Asian universities offer lessons to West in Covid response

Experts stress quick, consistent and centralised approaches, plus extra support for students and IT systems, during webinar

September 17, 2020
Source: iStock

Universities in east and Southeast Asia could offer useful coronavirus models for Western institutions, which are months behind in battling with campus shutdowns.

Experts from China, Japan and Malaysia offered their advice at a 17 September webinar, hosted by the UK-based Centre for Global Higher Education (CGHE). They stressed tight collaboration between governments, higher education institutions and the public in battling the disease, as well as the need for state financial backing and technological support.

“For the most part, the east and Southeast Asian approach to higher education has been centrally regulated, with whole-system shutdown, regulation and reopening, and clear demarcation of periods of offline-only provision from phases of mixed and online provision,” the CGHE wrote.

Norzaini Azman, professor of higher education at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM), said institutions in her country initially faced a tough challenge.

“Many universities did not have proper disaster protocols earlier, and some needed a lot of funding, either for hygiene arrangements or for online learning,” she said. “Many HEIs had trouble with IT infrastructure.”

Still, institutions moved quickly to control what was then an unknown coronavirus from China. Even when there were only a handful of cases in the country, universities imposed a 14-day quarantine on international students, blocked all but essential travel by academic staff and banned mass gatherings.

Initially, the government was hesitant about shifting classes online because of concerns about equal digital access, but it quickly caught up. Extra support for students to acquire online subscriptions, broadband access and devices turned out to be invaluable.

By June, Malaysian universities had entered “a new normal”. Currently, learning is conducted online, except for postgraduate researchers, final-year students requiring clinical or laboratory access and students who lack digital access or have other special needs. Campuses are set to reopen in October in stages.

The Southeast Asian nation of more than 30 million has had fewer than 150 Covid-19 deaths.

When asked what institutions should have done differently, if they had the knowledge they do now, Professor Azman said they should have gathered more data on students’ digital access and needs, and taken policies on online and blended learning more seriously.

Akiyoshi Yonezawa, vice-director of the International Strategy Office at Tohoku University, said Japan took a relatively “softer” approach to Covid-19 compared with other east Asian states, as the country tried to balance “human lives and the economy”. Still, the nation of 126 million has had fewer than 1,500 Covid-19 deaths.

He felt that Japan did well in “using universities for the public good” and offering “expert contributions to policy responses”.

Japanese institutions also provided online options, not only for teaching and learning, but also for job hunting help for new graduates. According to Professor Yonezawa, 92 per cent of final-year students had online job interviews, while more than 80 per cent had internships or job seminars either online or on a hybrid model.

However, he admitted that Japan’s treatment of international students, who are largely blocked from entering, was a “fundamental problem”.

Shen Wenqin, associate professor at Peking University’s Graduate School of Education, said China’s quick switch to online learning resulted in the provision of far more digital resources that could be shared between institutions and with the public.

Some webinars by prestigious universities drew up to 3 million public viewers, thereby having a “big impact on society”, he said. Meanwhile, top schools such as Tsinghua University provided free access to other institutions, so students from two different universities could attend the same classes at the same time.

He called the online shift the “largest and longest experiment” in national education the country had seen, labelling it a “revolution that changed perceptions of online learning” among Chinese teachers, most of whom had never taught online before this year.

China, the original epicentre of Covid-19, had a sudden spike of more than 80,000 cases in early 2020, but it tapered off quickly because of very strict lockdowns.

Professor Shen also said the crisis made the sector “rethink the role of the university for the public good” – whether that was creating digital materials for less privileged students or providing medical aid in emergency areas.

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