COVID-19 is arguably one of the most disruptive pandemics in recent years to afflict our societies in general, and to higher education in particular. Due to the urgent need to contain this highly contagious virus, unprecedented public health interventions have been undertaken in varying degrees around the world. Global travel has come to a standstill, and billions of people have been asked to stay at home. This has resulted in sudden and massive disruptions to daily life and socioeconomic activities.
Background in Malaysia
Malaysia, alongside its neighbours Singapore and Thailand, were among the first few countries to report incidents of COVID-19 outside of China. To date, there have been two waves of COVID-19 cases in Malaysia. The first wave was between mid-January and mid-February, when 22 cases were reported – all individuals arriving from China. The second wave that began end of February, was monumental and saw a rapid increase in active cases of community transmission. The rapid rise in active cases led the Malaysian government to order a Movement Control Order (MCO) beginning 18 March 2020.
Yet even before the MCO and while the situation of COVID-19 was escalating, a major disruption from the political arena was happening concurrently. Over the fourth weekend of February, some Members of Parliament, including ministers in the Cabinet, defected from the ruling coalition, and this led to the resignation of the Prime Minister (PM). The country was in political turmoil for a week until the new PM, who is from the same political party as the previous one but is now aligned with the alternative coalition, was appointed on leap day.
Given that the Malaysian higher education system is highly centralised with strong control from the government, the re-emergence of a Ministry of Higher Education (which was part of the Ministry of Education in the previous Cabinet) with a new Minister of Higher Education at the helm, is a major change and disruption in itself. Yet, the COVID-19 and MCO have overshadowed this major disruption in higher education. But it is crucial to take this political change into account when looking at the current state of higher education in Malaysia.
Malaysia’s Movement Control Order (MCO) was enforced on 18 March 2020, with closure of education institutions and all government and private premises except those involved in essential services. Beginning 4 May 2020, Malaysia eased into a “conditional MCO” allowing the majority of economic sectors to resume their operations. Schools however remain shut and large social gatherings are still banned. The country’s borders also remain shut to tourists.
Higher Education and The Movement Control Order (MCO)
While the MCO is a major disruption to higher education as all universities and higher education institutions have been ordered to close with immediate effect, prior to the MCO, the readiness of Malaysian universities — both public and private — had already been put to the test. When the COVID-19 situation was at its peak in China, in late January and early February, the period coincided with the beginning of a new semester in most higher education institutions in Malaysia. This was when new international students were arriving and current international students were returning from their holidays, especially those from China. Various universities had to develop standard operating procedures to screen and quarantine students and staff who had travelled back from the affected places. The various measures can be seen as successful given that no new case was reported among students and staff in universities during the first wave.
The MCO announcement on the evening of 16 March, mandated that universities and schools would be closed beginning 18 March. The Department of Higher Education then issued a circular that ordered all teaching and learning activities, which strangely also included online activities, to cease with immediate effect. Consequently, some universities instructed their students to vacate their hostel rooms on campus and return to their respective homes. This caused a frenzied gathering of students at bus stations and airports within hours, and everyone seemed to forget the essential need of social distancing to contain COVID-19. To make matters worse, the government, for several hours on 17 March before the beginning of the MCO, also ordered that movements across states would require cross-border permits from the police. Instantly, police stations near major transportation hubs also became pre-MCO gathering venues. Readiness of many universities and the government in dealing with students at this critical juncture was way below par.
Adaptations in Teaching and Learning
In terms of teaching and learning, a new circular was issued on Day 1 of the MCO that allowed teaching and learning activities to resume, provided that the MCO was adhered to. Universities were required to assess their readiness as well as their students’, before online teaching and learning could resume. The Department of Higher Education seemed to have learned from its mistake of ‘instructing’ universities: on the subsequent matter of what to do with the rest of the semester, a guideline was issued with key issues highlighted for universities to consider in making their own decisions.
There has been a variety of approaches taken by universities to adapt to the current MCO. There is one public university which decided to go ahead with the semester by rearranging the semester timetable and shifting all teaching and learning activities online, with the plan to have final examinations once the MCO is lifted. The rationale behind this plan is to ensure their graduates will join the labour market without delay, despite the fact that an informal survey revealed that at least a tenth of students have no Internet access. Conversely, another public university postponed the entire semester to June, provided the MCO is lifted by then. The decision was taken after consultation with its student body and staff, in view of the fact that most of them are not prepared to switch to online learning. Other universities have taken varying approaches along a continuum of the two cases illustrated here.
While not all universities are ready or have the capacity and infrastructure to convert to online learning, the mass exodus of students on 17 March means that many of them are currently away from the campus. Access to the Internet throughout the country remains a challenge, especially for those in rural areas. Even those with Internet access outside of campus may not have the bandwidth and speed to adequately support online learning. An informal survey done with a group of students in a public university indicated 90% of them are not in campus and have no access to the university’s Internet network; less than one-third have access to broadband, and two-thirds of them rely on the data plans of their mobile phones, which do not afford unlimited data. The capacity of the universities for online learning, which was already constrained even under normal circumstances, has been further handicapped by the exodus of students, due to the unpreparedness of many universities in dealing with the MCO.
At the time of writing, it is still too early to gauge the effectiveness of online teaching and learning among institutions that have switched to online and blended approaches. However, apart from switching to online learning and teaching, another major challenge confronting our universities is their readiness to employ a variety of ways and tools for assessment. Almost all courses and programmes in universities still rely on written examinations under strict invigilation as the main form of assessment. The use of laptops is still largely forbidden, and other forms of summative assessment, such as take-home exams, are almost unheard of in Malaysian universities. Even courses without a final examination are very rare. Due to their reliance on the traditional pen-and-paper written examination, the MCO has forced universities to rethink how assessment can be carried out, and more importantly, whether this is the time to change. If it is the latter, how should the university senate congregate to discuss and debate on a pertinent academic issue that will change the landscape of higher education?
COVID-19 and the MCO have brought unexpected disruptions in Malaysia’s higher education. While technology, Industrial Revolution 4.0 characteristics, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and many other trendy ideas have been argued as the potential disruption that can change the landscape of higher education, none of them have been as forceful, as sudden and as unexpected as COVID-19 in exposing the level of readiness among Malaysian universities and higher education institutions in facing change and disruption.
Postscript: At the time of writing, Malaysia is under MCO and the full impact of COVID-19 on higher education, especially teaching and learning as well as research and development, community engagement and other roles and functions of institution, cannot be fully understood.
Chang-Da Wan is Deputy Director of the National Higher Education Research Institute (IPPTN – Institut Penyelidikan Pendidikan Tinggi Negara), Malaysia.