What's next for universities in Malaysia?
By Jagdish Singh Malhi May 4, 2020
- International students will come if classes are 50% online, with use of campus facilities
- Government policies for the next 12 to 18 months will be critical for survival of sector
If you said to me in January that the global economy will come to an almost standstill in 3 months because of a virus, I would have laughed it off as you reading too many Jack Reacher novels.
However, here we are. It's a reality check for all of us.
Many universities in major education hubs like Australia, America, the UK, and Canada are dealing with a crisis that is putting every member of staff to the test. From the VC to interns, everyone has an important role, now more than ever, to get us through the next 18-36 months because international students are an important contributor to the sector.
Malaysia is no different as we have students from over 60 countries who choose Malaysia for their higher education. For Swinburne (and maybe most private universities in Malaysia), the first half intakes are led by domestic enrolments, and the second half is led by international enrolments.
At Swinburne, our international strategy has delivered high double-digit year-on-year growth for the degree intake in February and our April Foundation and Diploma intakes has maintained an overall conversion rate of 55% despite the Movement Control Order (MCO) enforced by the Malaysian government since 18 March to keep us safe.
Our students have shown tremendous capability in adapting to the new (and hopefully temporary) normal with online teaching and learning. There will always be areas for us to improve though.
Being in my position as marketing director, I expect a lot more white hair and hair loss but here are my thoughts about what to focus on for the next 12 months (which I’m optimistic about).
Digitalising the university
This means the average Baby Boomer will probably be able to compete with a Gen Y or Z 'Youtuber" as they learn how to create videos at home. Most in our executive group have never self-recorded 'official' videos but now I'm proud that they know the importance of lighting, landscape mode, and keeping the lens at eye level. As people are forced to sit home, more time is spent online and in front of the TV (as the number of new subscriptions for Netflix and other streaming services has shown).
Universities have varying capabilities in "operating digitally", so no matter what your current capability level is, everyone's Digital IQ is growing exponentially. There are many challenges to deal with besides teaching online and running a Facebook ad campaign. How do we run the entire university from home? Operating digitally requires the entire university to rethink the student and staff experience using technology which is simple to use and accessible to all.
At the moment, there's no such thing as too much information when it comes to preparing for enrolment in the second half of the year. We have different audiences and to me, the three key audiences to focus on now are our current and future students, education placement partners, and the government. Many universities work with partners who help students make decisions about their higher education. We are used to visiting them in-person for a variety of events and now that we're unable to travel, I find that making it a habit to contact several partners a day helps with top of mind recall for when it's time for them to make recommendations. Newsletters, Whatsapp, and Facebook groups are great but nothing beats a phone call.
With the government, it's important to continuously keep them aware of the challenges and opportunities so that they're able to introduce appropriate policies to support the university and students. Over-communicating is important now because there's a lot to talk about, for example, what is the university doing to prepare for students to return to campus? How will we help students during the quarantine period? These are important topics to cover now so that once students are ready to travel, everyone will know their university is prepared.
Managing student decisions
There are two categories of potential students I would focus on, for now, those who have decided where to study (or think they have) and those who are still researching/weighing options. For the latter, there are many ways to reach out to them online and to get them into a discussion about courses, fees and scholarships, etc. before taking it forward.
For students who have already decided where to study, there is still an opportunity to communicate your points of differentiation and there are ways to do this. This also means you should be constantly communicating with current/offered students because they could also change their minds.
I'll end with the challenges facing us in the next 6 months and how to manage this.
International student numbers in second half
There are differing views on the potential for international students to enroll in the August/September intake. My view is we will have a good intake if:
- International students get to complete year 10/12 exams and get their results on time.
- Border controls ease up and students can arrive in time for a 14-day self-quarantine.
- Face to face classes can commence.
These are the three requirements for us to have a good intake in August/September. Points 1 and 2 are the most important as I'm confident students will still come if classes are 50% online but they get to use the facilities and mingle with the campus community.
SPM examinations postponed to Q1 2021
The Malaysian government has announced that a number of important examinations will be postponed to Q1 2021. My assumption is the Government will cut short the November and December school holidays to make up for the lost teaching time from March-May so that the SPM examination can be held in January, before the Chinese New Year celebration from Feb 12-13. If that is so, then the results need to be processed quickly and the government must provide a definitive date for the announcement of results (so far, it's a guessing game every year and this needs to change) so that universities can plan their intakes. If the government is able to move quickly with the results, we should be able to start the intake in April as usual or May at the latest. Whilst the current decision is students can enroll with their forecast results, the caveat is they cannot enroll in the core units. This decision should be reconsidered.
Operating in a post-MCO environment
The reality is sooner or later, someone on campus is going to contract Covid-19 and fear will spread. It's important for the university to communicate regularly and clearly to students, staff, and all stakeholders about the health and safety measures on campus and what will be done if a case is detected.
Next, campus facilities are planned to cater to X number of students and now this will be reduced to half for social distancing, therefore the university may want to consider increasing its operating hours for facilities to cater to students with lab requirements, etc. And if you're heading to the highers floors, please use the stairs so that we don't have a queue for the elevator.
I'm bullish on our ability to persevere and weather the storm with the support of everyone involved because according to Yuval Harari in his book Sapiens, we're the species of Sapiens that have learned to survive. Stay home and stay safe, see you on campus!
Jagdish Singh Malhi is director of Marketing & Student Recruitment at Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus.