Malaysia’s U-turn on reopening campuses leaves students in lurch

Widespread anger over cancelled registrations could have been avoided with better management, expert says

October 8, 2020
Source: iStock

Malaysia’s about-face on Covid measures left university students in the lurch as institutions were given one day’s notice to shift courses and registration online. Many classes were already being conducted virtually, but that was not the case for course registration, which is required of both new and continuing students.

The Ministry of Higher Education’s announcement on the day that campuses were supposed to reopen fully caught universities off guard and sparked public anger. Many families had paid for flights, purchased bus tickets and even booked hotel rooms for students to travel across the vast country for the start of courses. The nation has more than 500,000 university students.

The crackdown has also affected international student flows. On 4 October, the immigration authorities told all foreign students to delay their travels until 31 December. Even those who already had approval to travel were blocked after 8 October.

Elajsolan Mohan, president of the National Association of Private Educational Institutions, said it was unfair to halt the entry of international students with such little notice.

“This sudden announcement will give Malaysia a bad image, subsequently affecting our status as an educational hub and our economy,” he told The Star.

Many domestic students learned that intakes were closed only while on their way to campus. Some were physically stranded en route, others were turned back from campuses, and yet others found themselves without the funds to make an unexpected return trip home, causing student associations to request aid from the ministry.

In other situations, universities prevented newly arrived freshers from leaving campuses, keeping them in their dormitories with food deliveries and Sim cards for accessing online classes.

Sharifah Munirah Alatas, a lecturer in strategic studies and international relations at the National University of Malaysia, or Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM), told Times Higher Education that the poor decision-making was rooted in systemic problems.

The country’s two education ministries have been in a state of flux for years.

“Universities have been too long under the yoke of the ministry. It is time that the relationship between the university [sector] and the ministry be reset to reflect more autonomy,” Dr Alatas said. “As it is now, the relationship is too hierarchical, almost one of political subordination.

“Top university management has to speak more independently, so that university leadership can also be transformed to empower the faculties, institutes, academics and students.

“Why didn’t the Ministry of Higher Education also chart [Covid] events and monitor the situation?” she asked. “The public sees this as basic lack of efficiency.”

Dr Alatas said the public backlash was linked to larger discontent.

“The public has been progressively frustrated, over decades, with the continued decline in our nation’s quality of education,” she said. “Education is a long-term investment, both in terms of finances and time. Parents and students want the system to run efficiently. They are hoping their degree will help chart the course of their life after graduation.”

Noraini Ahmad, who has been higher education minister since March, apologised after grievances went viral online but declared that it was up to institutions to manage the registration fallout. To their credit, many have set up online registration in the past few days.

Malaysian universities have been held up as a positive example of how to move classes online and enact safe campus practices efficiently. The country of 31 million people has been lauded for keeping the number of Covid infections below 14,000 and deaths under 150. However, a spike this month has resulted in closures across all levels of education.

Dr Alatas stressed that moving into digital teaching and management was a worldwide problem. “The transition is not an easy one, and universities all over the world experienced elements of chaos and disarray,” she said.

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