Higher education in the time of the coronavirus

  • Letters
  • Tuesday, 14 Apr 2020

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The first announcement of the first movement control order (MCO) on the morning of March 16 wreaked havoc on students, staff and administrators of public and private higher education institutions (HEIs). Classes were hastily rescheduled, examinations were postponed, and students scrambled to return home. Despite the chaos, there was a sense that it was all just temporary and that everything will get back to normal in a few weeks.

But as the days have gone by, HEIs are realising that “normal” will not come back anytime soon. Academicians have begun conducting online lectures and re-arranging their semester scheduling to fit the new reality. Administrators and management teams have begun building business contingency plans to ensure financial stability and continuity. Students have been putting in their best efforts to try to learn in these challenging times.

Now, nearing one month later, many have finally caught on to the seriousness of this pandemic. The latest announcement that the MCO has been extended — to April 28 — was expected and many are preparing for the order to persist until at least the middle of May. That is one week before Hari Raya, which for many HEIs mean another week of inactivity. All in all, from March 18, when the MCO came into force, to the end of Hari Raya, HEIs will miss close to two and a half months of the full educational experience.

There are critical issues that have been raised by students, academics and the management teams of HEIs that have to be resolved quickly.

Let’s Talk About The Students

From Day One, the issue most often raised in the media has been about students on campus or in hostels who cannot return to their homes. This is obviously a critical issue as apparently there are close to 80,000 students now stranded away from the care of their family. Thankfully, both institutions and Malaysians are handling it to the best of their abilities with allocations and contributions pouring in.

We still must sort out when and how they can return home. The conflicting messages from the authorities are unhelpful, and people seem to forget that this is not an impossible nor insurmountable challenge to figure out. Sooner or later, they do have to return home.

What we fail to realise is that this pandemic affects more than 1.3 million students at various stages of their higher education journey, not just the 80,000 stuck at campuses.

The primary concern for many is their academic progression. For example, we need to figure out what to do with students who are undergoing practical training or internships for their final year course requirements but cannot complete it due to the current MCO. We need to set what to do with students who couldn’t complete mandatory coursework that involves lab work or use of technology that they don’t have or cannot afford to have. These and many more concerns regarding academic progression need to be firmly dealt, with clear guidelines that provide for flexibility.

The next issue would be academic delivery and quality of teaching and learning during the MCO period. No HEI that I know of has prepared for an MCO-type occurrence, where people not only cannot enter campus but also cannot leave their homes. The bulk of education institutions are built for physical teaching and learning, from their programme structure and support facilities to their teaching capacity.

Even some of our approved online distance learning courses require face to face tutorial credit hours. We are not just talking about support for the students – who are already dispersed into many different locations, not all with strong broadband connectivity – but also support for teaching staff, many of whom rely on the institutions’ facilities for the majority of their teaching aids.

The issue here is both short-term and long-term in nature. What happens to students who cannot adapt to distance-learning mode, and then struggle with their marks for this semester? Should lecturers then be more lenient in assessment? If so, how does this impact knowledge transfer and retention?

Finally, and more worryingly, how do we deal with the inevitable spike in graduate unemployment? Bank Negara Malaysia has forecasted -2% GDP growth for 2020 with unemployment spiking to 4%, and according to some economists, even this is conservative. We recently have seen data from the Department of Statistics which indicate the economic impact of this pandemic is severe and could be long-lasting. Graduates entering the workforce between now and the early part of 2021 would struggle to get employment, what more appropriate employment, with many firms struggling to even retain their existing employees.

And What About the Institutions

As of 2018 (and the number has generally been constant since), there are 550,000 students enrolled in the 20 public HEIs we have, 96,000 in community colleges and 11,500 in polytechnics. Collectively then, around 658,000 students are studying in Federal government HEIs. Another 670,000 students are spread across 447 – yes, 447 – private HEIs, ranging from colleges to full-fledged universities.

Even prior to this crisis, Malaysia’s higher education landscape has been grappling with structural issues like the shrinking domestic market (the number of SPM students every year has been on a slight declining trend since the 2010s), flat growth in number of foreign students, rapid expansion of capacity (seats available), public institutions being asked to start generating revenue even while private institutions are seeing their revenues declining, and increased competition resulting in lowering margins for many institutions. As a result, many private institutions have seen their profits turn into losses, while public institutions struggle to expand their intake and improve their offerings.

All this will lead to massive consolidation of the private players and a relook at the sustainability of public HEIs that which draw some RM20bil every year from our national budget. Due to the pandemic, this process will accelerate, with many institutions, especially those relying on foreign student recruitment, struggling to generate enough revenue to cover costs.

While it is easy to lump all private HEIs as money-grabbing leeches, the facts are that many of the bigger ones are run by non-profit private foundations or are owned by state governments (eg: Universiti Selangor) or government-linked companies (eg: Multimedia University, Universiti Teknologi Petronas), and many more are run at losses as part of a larger conglomerate.

The potential collapse of the private higher education sector may be due, but serious consideration needs to be made about who would fulfil the demand of an annual market that is close to 700,000 strong, who would hire the 23,000 academic staff currently employed by private institutions, and the impact of losing the RM40bil plus contribution to Malaysia’s GDP that the industry generates. These are deep-lying issues that are long-term in nature but the current crisis has accelerated the discussion, with some institutions struggling as we speak to see themselves through the MCO period.

What We Can Do

Even as you read this, the policymakers are gathering feedback from students, academia and institutions. Perhaps they are considering the same issues that has been laid down above and having deep discussions to resolve them, with many more operational issues not considered in this piece. But for the purpose of discussion, how would one treat these issues?

The first is to take the next two weeks as an opportunity for the Higher Education and Health Ministries to work together on the SOP for a safe and efficient transfer of the 80,000 students stranded on campus back to their hometowns. A comprehensive plan including approved transporters, time of travel and route must be accompanied with clear regulations, guidelines and communication to students and parents.

Next, we have seen some suggestions for all HEIs to be given greater flexibility in completing their academic calendar with scheduling and credit hour limitations removed, at least until the end of 2020. This would at least alleviate the concerns of academic progression by allowing for variations to the length of an academic semester.

It is also recommended that the various teaching institutions and subject matter experts on pedagogy quickly convene and propose a comprehensive recommendation for content delivery and examinations. These would follow the best practices that could be practically applied in the Malaysian setting. Technical recommendations (spec sheets) can then be contrasted with current institutional capacity and the ministry can offer free universal access to recommended platforms for use by all institutions and students.

Meanwhile, the Higher Education Ministry may already have updated corporate information on all the institutions. There is an urgent need to measure the sustainability and viability of these institutions in the next six months with a stress test conducted on the balance sheets. Pursuant to that, a plan must be made for a rescue package for institutions with just a cash-flow mismatch situation and a plan to transfer students to other institutions in the event of any closures.

On the issue of graduate unemployment, the government could consider a jobs guarantee programme for the first year after graduation where fresh graduates are given the opportunity to work on specific projects for the government. Some idea for the projects includes tutorial programmes for underprivileged children, government IT transformation plans, large-scale infrastructure work, and local government improvement initiatives.

These and many more ideas are out there. What is needed now is a clear understanding of all the issues in the short, medium and long-term perspective on the X-axis and how critical they are on the Y-axis. There is every reason to believe that we can overcome these challenges if we prioritise the main stakeholders in all of this – the 1.3 million students, 65,000 academics and thousands more support staff in close to 500 HEIs throughout this country.


Shah Alam

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