Dr Othman Karim said while the university wants its academic activities to return to full operation, it takes the current Covid-19 situation into cognisance.

“As such, the SOPs outlined by the minister are the best measure. We will identify which courses require students to be present on campus and likewise, which ones can still be done completely online.

“We will then make the necessary travel arrangements for the students who need to be on campus,” he said.

As for providing self-test kits for students, Prof Othman said the universities’ management will discuss the matter.

Universiti Malaya (UM) vice-chancellor Prof Datuk Dr Mohd Hamdi Abd Shukor said 80% of students who live in the varsity’s residential colleges will return to campus physically for the 2021/22 academic session.

“UM has prepared a special SOP for students’ re-entry to our campus, based on the operating procedures announced by the minister and on UM’s capacity and readiness,” he said in a statement on Sept 15, adding that in strictly implementing the SOP, UM will not ignore student welfare and is identifying assistance that can be extended to facilitate the process of their return.

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