Government regulations to control the spread of the Covid-19 Virus were first issued on 18 March 2020 under powers conferred by the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases Act 1988 (the Act). Under section 11 of the Act, if the Minister of Health is satisfied that there is an outbreak of an infectious disease in any area in Malaysia, or that any area is threatened with an epidemic of any infectious disease, he may, by order in the Gazette, declare such area to be an Infected Local Area. The Minister is then empowered to take measures to control or prevent the spread of any infectious disease within or from such an area.
The March 18 regulations, widely known as the Movement Control Order No. 1 (MCO1) followed an earlier order made under the Act that declared all states and territories of the Federation as Covid-19 infected areas. MCO1 restricted movements within infected areas and from one infected area to another. A full discussion of the restrictions can be found at https://www.espact.com.my/latest-news/malaysia-introduces-restrictions-to-combat-the-covid-19-virus All schools and higher education institutions were closed following the first order. For a discussion of the impact of the Covid-19 Regulations on higher education, please see https://www.espact.com.my/latest-news/covid19-regulations-the-impact-on-higher-education. Interstate and international students were required to leave their campuses. Those who remained in hostels were subject to the restrictions on movements and gatherings.
MCO1 regulations applied from 18 March to 31 March 2020. A succession of six further orders extended the original order, with modifications, to 31 August 2020. The most recent of those orders, MCO No. 7, dubbed the Recovery MCO came into effect on 10 June 2020. MCO No. 7 relaxes the restrictions on movements and gatherings imposed by previous orders to an extent that it allows for the reopening of most enterprises, including higher education institutions.
This article discusses the measures taken by the Ministry of Higher Education (MOHE) to reopen universities and colleges that were closed from the time the MCO 1 came into effect.
The procedures and processes for the restarting instruction in higher education institutions are found in a set of FAQs on the MOHE website and in the Higher Education Sector SOP published on the website of the National Security Council. The websites are shown at the end of this article.
MOHE procedures for returning students to the campuses have prioritized five categories of students. The first two groups that may return to campus to continue their education are research and other students in the final year or semester of their studies who require the physical facilities of laboratories, workshops, studios etc. to be able to graduate.
The third group are students who are unable to access online learning from their homes or in unconducive environments. These students have to be identified by the institution they are registered with. The FAQs do not state how the grounds are to be established for a student to return to his studies in the campus. Nevertheless, the exception is an important one because it recognises that many tertiary level students may be living in places where there is no access to networks required to meet online educational needs. Similarly, the ‘unconducive environment’ extension to the exception, although vague, may provide room for students who cannot afford the cost of bandwidth or who have learning difficulties, to return to campus to continue their studies.
The fourth group who are allowed to return to campus for their education are those with special needs who are registered for TVET programmes. Why the category of learners with special needs is limited to TVET programmes remains unclear.
The fifth group are students registering for the first time in higher education for a certificate, diploma, or degree programme in the 2020/21 academic session.
It is difficult at this stage to estimate the effectiveness of these measures in restoring higher education after the three month closure of institutions, but in their support it must be said that the measures have taken into account the interests of some of the students most affected by the absence of a face-to-face education.
What is troubling about the measures announced up to now is that they seem to assume that the only impact of the Covid-19 closure on higher education is the distancing of students from the face-to-face learning environment of a university or college. Such an assumption may not be inappropriate in the case of public institutions and students from those institutions, but the consequences of the closure on private institutions and private students may require more attention than simply the return of students. There are over 400 private higher education institutions in the country that are universities and colleges. They vary as to size and as to their ability to survive the three-month closure that was imposed on them. Many of the smaller colleges rely on the monthly fees paid by students and have little or no recourse to adequate reserves or external financial support. It is also generally believed in the industry that the smaller colleges host students from the poorer sections of our community which further adds to the woes of these colleges because the fee-paying ability of these students may have been affected by the Covid-19 closure. There has to be a close scrutiny of the impact of the Covid-19 closure on this section of the higher education sector, and if necessary, to relieve it from the consequences of the closure. Otherwise, the worst of the Covid-19 restrictions may fall on those institutions and students that can least deal with them.