On 18 March 2020, the Minister of Health issued a set of regulations under the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases Act 1988 (the Act) as urgent measures to combat the spread of the Corona Virus, also known as the Covid-19 Virus. See https://www.espact.com.my/latest-news/malaysia-introduces-restrictions-to-combat-the-covid-19-virus
The power to make those regulations followed the Minister’s earlier declaration of the whole of Malaysia as Infected Local Area, meaning that the Minister was satisfied that there was an outbreak or a threatened outbreak of the Covid-19 Virus. These regulations quickly became described as the Movement Control Order (MCO) by public authorities and the media. The object of the regulations is to keep as much as the population indoors so that transmission of the virus from one person to another will be checked, or reduced. The effect of the order is draconian and outside the experience of a population that is constantly on the move. The MCO not only restricts movement but has ordered the closure of all non-essential premises, including kindergartens, schools, colleges, and universities, whether public or private.
The immediate response of universities and other higher education institutions was to cease all educational activities and send their students home. So quickly did they move on the order that the rush they created by students in bus and rail stations and at airports hurrying to get home did the very thing the MCO aimed to prevent – large gatherings of people where the virus could spread rapidly.
The student population in higher education institutions is anywhere between 1.2 to 1.6 million. Not all are live-in students, but nevertheless, a substantial number of them are housed in hostels within the premises of the institutions or in facilities closed to the university that may or may not be controlled by the institution. Many of the institutions have foreign students for whom the hostel or other living facility is ‘home’ when they are here as students. Media reports show that most universities had not fully studied the impact the closure of living facilities will have on students who lived in them when the decision was made to close those facilities together with the teaching parts of the university.
No doubt, the regulations were imposed with only a few hours’ notice, but even then, universities could have held back their decisions until they had a clearer picture of the consequences of their decisions on the students. As it turned out, many universities mindlessly rushed to send their students home immediately the starter’s whistle sounded without pausing to study how best to impose the regulations.
Another disturbing concern is the almost total absence of agencies or groups (like a council of professors or the Ministry of Education) that should be on the forefront on an occasion like this to advise and coordinate an academic plan for institutions to respond to the MCO covering such things as the academic progression of students, teaching, research, and assessment. The widely held expectation that universities can switch to online modes of delivery is unfounded because many universities are not prepared for that mode and even if they are there is still an issue with broadband access. Some students cannot afford the bandwidth required and there are areas that are still not adequately served with the bandwidth required.
Because of the unpreparedness and the absence of any coordinated plan, it would seem that many students in higher education may have to extend their periods of study.