The Covid pandemic precipitated a huge national crisis that all but brought our education system, including our universities, to its knees.
This crisis was not caused by the Covid virus. But the virus certainly exposed the hitherto existing severe faultlines and vulnerabilities of a broken public university system. Most, if not all, decisions and actions by the Ministry of Higher Education (MoHE) and by university management did little to address or alleviate the crisis.
Decisions were ad-hoc, confused and inconsistent, often without any considered rationale. Classes were suspended, restarted and suspended again. Teaching was disrupted and put online. But lecturers were surprisingly unprepared for online teaching.
Online facilities were substandard and did not meet the technical requirements of delivering regular quality lessons. Not all students, especially those living in rural areas, had access to seamless internet connectivity.
And yet students were forced to follow online classes with little access to online library resources. Students were often left bewildered and treated like footballs.
Despite this, they were required to pay full fees at a time when their studies were being severely disrupted.
Only in July 2021 – a full 16 months since the start of the movement control order in March 2020 – did the MoHE decide to reduce university fees by about 35%.
Unsurprisingly, students have been under severe stress. Two Universiti Teknologi Mara students resorted to suicide when they were unable to balance their workload demands with the severe and prolonged mental stress of isolation and loneliness. This tragedy only exposed the serious shortcomings of the MoHE and university authorities.
The World Health Organization (WHO) does not think that this pandemic is going to end soon. Consequently, there is a serious need for the MoHE to come up with viable during-pandemic and post-pandemic plans to restart classes and instruction to ensure that our university students receive the education they deserve and which our nation needs.
Although a major crisis, this Covid pandemic presents Malaysia and its government with an opportunity to reform our clearly out-of-touch university system that has long been accused of not meeting the needs of both industry and society.
Instead, it has been said that university education is currently largely designed to meet political agendas and the questionable requirements of the Malaysian Qualifications Agency and the National Higher Education Fund Corporation (PTPTN) on the one hand, and, on the other, the various equally questionable university and publication ranking systems forced upon academics to ensure ‘quality’.
Gerak and the end goal
The Malaysian academics movement, Gerak, desires a progressive university education system that meets the core needs of society and individuals in the 21st Century. This can be achieved by improving the capacity of public universities and other tertiary institutions to produce quality graduates of all disciplines with cognitive abilities, creative talents, vocational skills and social awareness.
Our proposal is divided into two parts: one that is long term and another that requires immediate action.
Here, we focus on the latter. Our longer, long-term proposals are discussed in a separate statement.
Gerak’s proposed short-term measures
The core business of most public universities is that of instructing undergraduates and graduates, undertaking research and producing publications.
Thus, the first order of business is the structuring of health and safety measures that would allow all students and staff to return to campuses and to resume their studies, and to live safely and with as little mental stress as possible while doing so.
To this end, the MoHE needs to ensure that all universities undertake the following baic minimum measures before announcing dates of resumption of classes:
- Provide full publicly funded vaccination of all academic, administrative and support staff on campus
- Provide full publicly funded vaccination of all registered university/tertiary-level students
- Set up active and efficient Covid test-and-trace systems in all campuses
- Provide proper and efficient information and communications technology support for students and staff. This would include hardware, software, and internet support
- Prepare standard operating procedures for in-class lectures or tutorials, libraries, study rooms, hostel life, food courts, sports facilities, and other campus activities
- Provide the option for students to defer a semester or year
- Allow a choice of both in-class and virtual attendance at lectures or tutorials
- Set up a lecture and resource database through the university server or cloud services that allows students to access lectures, assignments and learning resources at their convenience
- Prepare standard operating procedures for revised methods of assessment to replace in-person exams
- Set up in-campus quarantine hostels for students to allow them to follow classes using university facilities in case they contract Covid
- Provide competent and accessible mental health services for students and staff through in-campus and online consultatations
- Set up a Covid fund to assist students and staff with Covid-related emergencies
- Prepare transparent disclosure and mitigation measures of Covid cases on campus
In addition, and specifically for private sector universities and university colleges, the MoHE, at a minimum, needs to undertake the following:
- Provide already registered students from the middle 40% and bottom 40% economic cohorts with a tuition fee subsidy until they complete their studies
- Grant income tax exemption for private colleges engaged in genuine educational efforts (ie not the political crony fly-by-night institutions) and link those tax exemptions to the number of merit-based scholarships granted to registered students
- Impose a ceiling cap on tuition fees for all courses in private sector universities and university colleges for the next three years
- Grant income tax incentives to all private sector universities and university colleges to upgrade their educational technology and staff wages and welfare
- Facilitate fee waivers and seamless visa applications for all foreign students desirous of studying in Malaysia
- Transfer students from dubious private higher education institutions to public vocational colleges