The pandemic presents a plum opportunity for extensive reforms in Malaysia’s higher education sector.
Malaysia has been in the throes of the Covid-19 crisis for more than a year now, but there is still no proper strategy for the reopening of higher education institutions (HEIs). Students are left in the dark over the government’s flip-flop decisions to open and then close universities. This is creating anxiety and uncertainty about their future.
While some students manage to learn through online classes, they lose the full potential and value of their university education. Beyond learning and teaching for knowledge dissemination, higher education should also include research for knowledge accumulation and intellectual engagement with society, but these activities are limited through online platforms. Furthermore, online learning is most damaging to hands-on courses and technical and vocational education training (TVET) disciplines because they require experiential and practical education which cannot be attained through virtual classes.
At the same time, the pandemic has accentuated the problem of the digital divide: students who lack digital access are unable to participate in online classes. The story of Veveonah Mosibin, a Sabahan university student who had to gamely climb a tree for better internet connection in June 2020, has exposed this problem. Many households suffer from low broadband penetration rates, especially in rural areas in Sabah, Kelantan, and Pahang. Together with the disparity in digital appliance ownership, this problem compounds the issue of education inequality among university students in Malaysia.
Not all is lost, however. The pandemic presents an excellent opportunity for reforms in higher education. We need to critically rethink the approaches used in the dissemination of knowledge. We need to address the challenges at hand, including widening educational inequalities. We need to re-examine the role universities play in building a knowledge society.
Arguably, higher education should have received as much critical attention as health in the national recovery plan. A June 2021 OECD report — The state of higher education: One year into the COVID-19 pandemic — has exposed the disruptions in higher education and the need for policy actions in different countries. The report offers best practices and recommendations that can be localized for Malaysia.
Firstly, before focusing on reopening, the current online learning system should be improved. Other than enhancing essential digital access, there should be adjustments to the academic calendar to allow flexible timings of classes and examinations. This also includes flexible learning options for students, such as part-time study and certified massive open online courses (MOOCS).
In the process towards recovery, HEIs should formulate long-term plans with guidelines and recommendations in preparation for in-person instruction — a plan that encompasses adaptable standards which match the level of Covid-19 transmission. The guidelines can focus on teaching and learning, daily functioning of universities, and access to and use of facilities such as the libraries, university governance, among others.
HEIs should consider expanding opportunities for lifelong learning in this new normal. There is a growing demand for re-skilling and up-skilling courses in a globalised and fast-evolving world.
This long-term plan should be decentralised through an institution-based approach which takes into consideration factors such as travel restrictions and the readiness of individual states. This approach can be in line with the state-by-state declaration of economic recovery phases. With that, HEIs need to develop their own phases and plans which are aligned with the state. HEIs within states can be on standby to proceed with physical teaching and learning based on the state of readiness.
Following on, a hybrid option of learning can be structured. This can be made available according to the types of programmes that can be offered either online or offline. In particular, the proportion of content within the programmes should be organised to suit physical and/ or distance learning capabilities.
To reduce learning gaps as a result of extended periods of institutional closures, Malaysian HEIs should provide targeted remedial measures once institutions reopen. This should include additional tutoring outside regular class hours, peer-to-peer coaching initiatives for disadvantaged students, and accelerated higher education programmes.
These measures are especially important for students who are unable to access online learning due to geographical or technological barriers or are at risk of dropping out of university. We need to ensure that no one is left behind in the pursuit of knowledge.
Finally, HEIs should consider expanding opportunities for lifelong learning in this new normal. There is a growing demand for re-skilling and up-skilling courses in a globalised and fast-evolving world. Thus, shorter learning programmes can help Malaysian workers enhance their skill sets and help them become future-proof amid rapid technological advances.
In line with the increasing global appetite for short online courses during the lockdown, HEIs should seize the opportunity to offer highly adaptive, innovative, and cost-efficient micro-credential programmes. This can be effectively carried out through collaboration and partnerships with industry players, external course providers and online learning platforms.
It is time for Malaysian HEIs to strategise and seize opportunities in the midst of the crisis. As the proverb goes, there are opportunities germane in crises. It is time the higher education sector effects reforms to push it to a higher plane.
Datuk Seri Mohamed Khaled bin Nordin is Former Minister of Higher Education Malaysia & Trustee for Bait Al-Amanah Kuala Lumpur, an independent research institution that conducts studies and research to improve policy and decision-making processes.