National recovery plan critical for higher education


RECENTLY, the Higher Education Ministry announced that a study would be conducted to review the effectiveness of its Home-based Teaching and Learning programme (PdPR). While this is a laudable effort, it is most surprising that the study is only being conducted after more than a year of delivering education through online learning as a result of movement restrictions during the Covid-19 pandemic.

This demonstrates that policymakers seem to have no sense of urgency in addressing the disruptions caused by the pandemic on the education landscape. Time and again, flip-flop decisions on the opening and closing of schools and higher education institutions (HEI) have left both students and parents anxious, disappointed and frustrated.

Minimal progress is also seen on programmes to increase access to digital devices for online learning, such as the financial loan initiative under the BSN MyRinggit-i COMSIS Scheme for the purchase of laptops by HEI students.

As Malaysia embarks on its economic recovery, a plan of action must also be drawn up to restore the higher education sector. In fact, this pandemic is an opportunity for us to press the reset button on our higher education strategies.

A new policy paper titled "Building Resilience in Malaysian Higher Education" authored by Fariq Sazuki, Benedict Weerasena, Abel Benjamin Lim (economists at Bait Al Amanah) and Dr Abdul Razak Ahmad (founding director of Bait Al Amanah) highlights the need to accelerate the digital revolution to transform HEIs.

This unprecedented pandemic has forced HEIs to make a drastic transition into online learning. Malaysia, like many other countries, was not fully prepared for the online learning approach. And even after one year, there is still more room for improvement to fully digitise resources, stabilise Internet connectivity and develop a comprehensive online learning platform.

Furthermore, overcoming the challenges of the current online learning system involves not only the provision of the necessary digital tools but also allowing flexibility in the academic calendar and assessment policies.

In the long term, it is highly important to revive new strategies to boost Malaysia’s attractiveness as an international education hub. This involves drawing up favourable policies such as flexibility in admission regulations, credit transfers and extension of study visas for international students.

More importantly, reform in immigration policies is critical to retain the best talents for productive economic growth, especially in sectors with a shortage of skilled human capital. With a substantial number of post-graduate students from Asean and developing countries to draw upon, Malaysia stands to gain from the contribution of the best brains of the Global South.

The recovery plan for higher education must also encompass medium- to long-term strategies moving forward in the new normal. This recovery plan should advocate for greater autonomy for leaders of HEIs to decide the best approach and timing to reopen their respective institutions. This decision should be based on the restrictions affecting student travel, the Covid-19 positivity rate in their locations, and their readiness, among others.

With their wealth of knowledge and scientific research, HEIs should explore their true potential in the post-pandemic world.

They should capitalise on the increasing demand for upskilling and reskilling of the country's workforce by offering innovative and highly adaptive short online academic courses.

It is also time for HEIs across Malaysia to play a stronger role in promoting lifelong learning instead of just the traditional mindset of once-and-done learning.

An exciting future awaits HEIs.

FARIQ SAZUKI, BENEDICT WEERASENA and ABEL BENJAMIN LIM

Bait Al Amanah (House of Trust)

Kuala Lumpur

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