Sunday, March 7, 2021

Academics tell how universities can shake off 2020

Higher education centres can still thrive if they embrace new approaches and technologies, say experts.

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Covid-19 severely impacted higher institutions of learning in 2020, with campuses across the country closed down and face-to-face classes replaced by online lectures for much of the year.

Working from home via video-link meant the computer screen became the new seminar room for both students and lecturers.

Universities all across the world are being challenged by the same problems.

For foreign students, as cases spiked globally, international flights were grounded and borders closed. It became difficult or impossible for students to enter the country in which they had registered to study.

Malaysia is one of the most popular higher education destinations in Asia. It is home to several prestigious private universities as well as internationally ranked public universities.

Students from around the world come to this country in search of good academic qualifications, and for many years universities have prospered on the fees they received from their international students, who are charged twice as much in tuition fees as Malaysians.

The steady flow of international students prior to the pandemic was a major reason why higher institutions flourished for years.

But now Covid-19 is pulling the rug out from under much of this.

Public universities are mainly funded by the government, but private colleges and universities do not have that luxury and are being forced to find new ways to make money.

Nik Safiah Abdul Karim, a former lecturer at Universiti Malaya, tells MalaysiaNow that the rapid growth of higher education Malaysia experienced before is now part of the problem.

“The expansion of higher education in this country has been too fast to produce satisfactory results,” she says. “I also believe that there has been too much outside interference in the field of education.”

She maintains that unsatisfactory academic results have weakened faith in the ability of universities to boost growth. People are questioning the quality not only of the graduates but also the teaching staff, the research facilities, and the suitability of courses to the needs of the country.

The vice-chancellor of Asia e University, Hassan Said, says there are other ways universities can cope and even improve their product during the pandemic.

“Universities can still enrol foreign students but they must facilitate their studies by means of an e-learning environment,” he tells MalaysiaNow. “They could start using a blended learning approach by offering courses with non-laboratory-based programmes via e-learning.”

Hassan also has answers to the problem of earlier rapid expansion and poor productivity.

“Shorter courses are needed, as companies want to reskill their staff in order to meet new job requirements. Innovations are required to move products to a new value chain, which requires high-level research and developments by the universities,” he says.

The future of Malaysian universities is hard to predict. While public universities are expected to survive, some private universities – especially smaller ones – may go out of business due to lack of funding.

Hassan says the future of universities could go either way. “If they start to adopt technology for the new learning requirements, optimise costs, bring new skill sets into their organisations and introduce new programmes for the new jobs this pandemic is creating, they will thrive.”

But for Nik Safiah, it’s too soon to predict the future of Malaysian universities.

Instead, she suggests developing digital learning, readjusting the structure of universities and ensuring a balance between e-learning and face-to-face communication.

“I don’t see the immediate closing down of major public universities in this country. Neither do I expect the emergence of new institutions until we have recovered from the effects of Covid-19,” she tells MalaysiaNow.

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