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LETTER | Corrective measures to reassure varsity students

LETTER | The last-minute decision by the Higher Education Ministry on Oct 2 to postpone on-campus registration and classes starting Oct 1, was a serious blunder that has caused overwhelming anxiety and dissatisfaction among varsity students, especially those who had to travel from far to come to campus.

In the press release by the ministry, it was mentioned that (1) students who have arrived on campus will be allowed to stay on campus, (2) higher education institutions have been instructed to help and support the needs of this group of students, and (3) students will be able to reschedule their flights up to Dec 31. However, to many varsity students, these remedial actions are simply inadequate.

To be fair to the ministry, the number of new daily confirmed cases of Covid-19 infections was on a downward trend from Sept 27 to 30: from 150 to 115 to 101 to 89 new cases, respectively. However, the sudden spike to 260 and 287 in new cases on Oct 1 and 2 has probably led to the emergency decision to protect the health and lives of our varsity students. 

It looks to be a good decision given the increase to 317 new cases on Oct 3. Though the minister has apologised for the difficult decision, the response accompanying the postponement decision has obviously not gone down well among varsity students.

To move forward, I opined that the ministry must treat this incident as an opportunity to provide a first-class response that will reassure and support varsity students in tangible ways, and there are a number of ways this can be done in my view.

First, the ministry could consider instructing higher education institutions to waive on-campus accommodation rentals to ease the financial burden of varsity students who stay on campus. After all, most on-campus accommodations are properties owned by the government or the higher education institution. 

It is also a non-significant revenue stream that should be reasonably forgone as part of corporate social responsibility, and in the private higher education setting, waiving on-campus accommodation rentals could potentially serve as a bold but rewarding strategy to recruit new students and to prevent student dropouts.

Second, the ministry should consider making it mandatory for higher education institutions who receive research grant monies from the government to prioritise hiring varsity students who are facing financial difficulties as research assistants. This creates a win-win situation, whereby academics can continue their research activities and deserving varsity students can support their living expenses during this difficult period. 

Using research grant monies to outsource research work such as data collection and proofreading to third-party service providers or to support varsity students who are already on a stipend or from well-to-do families should be strongly discouraged.

Third, the ministry should consider making online learning as the default mode of delivery, at least up until a stage where the Covid-19 vaccine is found, mass-produced, and widely accessible. In fact, I believe that the future of higher education should be online, if not blended. It makes little sense to me to proclaim our intention to hop onto the IR 4.0 bandwagon and then to shy away when it really matters to do so. 

Nonetheless, some students may prefer face-to-face learning, and if that option is provided during the pandemic, then it should be limited to local students who stay close to campus. That will enable a seamless transition between face-to-face and online learning for local students as and when necessary, and without affecting the studies and travel arrangements of outstation students. New pedagogies for authentic learning in the online environment and remote laboratory access should also be explored.

Finally, the ministry must consider taking proactive measures to avoid blunders such as this last-minute U-turn decision from happening again in the future. My suggestion to address this issue is to recruit and involve varsity students from both public and private universities around the country in ministry committees and decision making. 

Moreover, the ministry should connect with varsity students via social media and crowdsource ideas before making a decision. If individual politicians such as Maszlee Malik and Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman can raise funds and our own varsity students can offer places to stay to support affected students under the #SiswaJagaSiswa initiative within a few hours, I am very sure the ministry can easily crowdsource tons of useful ideas within a few hours too.

In summary, the ministry must understand that it is not the event but the reaction that determines if we enter into a crisis.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

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