A CRITICAL ANALYSIS OF MALAYSIAN HIGHER EDUCATION INSTITUTIONS' RESPONSE TOWARDS COVID-19: SUSTAINING ACADEMIC PROGRAM DELIVERY

 
Journal of Sustainability Science and Management                                                    eISSN: 2672-7226
Volume 16 Number 1, January 2021: 70-96                                                              © Penerbit UMT

      A CRITICAL ANALYSIS OF MALAYSIAN HIGHER EDUCATION
INSTITUTIONS’ RESPONSE TOWARDS COVID-19: SUSTAINING ACADEMIC
                      PROGRAM DELIVERY

NORZAINI AZMAN*1 AND DORIA ABDULLAH2
Faculty of Education, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia. 2School of Education, Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities,
1

Universiti Teknologi Malaysia.

*Corresponding author: norzai12@ukm.edu.my
Submitted final draft: 4 September 2020 Accepted: 10 September 2020           http://doi.org/10.46754/jssm.2021.01.008

          Abstract: The COVID-19 global pandemic has caused massive disruptions in many sectors
          of society including higher education. Although the mainstream news outlets and social
          media have discussed how Malaysia’s higher education system coped with the disruptions
          caused by COVID-19, a fuller narrative needs to be properly documented. This qualitative
          narrative review involved an analysis of various types of publications including scholarly
          articles, world organizations’ reports, university documents as well as commentaries and
          reports from mainstream news outlets and social media that directly focus on the topic. It is
          evident from the review that Malaysian HEIs’ priority was in safeguarding student and staff
          welfare in terms of their health and safety. While providing emergency aid to students and
          support for institutions, the Ministry of Higher Education together with HEIs developed
          administrative measures to safeguard the delivery of programmes through remote online
          learning. The analysis confirmed that while online learning is considered appropriate during
          an emergency period, the digital divide clearly still exists, posing the greatest challenge to
          Malaysia’s recovery post COVID-19. The critical review on the immediate impacts of the
          pandemic on teaching and learning point to key recommendations for leadership, student
          welfare, and the importance of flexible education and evidence-based policymaking.

          Keywords: COVID-19, higher education, teaching and learning, online learning, student
          affairs.

Introduction                                                are truly interdependent across all borders and
In today’s interconnected world, economic,                  oceans and it is critical that we build resilience
environmental, health, social and education                 and sustainability of communities and societies
issues experienced in one country are capable               in order to weather other possible crises in the
of escalating into global issues within a short             future.
period of time. When the COVID-19 virus was                           Education, including higher education,
first reported in December 2019, the world was              has been directly impacted by the COVID-19
not prepared for what followed immediately. By              global pandemic. As of 8 April 2020, 220
the end of January 2020, the virus had spread               million post-secondary students across 175
to Asia, Europe and America, morphing into                  countries experienced severe disruptions to
a global pandemic. Since then, the modern                   their education, as colleges and universities
socio-economic ecosystem has been forced                    were forced to close in an effort at containing
into an extended period of shutdown, impacting              the spread of the virus. This constitutes 13 per
healthcare, education, culture and society in the           cent of the total number of students affected
short-, medium- and long term (World Bank,                  globally (World Bank, 2020; UNESCO, 2020).
2020). The shutdown has also revealed starkly               An immediate response by higher education
the extent that the wellbeing of our planet and its         institutions (HEIs) was to pivot teaching and
people, particularly in relation to climate crisis          learning (T & L) activities online as much as
and loss in nature diversity, has been affected by          possible, giving rise to various new terms for the
the modern industry and economic system. We                 process, such as “remote learning”, “home-based
                                                            learning”. and “emergency remote education”,
A CRITICAL ANALYSIS OF MALAYSIAN HIGHER EDUCATION INSTITUTIONS’ RESPONSE                                71

besides existing terms for technology-enabled         experience in responding to and managing the
learning at a distance, such as “online learning”     unpredictable and extended disruption of the
and “distance learning” (Bozkurt & Sharma,            COVID-19 pandemic to its higher education
2020). HEIs also suspended all physical face-         system, focusing in particular on how HEIs
to-face teaching and meetings, closing of all         sustained their teaching and learning (T & L)
buildings to physical access and keeping their        activities throughout the Movement Control
students at home. International students were         Order (MCO) period imposed by the government
forced to remain in their host countries, or were     since 18 March 2020, just entering the sixth
repatriated by their respective governments,          phase of implementation at the point of writing.
as borders were closed for international travel.      Data has been gleaned from consolidated
The immediate main concern of policy makers,          published articles in scholarly literature, world
administrators, and practitioners was to secure       organisation reports, commentaries from the
the well-being of their students and staff, as well   mainstream news outlets and social media
as to ensure continuity in academic delivery in       that directly focus on the topic. In addition,
the foreseeable future.                               the authors consulted various supplementary
     Evidently, higher education continues to         documents made available by the HEIs on their
grapple with the implications of the pandemic         management and current practices of T & L
on teaching and learning, research and                during the MCO period.
innovation, as well as the education outcomes              The article is presented in three sections.
of its programmes (World Bank, 2020). A quick         It starts with a brief introduction of the T & L
assessment of the COVID-19 disruption has             component of the Malaysian higher education
exposed many short and long-term challenges           system, followed by a chronology of events
at both system and institution levels. Countries      describing responses of the system throughout
exporting education have seen sharp decreases in      the COVID-19 MCO period, as well as an in-
revenues, since reduced mobility affects future       depth review of stakeholders’ experience in
trajectories in international student enrolment       T & L from the opinion and reflection papers
(World Bank, 2020). Graduates enter the job           and analyses of policies and guidelines. In
market with uncertainty about career prospects.       this context, “stakeholder” is operationally
HEIs have realized that they require immediate        defined as those who are directly involved in
investment to improve not only infrastructure         T & L processes of higher education, including
in supporting distance and blended learning           students, academic staff, and administrators,
models, but also the capacity of its academic         academic leaders and policy makers at both
staff and students to manage T & L activities.        institutional and national levels. Finally, a list of
Students are unable to engage in active learning      lessons learnt, and implications for practice are
due to limitations in internet access and digital     presented, which would hopefully pave the way
devices (UNESCO, 2020). Moving forward,               for more constructive, evidence-based, sector-
higher education systems must ensure that             wide and inclusive involvement of stakeholders
there is some form of continuity to sustain core      in rejuvenating the higher education system post
functions and operations of its HEIs.                 MCO.
     Although the story of Malaysia’s higher               As a narrative review, this paper has
education system in coping with the COVID-19          three objectives: 1) to critically reflect on
crisis has been largely discussed in the              the experiences over the past few months; 2)
mainstream news outlets and social media, a           to feature key takeaways on T & L that can
more complete narrative needs to be properly          be shared with the global higher education
documented. Arguably, even while HEIs have            community; and 3) to initiate conversations
somewhat adjusted to the new normal in academic       between policy makers and practitioners on
delivery and operations, many issues have yet to      sustainable practices to mitigate further shocks
be resolved. This article will narrate Malaysia’s     and impacts to T & L in the future.

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Norzaini Azman and Doria Abdullah 			                                                              72

Materials and Method                                 the search included grey literature comprising
The content of this review article is based on       experts’ and practitioners’ opinions published
a narrative non-systematic review method,            in bulletins and newsletters, as well as reports
which is a qualitative research design used          on the practical aspects of T & L by students
to narrate and discuss Malaysian HEIs’               and professionals (academics and managers)
experience in responding to and managing the         published in various media outlets. The
disruption caused by COVID-19, with the aim          authors also consulted various supplementary
of providing a timely review of the COVID-19         documents made available by the HEIs on their
impact on higher education. This method was          management of T & L during the lockdown to get
deemed appropriate due to the complexity of          an overall view of the situation. As purported by
the issues. A non-systematic narrative review        Greenhalgh et al. (2005), when trying to make
summaries different primary studies from             sense of a complex concept or phenomenon, it
which conclusions may be drawn into a holistic       is important to review literature from multiple
interpretation contributed by the reviewers’ own     sources and from diverse disciplines.
experience and observations (Collins & Fauser,            Data collection employed four main
2005). Given the lack of empirical literature        electronic databases, i.e., EBSCOHOST,
on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic               Scopus, and Google Scholar and Google, using
on higher education and that the pandemic            the main key search words ‘COVID-19 and
is a new, unprecedented phenomenon, the              higher education; COVID-19 and T & L in HEIs’,
narrative review approach draws its strength         ‘COVID-19 and Malaysian HEIs’ to identify
from the supplemented analysis based on the          the relevant records that could provide readily
authors’ self-knowledge, reflective practice         comprehensible accounts of the pandemic.
and acknowledgement of shared educational            From the contents of the documents reviewed
phenomena (Baumeister & Leary, 1997, Jones,          (see examples in Table 1), certain themes were
2004,).                                              developed and elaborated on accordingly. The
     Since original full-length empirical studies    review also highlights current controversies
written in English were limited, reviews,            and contradictory impacts and crucial gaps in
editorials and commentaries and other documents      knowledge, in order to impart a more complete
deemed appropriate were also considered. Thus,       understanding of current thinking and responses

                              Table 1: Sources Used for Narrative Review

       Source Type                                  Example                            Total Number
                                                                                       of Document
 Scholarly Articles       Wang C. and Zhao H. (2020). The Impact of COVID-19                17
                          on Anxiety in Chinese University Students, Frontiers in
                          Psychology, 11:1168. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2020.01168
 Government               Kementerian Pengajian Tinggi, Malaysia. 2020. Pengendalian        10
 Information/Guidelines   Program Akademik di Universiti Awam (UA) dan Institusi
                          Pendidikan Tinggi Swasta (IPTS)
 University Document      Universiti Malaysia Sarawak. (2020). COVID-19 response: A         20
 From their Websites      quick guide for UNIMAS academics
 Higher Education News/   Ross, J. (2020, June, 4). Pandemic Confirms face-to-face          5
 Bulletin                 teaching is here to stay, Times Higher Education
 Media Articles           Rafidi, R. (2020, June 19). Missing the campus experience.        15
                          News Straits Times
 Reports & Papers         UNESCO. (2020, March 13). COVID-19 educational                    4
                          disruption and response.

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A CRITICAL ANALYSIS OF MALAYSIAN HIGHER EDUCATION INSTITUTIONS’ RESPONSE                             73

of the HEIs and the system. In some instances, the    depending on full- or part-time mode. By the
reviews and critical analyses are complemented        end of their study, they would have completed a
by previous empirical findings from scholarly         minimum number of graduating credits required
publications on related aspects of T & L.             under the MQF: at least 90 credits for diploma
                                                      and a minimum of 120 credits for degree. Each
                                                      graduating credit, equivalent to 40 notional
Teaching and Learning (T & L) in the
                                                      hours of Student Learning Time (SLT), could
Malaysian Higher Education System
                                                      be delivered through conventional learning,
“Higher education” in Malaysia, as described          blended learning, or full online learning, subject
by the Malaysian Qualifications Framework             to the percentage allocation of face-to-face time
(MQF) 2.0, is tasked to provide training and          determined under the MQF.
education programmes that enable individuals
                                                           The fundamental block for each academic
to advance their careers, professional practices
                                                      programme and course (or subject) is learning
and employment prospects in various sectors
                                                      outcome, defined as “… statements on what
(Malaysian Qualifications Agency, 2017).
                                                      students should know, understand and can do
These programmes are structured based on
                                                      upon successful completion of a period of study,
eight levels of learning achievement: Certificate
                                                      which generally lead to a qualification or part
(Level 1-3), Diploma and Advanced Diploma
                                                      of a qualification…” (Malaysian Qualifications
(Level 4-5) and Bachelor, Master and Doctoral
                                                      Agency, 2017). These statements outline
degrees (Level 6, 7 and 8). Higher education
                                                      specific skills and knowledge that the students
is also tasked to provide progression and
                                                      can perform in professional, educational, and
flexible learning pathways to learners with
                                                      other life contexts as well as clarify the demands
various needs and backgrounds, in order to
                                                      and complexities of learning by each level. The
widen access to education for lifelong learners.
                                                      learning outcomes must include both declarative
This is done through Accreditation of Prior
                                                      (e.g., facts, theories and rules) and functional
Experiential Learning (APEL), or recognition of
                                                      (e.g., communication skills, organisation skills)
prior learning for professionals with skills sets
                                                      knowledge in order to develop learners’ objective
accrued throughout their working experience.
                                                      reasoning, self-inquiry and critical-openness,
Ultimately, the Malaysian higher education
                                                      which aim to improve their scholarship and
system is expected to contribute to Malaysia’s
                                                      analytical skills. Students are assessed on these
social, economic and political development,
                                                      five clusters of learning outcomes: knowledge
through the nurturing of quality citizens, a
                                                      and understanding, cognitive skills, functional
highly skilled and talented workforce, and
                                                      work skills, personal and entrepreneurship
production of new knowledge (Ministry of
                                                      skills, as well as ethics and professionalism,
Education, 2015).
                                                      either through formative assessments such as
     The Malaysian higher education landscape         quizzes, tests, and assignments, or summative
is diverse, comprising over 20 public universities,   assessment, in the form of final examinations.
36 polytechnics, 99 community colleges and
450 private universities and colleges across
the country. In 20191, these institutions served      When Covid-19 Struck: A Chronology of
over 552,702 students, of which 173,000 were          Malaysian Higher Education’s Response
international students. A typical academic year       January 2020: The Onset
for these students comprises two 14-week              The first three COVID-19 cases in Malaysia
semesters, and they are required to take an           were reported on 25 January 2020. HEIs
average of three to seven courses per semester,       in Malaysia were directly impacted by the

1 Statistics on the Malaysian higher education system can be accessed via https://www.mohe.gov.my/en/
  download/awam/statistik

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Norzaini Azman and Doria Abdullah 			                                                               74

COVID-19 crisis immediately, long before the               On 16 March 2020, in response to the
rest of the country was put into lockdown on 18       alarming increase of infections due to a mass
March 2020, as they had to manage the inflow          religious pilgrimage and international inbound
of international students for the February 2020       carriers, the Prime Minister of Malaysia
intake. They took the initiative to contain the       announced the government’s decision to
risk of COVID-19 infection by mandating a 14-         implement MCO from 18 to 31 March 2020.
day self-quarantine period for the students in        Borders were closed, and inter-state air and
designated residential facilities. They also issued   land travels were prohibited. All educational
travel advisories to academic staff to limit non-     institutions, businesses and premises were
essential travel abroad, particularly to countries    required to close, except for those offering
with reported cases of COVID-19 transmission,         essential services such as healthcare, and
and also placed restrictions on meetings, mass        supermarkets. Mass gatherings were also
gatherings, and sports and recreational activities.   banned, and everyone was required to stay home
Classes were still conducted in lecture halls, and    to minimise risk of infection.
laboratory sessions proceeded as usual.                    The lack of knowledge about the virus,
    By 31 January 2020, the World Health              coupled with the speed of its spread, created
Organisation (WHO) declared the coronavirus           a situation that was unprecedented in the
outbreak a global health emergency.                   Malaysian higher education system. On 17
                                                      March 2020, the Ministry of Higher Education
March 2020: The Showdown                              (MoHE) issued a directive that students residing
                                                      in hostels and dormitories provided by their
This month marked the rapid downward spiral
                                                      respective institutions could choose to either
of the COVID-19 pandemic in Malaysia. The
                                                      return home before the start of MCO, or to
number of cases of COVID-19 transmission
                                                      remain on campus throughout the lockdown
spiked to 428 cases by 15 March 2020.
                                                      period. The MoHE also took the unusual step
On the advice of the National Security Council        to prohibit all digital learning activities on 17
(NSC), the government decided to postpone             March (Ministry of Higher Education 2020a;
all mass gatherings including international           Asia Pacific University of Technology &
meetings, sports, social and religious events.        Innovation, 2020). Both public universities and
Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) was the first         private HEIs were forbidden to conduct any T &
public HEI to mandate all T & L activities to         L activities, including those online, as well as
be conducted online, and to restrict its faculties    examinations, viva voce, student development
and offices to organizing only internal activities    and research activities during the restricted
involving no more than 30 participants on             movement period (Asia Pacific University of
campus (USM, 2020). Generally, the response by        Technology and Innovation, 2020).
some HEIs was to encourage or mandate online
                                                           Subsequently, media and public interest
learning, using live streaming (e.g., Facebook)
                                                      in how the MoHE and HEIs were managing
or in-house e-learning platforms (Lim, 2020;
                                                      the closure in terms of sending students home
Ramadan, 2020; Teoh, 2020; Universiti
                                                      was excessive, mostly condemning universities
Malaysia Sarawak, 2020). Some HEIs, however,
                                                      for their lack of mitigation on the possible
such as Universiti Utara Malaysia (UUM) and
                                                      increased risk of infection during travel
the International Islamic University Malaysia
                                                      (Annuar, 2020; Adnan, 2020). The decision to
(UIAM) continued with their face-to-face
                                                      send students home, or allow them to return
lectures. Universiti Malaysia Perlis (UniMAP)
                                                      home instead of staying on campus during the
students were not allowed to leave campus
                                                      restricted movement order period was feared
without permission (Lim, 2020).
                                                      to have widened the circle of infections via
                                                      the mass student movement. The delayed

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A CRITICAL ANALYSIS OF MALAYSIAN HIGHER EDUCATION INSTITUTIONS’ RESPONSE                             75

announcement, which was made on the eve of            18 to 31 March 2020, administrators at HEIs
the MCO, was also criticised as it created panic      worked around the clock, putting together
and anxiety among parents, who had yet to make        contingency measures for T & L activities, as well
arrangements to bring their children home. This       as work arrangements for all staff in respective
directive was eventually recalled on 20 March         institutions. USM, for example, immediately
2020, when the MoHE forbade students residing         carried out their scenario planning activities
in hostels, dormitories and rented properties to      to devise changes during and after MCO, and
leave the premises to return to their hometown        to help create national service initiatives such
or homeland during the duration of the MCO            as the setting up of COVID-19 special fund,
(Ministry of Higher Education, 2020b).                production of sanitizers and providing first
Meals and sundry items for all students were          aid and over the counter medication for their
supplied by their respective HEIs, paid for by a      community (USM, 2020a). The university
contingency fund provided by the government.          continued to produce Response and Readiness
     The Ministry also retracted its earlier          Plan for COVID-19 Pandemic and Other
suspension of T & L, allowing those HEIs              Infectious Diseases Outbreaks on April 1, 2020,
that had been offering courses fully online to        which is a framework of action plans providing
implement e-learning during the two weeks             general guidance for preparedness, response and
of MCO (March 18 to 31), provided that the            communication to mitigate against COVID-19
institution could guarantee that every student        and other infectious disease outbreaks of public
had access to the Internet and that the lecturers     health emergencies (see Preparedness Plan for
were ready and fully equipped, with adequate          Infectious Diseases Outbreaks USM, 2020b).
infrastructure (Asia Pacific University of                On 25 March 2020, the Prime Minister
Technology & Innovation, 2020, Ministry               made a nation-wide announcement to extend
of Higher Education, 2020b). This decision            MCO by another two weeks, starting from 1 –
was taken to ensure that the right to sustain         14 April 2020.
educational activities for all registered, full-fee
paying students in HEIs was protected within          April – May 2020: The Acclimatisation Period
the framework of equal opportunity and non-
                                                      As the number of COVID-19 cases in Malaysia
discrimination.
                                                      continued to increase, the MCO was further
     At this stage, all teaching, research and        extended into the third phase from 15 – 28 April
service activities, and administration came to a      2020, subsequently into the fourth phase from
halt as the management grappled to respond to         29 April – 12 May 2020, and the fifth phase
the MCO. Many students were left stranded in          from 13 May – 9 June 2020.
their universities and private accommodations.
                                                          By this stage, HEIs had been gradually
Those who were undergoing their internships
                                                      equipped with the necessary policies and
and practicum were unsure of their status, in
                                                      standard operating procedures (SOPs) to
terms of continuity of their terms of service
                                                      manage their operations. Some HEIs such
and its impact on the end-of-term assessment.
                                                      as Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM) and
It became clear that neither MoHE nor the HEIs
                                                      Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM)
were equipped with disaster and risk mitigation
                                                      adjusted their mid-semester break to end of April
plans. This was not surprising, since Malaysia
                                                      and introduced a new academic calendar. Both
had never experienced any disastrous crisis prior
                                                      suspended all T & L activities for their students,
to the pandemic. There was little understanding
                                                      while giving buffer time for academic staff to be
within the HEIs’ and MoHE’s organisational
                                                      ready for online instruction. Universiti Teknologi
structures as to who was ultimately responsible
                                                      Malaysia (UTM) issued a circular that mandated
for decision-making, and developing and
                                                      online delivery of T & L activities until 31
implementing contingency plans. Throughout

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Norzaini Azman and Doria Abdullah 			                                                            76

December 2020, and introduced a 4-week buffer       intakes for degree programmes would be
period for students and staff to complete the       delayed to September/October 2020 (Ministry
syllabus for the remaining academic semester.       of Higher Education, 2020e). All academic
Many HEIs also introduced Standard Operating        programmes were assumed to be conducted
Procedures (SOPs) for online assessments and        fully online as stipulated by all the HEIs in
final examinations, scheduled to commence           their websites and guidelines. There was greater
on June 2020. Clearer SOPs were also issued         clarity on the different forms of learning to be
on working from home arrangements for all           delivered remotely: classes could be conducted
academic and administrative staff.                  synchronously online, or asynchronously
     On 27 April 2020, after having been            through recorded lectures and materials (UKM,
campus-bound for over a month, stranded             2020; UM, 2020). Academics were given
students were allowed to return home under          alternative delivery modes: from a PowerPoint
strict SOPs. The movement of students was           presentation with synchronized audio track, to
carried out in stages through strict coordination   a regularly monitored asynchronous, online
between zones, involving the Royal Malaysian        discussion board for students to post messages;
Police Force, and local authorities, with           a discussion board that was monitored during a
advisory from NSC and the Ministry of Health        particular time-frame; and a chat session (Asia
(MoH). This operation was perhaps the largest       Pacific University of Technology & Innovation,
controlled movement of students ever recorded       2020; MultiMedia University (MMU), 2020).
in the country, and was completed by early June          Subsequently, capacity building of
2020. Each student was required to undergo          academic staff through webinars and guidelines
health screening prior to the journey home, and     was scaled fully online. It was also decided
was advised to undergo quarantine for 14 days       that summative assessments could be executed
upon arrival, either at designated quarantine       through various options, such as timed take-
centres, or at their respective homes. Students     home examinations and proctored live sessions,
needing to travel from Peninsular Malaysia to       subject to accreditation requirements from
East Malaysia and vice versa were transported       professional bodies. Universiti Kebangsaan
via chartered flights from designated airports      Malaysia (UKM), for example, decided on
across the country. All transport expenses were     redesigning exams (titled as final assessments)
borne by the government (Ministry of Higher         to fit within a set of various options open to
Education, 2020c). Some students chose to stay      lecturers - from a take-home exam paper (to
on campus to complete their semester, with their    be submitted via electronic means) to an online
meals and sundry items still being taken care of    assessment (essays, multiple choice questions,
by the respective HEIs.                             or short answers) (UKM, 2020).
    By this time, MoHE’s directives and                  HEIs also introduced SOPs to manage
announcements had become better coordinated         work processes at the office including physical
and evidence-based, given that it had had ample     distancing measures, log in/out facilities, and
time to collect data on student demographics,       personal protective equipment (PPE) such as
as well as on ongoing T & L activities from         face shields and face masks were procured or
HEIs. A 24-hour COVID 19 operation centre           produced in-house not only for the university,
was set up at its Putrajaya base, where parents,    but also for frontline workers in hospitals and
family members, and the community could             within communities. Contingency funding to
seek information and advice (Ministry of            help students with broadband subscription and
Higher Education, 2020d). It announced a            device procurement was also made available.
postponement of higher education intake             HEIs were also required to report their plan of
for foundation, matriculation and diploma           action on productivity recovery to the Public
programmes to July/August 2020, while               Services Department of Malaysia (PSD), with

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the expectation that up to 70 percent productivity        The HEIs are also advised to implement
could still be maintained throughout the MCO          staggered return of staff to campus for work, or
period by end of May 2020 (Public Service             allow their staff to work from home.
Department, Malaysia, 2020)                                As the recovery MCO period is still
                                                      ongoing, at the point of writing it is too early to
June - August 2020: The New Normal                    comment on the effectiveness of HEIs’ response
With new infection rates dropping sharply             throughout the crisis period. That said, it is
in June, the Prime Minister introduced the            argued that the period between April to May
Recovery MCO (10 June to 31 August 2020)              2020 provided ample time for HEIs to prioritise
on 7 June 2020. Throughout this RMCO period,          their resources, and chart out their responses in
more economic sectors were allowed to operate,        a more coordinated manner.
and work would resume in HEIs, subject to
stringent physical distancing measures required       Managing Teaching and Learning Amidst
by MoH1. Nevertheless, online delivery of their       COVID-19 Lockdown
academic programmes would still be required
until the end of 2020 as stipulated by MoHE,          In the absence of references to similar crises in
with exceptions made for the following few            the past, it is difficult to analyse real evidence
categories of students:                               of impact and predict what may happen in
                                                      the Malaysian higher education system in the
1) Post-graduate students in research mode,           immediate future. However, it is possible to
   i.e., those required to attend physical            document the current impacts on T & L based
   laboratories, workshops and design studios,        on reports, personal experiences and anecdotes.
   or relying on specialised equipment to             In an effort to facilitate an analysis of successful
   conduct their research;                            actions and their accompanying challenges in
2) Final-year students doing postgraduate             the implementation of educational programmes
   studies, as well as Diploma and Bachelor           in the HEIs, the real and estimated impacts of T
   Degree students required to carry out              & L are presented in this section, drawing from
   clinical work, practical, laboratory work,         the experiences of three different stakeholders:
   workshops, work in design studios, or are in       students, academic staff, and the HEIs.
   need of specialised equipment, are allowed
   to have T & L on their campuses, as early          Safeguarding Student Welfare
   as July 1;
                                                      At the start of the lockdown, it immediately
3) Final-year students who do not have                became clear that the first priority for HEIs was
   internet access and are in an unconducive          to take care of the basic needs of students who
   environment for T & L via online are               remained on campus. Cafeterias and on-campus
   allowed to return to campus as early as July       sundry stores were closed, and students were not
   1, and utilize their on-campus infrastructure      allowed to venture outside the campus for meals
   for the online T & L; and                          and supplies. Student affairs divisions went into
4) Students with special needs enrolled in the        full operation, providing these essential services
   Technical and Vocational Training (TVET)           to students on campus. Headcounts were done
   education programme at polytechnics and            to ascertain the number of students requiring
   community colleges, and who need to get            meal assistance, and businesses were quick to
   face-to-face guidance in order to access T         provide in-kind donations to HEIs. Students
   & L due to learning difficulties (Ministry of      were also notified of important contacts in case
   Higher Education, 2020e).                          of emergencies, and of the availability of health

2 General statistics and infographics issued by the MoH can be obtained from http://covid-19.moh.gov.my/

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Norzaini Azman and Doria Abdullah 			                                                               78

services, counselling services, and campus            becoming the first line of responders on behalf
security services throughout the MCO.                 of the institutions.
     Students’ mental and emotional health
was also taken into account. Students reported        Bridging the Digital Divide
feeling frustrated over the inability to move         Students and staff require the following
about with their peers, even within the campus        hardware in order to attend/conduct classes
compound. They expressed frustration over             and assessments online: a working Internet
the uncertainty of the current situation in hand,     connection; a digital device; and accessories
as well as updates to their parents and family        such as headphones, speakers, and printers.
members back home. Like other students in the         Under normal circumstances, they would rely
world, Malaysian students’ anxiety and stress         on in-campus facilities at libraries, centres for
resulted from a number of issues including            T & L, as well as centres for information and
the need to quickly master new technology (to         communication technologies to manage their
submit assignments and exams), concerns over          tasks. However, access to these supportive
not receiving the full range of face-to-face          learning spaces were abruptly cut off when
services and a lack of confidence in the new          Malaysia went into lockdown in March 2020.
processes (Kerr, 2020, Wang & Zhao, 2020).
                                                           Research reports and commentaries by
Some students raised concerns about the quality
                                                      various media have highlighted the issues
of their learning experience, and expressed
                                                      experienced by students mainly in rural
worries over the accessibility of online
                                                      localities, such as those in Sabah and Sarawak
repositories and paid software when working
                                                      and in remote areas in Peninsular Malaysia,
off campus. (Jalli, 2020). This is understandable
                                                      who do not have access to high-speed internet
as studies have shown that students have
                                                      connection to attend online learning sessions
difficulties managing their learning online, as
                                                      (Sani, 2020a; Rachel, 2020; Muhammad, 2020).
they tend to multi-task, check email, chat with
                                                      Inevitably, socio-economic and regional factors
friends, and surf the Internet while attending
                                                      play a pivotal role in accessing and affording
online lectures (Bao 2019; Bao & Zhang 2018).
                                                      online platforms (Palvia et al., 2018; Hawati &
Other common problems when being self-
                                                      Jarud, 2020). Some students in the B40 groups,
isolated at home are: poor self-discipline, lack of
                                                      defined as those who come from households
suitable learning materials, or an unconducive
                                                      with a monthly income of less than RM 3,000
learning environment. Thus, online teaching
                                                      (or USD 750), have no hardware, gadgets and
implemented quickly during the COVID-19
                                                      devices such as desktop or laptop computer, nor
outbreak was clearly a source of anxiety for
                                                      a broadband Internet subscription (Hawati &
the students (Regehr & Goel, 2020; Cao et al.,
                                                      Jarud, 2020)
2020), and their stress needed to be managed to
ensure that they could actively and effectively           Although the Malaysian Communication
engage in online learning (Bao, 2020).                and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) in 2019
                                                      reported that the national mobile broadband
     Those who managed to return home
                                                      penetration rate was exceedingly high (120
before the lockdown began were worried about
                                                      percent per 100 people), the fixed broadband
continuing with the academic semester, since
                                                      penetration rate which provides faster and
their study materials were left on campus.
                                                      more reliable connectivity was significantly
In this instance, peer support, in the form of
                                                      low (approximately 8 percent per 100 people)
academic advisory services, residential college
                                                      (MCMC, 2020). Infrastructural shortcomings,
fellowships, and in-residence student networks
                                                      such as the lack of fibre optic networks have
provided emotional support to students,
                                                      been cited as the cause of slow internet speed
regardless of their location. HEIs also advised
                                                      undermining broadband connectivity in the
academic staff to be accessible to their charges,
                                                      country (Muhammad, 2020; Azmi, 2019). In

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A CRITICAL ANALYSIS OF MALAYSIAN HIGHER EDUCATION INSTITUTIONS’ RESPONSE                             79

2018, the Malaysian government pledged the            such as a desktop or laptop computer. Students
provision of an average speed of 30 MBPS              in rural localities and remote areas across
in 98 per cent of populated areas by 2023.            the country do not have access to high-speed
This target is comparatively low for a country        internet connection to attend learning sessions
committed to driving digital economy in the           online. Digital infrastructure, internet speed,
future. The Canadian radio-television and             network access, and affordability pose real
telecommunications commission, for example,           obstacles to the equality of online education.
has aimed for a minimum speed target of 50            Like many other developing countries, a larger
MBPS download services by 2020 (Azmi,                 number of Malaysian students than anticipated
2019).                                                do not have reliable access to internet and useful
     It is also interesting to note a juxtaposition   devices for online T & L (World Bank, 2016;
between broadband penetration and quality of          UNESCO, 2020). UNESCO recently noted
broadband services rendered to the Malaysian          that school closures in Asia due to COVID-19
community. A study by the MCMC revealed               have put millions of children falling behind in
that the percentage of internet users in Malaysia     education as classes shift online (UNESCO,
stood at 87 per cent or 28.7 million users in 2019.   2020). It seems that remote learning is still a
The World Bank’s digital adoption index (DAI)         luxury largely accessible to the elite and middle-
painted an even more optimistic picture for the       class students from cities and towns with good
country, as the total number of mobile internet       broadband access, side-lining participation of
users is on par, if not surpassing its neighbours     the socio-economically disadvantaged students
and other advanced economies (Azmi, 2019).            outside these areas.
However, its fixed broadband services only stood           Academic staff were also affected by the
at 46 percent in 2018, significantly lower than       digital divide. Besides optimal broadband
that experienced in the EU, which recorded 95         connection, an academic staff may require
percent fixed broadband penetration. Although         digital devices with enhanced capabilities to
Malaysia’s digital adoption rate is comparable to     record lectures and administer learning and
advanced economies, the actual digital adoption       supervision sessions, either in synchronous or
is that of a lower middle-income country, with        asynchronous modes. A basic home studio, for
more than 50 percent of respondents citing poor       example, requires a webcam, microphones,
quality and unaffordability as reasons for not        appropriate lighting and audio modulation
taking up fixed broadband access (Azmi, 2019;         equipment. Round-the-clock technical support is
Muhammad, 2020).                                      also required for managing unforeseen glitches.
     Socio-economic and regional factors play         Furthermore, interactivity in online instruction
pivotal roles in accessing and affording online       requires the subscription of applications and
platforms. Findings from a survey by the              online platforms, which may incur out-of-pocket
Ministry of Education (MoE), involving close to       expenses from the individual academic staff.
900,000 school students indicate that 37 per cent          Clearly, hardware and software issues
of school students do not have any appropriate        must be addressed before remote learning can
electronic devices for learning (Ministry of          successfully take off. Quality online delivery
Education, 2019). At the same time, only 6 to         requires high-input operations, requiring time
9 per cent of students own a personal computer        to develop and significant investments to run
and/or a tablet. This is a stark contrast to 78       (Gyukkal, 2020; Kim, 2020; Shattuck, 2014).
per cent of households in America that own a          While digital technologies can be deployed
desktop or laptop computer, and 74 per cent who       at scale, much more needs to be done on the
have a broadband internet subscription. Some          hardware side in terms of bandwidth capacity
students in the B40 groups, have no means of          and digital inequalities. Thus, the digital divide
owning the hardware, gadgets and devices              that still exists in Malaysia posed the greatest

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Norzaini Azman and Doria Abdullah 			                                                               80

challenge to online T & L for all students. The      of the online learning experiences offered
COVID-19 pandemic has exposed this starkly           throughout the MCO period may not have been
and it should become the government’s most           fully featured or necessarily well-planned, with
crucial infrastructure to prioritise.                a high probability of suboptimal implementation
                                                     with simple online content delivery and
Academic Staff Capabilities                          activities.
As the COVID-19 pandemic has caused such                  A number of lecturers have expressed
a dramatic acceleration of online university         scepticism about maintaining quality in
distance education, the signal being sent to the     online course delivery (Mustafa, 2020). This
academics during the COVID-19 crisis was             perception was reinforced by students who
clear: online distance education was the only        frequently expressed disappointment that they
viable tool to sustain academic activities and       were not receiving ‘value for money’ because
it had to be immediately employed. Arguably,         of the reduced face-to-face component of the
most academics share their HEI’s leadership’s        course delivery (Sani, 2020b; Jalli, 2020). A
sentiments that the COVID-19 crisis has              few academics reported grave concerns in the
brought forward the inevitable digital platform      media about the quality of work submitted by
by a full generation. Resorting to online T & L      some students, and a few others worried that
was clearly a breakthrough, and an impactful         standards might be compromised by the new
consequence of an otherwise disastrous global        assessment arrangements (for example, take-
health crisis.                                       home and open-book exams) (Mustafa, 2020).
                                                     Evaluating students’ learning acquired through
     It requires deliberate planning and practice
                                                     distance learning has remained a challenge for
to transfer content for online delivery, with an
                                                     quality assurance (Gaskell & Mills, 2014).
average of six months to one year of development
time for a fully online university course (Roddy,         Students, parents, and the general public
et al., 2017). As experienced by many academic       have also been unsettled about the quality of
staff throughout the MCO period, transferring        online education during the pandemic (Daniel,
content online takes time, and requires extra        2020). Students are not confident that their
work. The extra workload experienced by the          learning experience online is even on par with,
academic staff was generated by the need to          let alone better than, face-to-face instruction,
rewrite materials and to reorganize assessment       and feel they are not receiving value for money
tasks, the videotaping of lectures, additional       in their education investment. For now, the
effort associated with reformulating formative       quality dimensions of online education related
and summative assessments, as well as assessing      to the academic staff encompass the following
electronically submitted assignments and tests.      areas: competencies of academic staff tasked
It was an uphill battle for every academic staff     to deliver learning online; the quality of online
to pivot online within a short period of time, and   formative and summative assessments; and
virtually impossible for every faculty member        the ability of academic staff to assess novelty
to suddenly become an expert in online T & L         and authenticity of work submitted by the
under such tense conditions, within a few weeks      students (Antony & Gnanam, 2004). These
of the directives. Academics usually become          quality dimensions would, in the medium- and
more comfortable teaching online by the second       long term, compromise quality assurance of
or third iteration of their online courses. While    academic programmes, subsequently affecting
resources are available to turn to for assistance,   students’ outcomes of higher education. It is
the scale of change that stresses the systems        highly unlikely that these issues will be resolved
providing those resources most likely would          under the present circumstances.
surpass their capacities. It is argued that many

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A CRITICAL ANALYSIS OF MALAYSIAN HIGHER EDUCATION INSTITUTIONS’ RESPONSE                          81

HEI Capabilities                                     printers in laboratories across HEIs (Chong,
The COVID- 19 pandemic revealed one possible         2020).
breakthrough that could be introduced into core           A key element for structured online
functions of the sector, which has been highly       delivery is the use of a learning management
resistant to change for the longest time. By         system (LMS) in order to organise learning for
the second phase of the MCO, many HEIs had           both students and staff. HEIs may opt for open-
adapted policies and guidelines to enable remote     source platforms, such as Moodle, to deliver
working and learning from home for their             their programmes online. These platforms
communities, and had also made revisions to          require time to master; UTM, for example, took
the academic regulations and calendar to ensure      more than 10 years to develop the technical
continuity of teaching, learning, and research       capabilities and expertise in optimizing Moodle
activities. Oral examinations for postgraduate       as a credible LMS for T & L. An advanced
students, meetings, and interviews that were         LMS such as Blackboard may provide technical
commonly organised physically, were pivoted          support to students and staff, but requires
online, saving travel time and reducing carbon       subscriptions and annual renewals. Small-
footprints of academics and administrators           scale and newly established HEIs may not
(Versteijlen et al., 2017). Automation of work       have an adequately effective infrastructure and
processes, through online platforms and systems,     investment capital to implement a full online
reduce turnaround time for routine processes in      delivery. As a result, their students may not
academic administration. Malaysian HEIs have         experience optimal learning for the remaining
also shown solidarity, cooperation, and resilience   of the academic year.
in their responses, by collaborating with other          A summary describing the chronology
HEIs, organisations and civil societies to           of events and the government’s decisions
introduce various initiatives to reduce the impact   plus responses from the MoHE and the HEIs
of the pandemic in their communities, such as        throughout the COVID-19 MCO period are
producing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)        shown in Table 2.
for healthcare workers through the use of 3D

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Table 2: Chronology of events describing the Malaysian government and higher education COVID-19 response (Jan 2020- Jun 2020)

                                                                                           Phases                                COVID -19 Status Government/HE Actions                  HEI Responses                      Issues/ Ramifications
                                                                                           The Onset          Jan 2020           3 active cases by     -                                 • Mandatory 14-day self-           -
                                                                                           (January 2020)                        23 Jan 2020                                               quarantine period for
                                                                                                                                                                                           international students
                                                                                                                                                                                         • Only essential travels abroad
                                                                                                                                                                                           allowed for academic staff.
                                                                                                                                                                                         • Restrictions on meetings,
                                                                                                                                                                                           mass gatherings, and sports
                                                                                                                                                                                           and recreational activities
                                                                                           31 Jan 2020 – WHO Declared COVID-19 as Global Health Emergency
                                                                                           The Showdown       1-15 March 2020    535 active cases by   • National Security Council       • USM was the first public         -
                                                                                           (March 2020)                          15 March 2020           (NSC) cancelled all mass          HEI to mandate all teaching
                                                                                                                                                         gatherings (meetings, sports,     and learning activities to be
                                                                                                                                                         social and religious events)      conducted online.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         Norzaini Azman and Doria Abdullah

                                                                                                                                                                                         • UniMAP students were not
                                                                                                                                                                                           allowed to leave campus
                                                                                                                                                                                           without permission.
                                                                                                              16 March 2020      672 active cases      • Prime Minister (PM)             • All HEIs were closed except      -
                                                                                                                                                         announced the Movement            essential services (healthcare
                                                                                                                                                         Control Order from 18- 31         and supermarkets).
                                                                                                                                                         March for 2 weeks
                                                                                                              17 March 2020      782 active cases      • Borders were closed, and         • Public HEIs instructed          • Mass student exodus
                                                                                                              (the eve of 1st                            inter-state air and land travels   students to return home.          from public HEIs.
                                                                                                              Phase of MCO                               were prohibited.
                                                                                                              18-31 March                                                                                                   • The delayed
                                                                                                              2020)                                    • Ministry of Higher Education                                         announcement by

Journal of Sustainability Science and Management Volume 16 Number 1, January 2021: 70-96
                                                                                                                                                         (MoHE) issued a directive                                            MoHE, made on the
                                                                                                                                                         that public HE students could                                        eve of the MCO, was
                                                                                                                                                         choose to either return home                                         criticised as it created
                                                                                                                                                         before the start of MCO or                                           panic and anxiety
                                                                                                                                                         remain in campus                                                     among parents and
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         82

                                                                                                                                                                                                                              students.
20 March 2020       1138 active cases   • MoHE forbade students           • HEIs prepared contingency      • All teaching, research
                                                                                                             (within 1st Phase                         residing in hostels,              measures for T & L               and service activities
                                                                                                             of MCO 18-31                              dormitories and rented            activities, as well as work      came to a halt.
                                                                                                             March 2020)                               properties to leave the           arrangements for all staff.
                                                                                                                                                       premises.
                                                                                                                                                                                       • HEIs adjusted their mid
                                                                                                                                                     • Government subsidised meals       semester break to end of
                                                                                                                                                       and sundry items for students     April.
                                                                                                                                                       who remained on campus/
                                                                                                                                                       rented properties.

                                                                                                                                                     • MoHE prohibited all digital
                                                                                                                                                       courses/learning except by
                                                                                                                                                       open learning mode
                                                                                                             25 March 2020       1996 active cases   • PM announced extended           -                                -
                                                                                                             (within 1st Phase                         MCO by another two weeks
                                                                                                             of MCO 18-31                              (2nd Phase of MCO)
                                                                                                             March 2020)

                                                                                           The Acclimati     10 April 2020       4485 active cases   •                                 • HEIs revised academic          • Students’ main issues are
                                                                                           sation (April –   (within 2nd Phase                                                           calendar.                        affordability to access
                                                                                           May 2020)         of MCO 1-14                                                                                                  high speed internet and
                                                                                                             April 2020)                                                               • HEIs issued circular to          hardware devices
                                                                                                                                                                                         mandate online delivery
                                                                                                                                                                                         of T & L activities until 31   • Students expressed
                                                                                                                                                                                         December 2020.                   anxiety over the need
                                                                                                                                                                                                                          to quickly master new
                                                                                                                                                                                       • HEIs introduced a 4-week         technology for learning.
                                                                                                                                                                                         buffer period for students
                                                                                                                                                                                         and staff to complete the      • Students raised concern

Journal of Sustainability Science and Management Volume 16 Number 1, January 2021: 70-96
                                                                                                                                                                                         syllabus for the remaining       about the quality of their
                                                                                                                                                                                         academic semester.               learning experience
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       A CRITICAL ANALYSIS OF MALAYSIAN HIGHER EDUCATION INSTITUTIONS’ RESPONSE

                                                                                                                                                                                                                          through online.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       83
27 April 2020       5848 active cases   • Government initiated an        • Postponement of higher         • Transferring content
                                                                                           (within 3rd Phase                         operation to enable students     education intake for             and learning activities
                                                                                           of MCO 15-28                              to go home.                      foundation, matriculation        for online delivery
                                                                                           April 2020)                                                                and diploma programmes to        requires extra work
                                                                                                                                   • A 24-hour Command Centre         July/August 2020.                and assistance from
                                                                                                                                     COVID 19 operation centre                                         instructional designers.
                                                                                                                                     was set up at MoHE’s base      • Standard Operating
                                                                                                                                     in Putrajaya, where parents,     Procedures (SOPs) was
                                                                                                                                     family members, and the          introduced for online
                                                                                                                                     community could seek             assessments and final          • Many of the online
                                                                                                                                     information and advice           examinations.                    learning experiences
                                                                                                                                                                                                       offered throughout
                                                                                                                                                                    • Clearer SOPs on working          the MCO may not
                                                                                                                                                                      from home arrangements for       have been necessarily
                                                                                                                                                                      academic and administrative      well-planned, with
                                                                                                                                   • PM announced extended            staff were introduced            a high probability
                                                                                                                                     MCO by another two weeks                                          of suboptimal
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Norzaini Azman and Doria Abdullah

                                                                                                                                     (4th Phase of MCO)             • Some HEIs provided               implementation with
                                                                                                                                                                      contingency funding to help      simple online content
                                                                                                                                                                      students with broadband          delivery and activities.
                                                                                                                                                                      subscription and device
                                                                                                                                                                      procurement.                   • Students frequently
                                                                                                                                                                                                       expressed
                                                                                                                                                                    • HEIs developed a                 disappointment that
                                                                                                                                                                      Productivity Recovery Plan       they were not receiving
                                                                                                                                                                      throughout the MCO period.       ‘value for money’
                                                                                                                                                                                                       because of the reduced
                                                                                                                                                                    • Oral examinations for Master     face-to-face component
                                                                                                                                                                      and PhD, meetings, and           of the course delivery.
                                                                                                                                                                      interviews were pivoted

Journal of Sustainability Science and Management Volume 16 Number 1, January 2021: 70-96
                                                                                                                                                                      online, saving travel time
                                                                                                                                                                      and reducing carbon
                                                                                                                                                                      footprints of academics and
                                                                                                                                                                      administrators.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  84
10 May 2020         6705 active cases   • PM announced extended        -                                  -
                                                                                                            (within 4th Phase                          MCO by a month (5th Phase
                                                                                                            of MCO 29 April                            of MCO)
                                                                                                            – 12 May 2020)
                                                                                           The New Normal   7 June 2020         8326 active cases   • Prime Minister introduced    • Work resumed in HEIs,         -
                                                                                           (June - August                                              the Recovery MCO from 10      subject to stringent physical
                                                                                           2020)                                                       June to 31 August 2020        distancing measures required
                                                                                                                                                                                     by MoH.

                                                                                                                                                                                   • Online delivery of academic
                                                                                                                                                                                     programmes would still be
                                                                                                                                                                                     required until the end of
                                                                                                                                                                                     2020 except for:
                                                                                                                                                                                     a) Post-graduate students in
                                                                                                                                                                                        research mode, i.e., those
                                                                                                                                                                                        required to attend physical
                                                                                                                                                                                        laboratories or relying on
                                                                                                                                                                                        specialized equipment;
                                                                                                                                                                                     b) Final-year students doing
                                                                                                                                                                                        postgraduate studies,
                                                                                                                                                                                        Diploma and Bachelor’s
                                                                                                                                                                                        Degree students required
                                                                                                                                                                                        to do clinical work,
                                                                                                                                                                                        practical, laboratory and
                                                                                                                                                                                        design work, workshops,
                                                                                                                                                                                        or are in need of
                                                                                                                                                                                        specialized equipment;
                                                                                                                                                                                     c) Final-year students who
                                                                                                                                                                                        do not have internet
                                                                                                                                                                                        access and are in an

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                                                                                                                                                                                        unconducive environment
                                                                                                                                                                                        for T & L via online
                                                                                                                                                                                                                          A CRITICAL ANALYSIS OF MALAYSIAN HIGHER EDUCATION INSTITUTIONS’ RESPONSE

                                                                                                                                                                                        are allowed to return to
                                                                                                                                                                                        campus as early as July
                                                                                                                                                                                        1st;
                                                                                                                                                                                                                          85
Norzaini Azman and Doria Abdullah 			                                                                              86

                                                                    Lessons Learnt and Implications for Practice
                                                                    Higher Education Leadership is Essential for
                                                                    Weathering the Storm
                                                                    Many HEI leaders would likely have embraced
                                                                    the importance of disruptions such as those
                                                                    caused by economic recession, industrial
                                                                    revolution and artificial intelligence (Gigliotti,
                                                                    2016; McGee, 2015). These forward-looking
                                                                    leaders have so far embraced these disruptions
                                                                    to refocus and advance their HEIs by creating
   Technical and Vocational

                                     of staff to campus for work,
   community colleges, and

                                  • Implement staggered return

                                     or allow staff to work from
   who need to get face-to-

   to access T & L due to
   face guidance in order
   education programme

                                                                    prudent changes to their core functions and
d) Students with special
   needs enrolled in the

   learning difficulties.
   at polytechnics and

                                                                    operations. Some leaders create guardrails and
   Training (TVET)

                                                                    safety precautions to build institutional agility
                                                                    during the transformation process (Jameson,
                                                                    2012). The guardrails and safety precautions
                                                                    for higher education are supported by a number
                                     home.

                                                                    of mindsets and academic values including
                                                                    systems thinking (HEIs are interconnected),
                                                                    culture of excellence (commitment to long term
                                                                    gain and quality) and sustainability. However,
                                                                    the COVID-19 disruption is of a different nature
                                                                    altogether as there are no guardrails available
                                                                    nor can humans control the pace.
                                                                         Aligned, visionary leadership takes
                                                                    different forms, but each leader must be
                                                                    sensitive to the unique institutional contexts in
                                                                    making decisions. Thus, the leaders of HEIs, as
                                                                    autonomous institutions, are expected to respond
                                                                    based on what works best for their respective
                                                                    institutions, rather than wait for MoHE to issue
                                                                    guidelines and directives. HEIs must continue
                                                                    to sustain their mission of education to students,
                                                                    support their faculty and staff, fulfil duties as
                                                                    partners in the communities, and to produce
                                                                    solutions to national problems created by the
                                                                    ripple effect of COVID-19. HEIs should collect
                                                                    verifiable evidence, evaluate it rigorously, and
                                                                    apply independent critical thinking to solve
                                                                    other issues related to COVID-19.
                                                                        The COVID-19 has thrust the higher
                                                                    education system into an e-learning experiment of
                                                                    an unprecedented scale and scope. It is important
                                                                    for leadership to recognise the professional
                                                                    burden suddenly thrust on faculty and staff
                                                                    during a personally stressful time, and therefore
                                                                    set more reasonable, realistic expectations. The

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way HEIs transform all of their instruction           and security normally experienced on-campus,
in this compressed time frame will result in a        through the provision of safe online and offline
pale imitation of what quality online instruction     learning spaces, so that the students are able to
is, and exposing the entire academic staff and        resume and complete their studies as soon as
students to this trial product will likely cause      possible. The key takeaway is that narrowing
setbacks; instigating apprehensiveness rather         the digital divide is not about improving access
than instilling positive attitudes in faculty and     to places, but to people.
student to technology-enabled learning. Thus, it
will be important for the management to collect       A Blended Approach in Learning
data on students’ learning experiences and the
                                                      The COVID-19 pandemic has enhanced
academics’ experience in remote T & L using
                                                      appreciation for conventional face-to-face
technology, and to use the feedback to improve
                                                      learning, and the traditional campus classroom
on contingency plans, and to plan for preparing
                                                      (Mustafa, 2020; Mahesh, 2020). Generations of
students and facilitators for engaging in online
                                                      parents have chosen to spend money on having
T & L should HEIs ever have to close due to
                                                      their children educated at the best schools and
any crisis in the future. Additionally, there is a
                                                      universities, sometimes hundreds or thousands
need to conduct a rapid technology assessment
                                                      of miles away so that their children can access
(identifying weaknesses in infrastructure,
                                                      the best professors, classrooms and libraries
including power, broadband and equipment to
                                                      in person. For the majority of students, going
strengthen delivery), and produce an estimate
                                                      to college is considered as a rite of passage
of the costs to sustain continued remote T
                                                      and a transformational personal journey
& L (including infrastructure/equipment,
                                                      (Blumenkrantz & Goldstein, 2014; Tinto,
connectivity, etc.) to the end of the year.
                                                      2011). Even if academic course work can be
                                                      replicated online, what cannot be replicated
Students at the Heart of Education                    is the organised supporting ecosystem, such
Students’ welfare must be a priority at all           as extracurricular activities and team work,
times. It is pivotal to address their learning loss   which are crucial components of a traditional
throughout the MCO, and to provide special            higher education (Mannan, 2007; Jorgenson,
assistance to the underprepared and the less          et al., 2018). These activities create social
privileged to enable greater access to higher         capital, prepare students for civic engagement
education. Generally, the primary concerns            and combat the self-absorbed individualism
of the HEIs in the immediate and long term            which undermines democratic society (Resnick,
should be about the impact of the pandemic on         2000, Flores & Rogers, 2019). The reality is
all students, while paying specific attention to      that the digital classroom can never displace
the low-income and underrepresented students          the traditional campus classroom. Those who
(Weissman, 2020; Zhong, 2020). This is                seek the conventional face-to-face university
because, even in normal circumstances, those          teaching experience will continue to seek out
students are most vulnerable to having their          HEIs that provide those experiences.
education derailed, and their personal well-               During the global lockdown, academics
being threatened.                                     do the best they can, trying to take just the
     As described in the preceding section,           essentials with them as they rush to develop
COVID-19 has exacerbated the existing                 materials for online delivery, managing with
inequality among students, particularly in terms      bare minimum resources and competencies to
of their access to the Internet, the inadequacy       deliver meaningful learning experiences. It bears
of appropriate devices for T & L, and students’       reminding to distinguish between the normal,
mental health and emotional well-being, among         everyday type of effective online instruction
others. It is also important to restore the safety    and that which is prepared in a hurry or during

Journal of Sustainability Science and Management Volume 16 Number 1, January 2021: 70-96
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