Study shows Covid-19 could devastate private universities as students delay studies to brace for looming recession

Analyst Choong Pui Yee noted that even before the pandemic began to hit Malaysia, the economic growth of the higher education sector already displayed worrying signs.— AFP pic
Analyst Choong Pui Yee noted that even before the pandemic began to hit Malaysia, the economic growth of the higher education sector already displayed worrying signs.— AFP pic

KUALA LUMPUR, May 9 — The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic is a potential catastrophe for private universities and colleges as prospective students could defer their studies due to parents’ financial difficulties, according to a think-tank’s crisis assessment study.

The Penang Institute’s Covid-19 Impact on the Tertiary Sector report stated this is compounded by the fact that private tertiary institutions predominantly rely on tuition and fees to stay afloat.

The pandemic and the ensuing movement control order has already wreaked havoc on businesses and workers, with official data showing that unemployment rose to the highest since 2010 in March when the lockdown was only two weeks’ deep.

“Besides fear of the pandemic, the looming economic recession will also mean that some parents may struggle financially. Some may not be able to afford tuition fees for their children,” said History and Regional Studies Programme senior analyst Choong Pui Yee.

The pandemic could also hurt the enrolment of foreign students, as it will likely decrease because of government control over the inflow of foreigners to avoid imported Covid-19 cases, further straining the cash flow of the institutions.

Choong noted that even before the pandemic began to hit Malaysia, the economic growth of the higher education sector already displayed worrying signs.

“In early April this year, the Asia Sentinel reported that research done by Professor Geoffrey Williams, a former deputy vice-chancellor at University Tun Razak showed that many private colleges and universities in Malaysia are operating in the red,” she said.

Choong said the only way for the majority of private universities and colleges to continue remaining in operation was through new funds or equity injections by shareholders.

“Public universities will most likely have to review their annual budget. It is not entirely impossible that the government, despite having allocated an annual budget to the higher education ministry may review the situation, given the current situation. 

“Non-essential programmes like conferences, seminars or invitation of foreign speakers are likely to be cancelled. Academic staff may also face greater difficulties in applying for internal grants for research or conferences. Likewise, plans to upgrade facilities may have to be postponed,” she said.

The pandemic’s impact will also affect tertiary education sector employees, as the analyst said academic staff will now have to adjust themselves to teaching online and to navigate the technical challenges of online classrooms, while non-academic staff will have to find ways to minimize disruptions.

“Untenured professors, contractual staff and international staff will face greater employment uncertainty. Contractual staff such as sessional lecturers, and part-time researchers already face employment uncertainty as a matter of course, even before Covid-19. 

“Unlike permanent staff, many part-time or contractual staff do not enjoy social security or any other benefits such as insurance coverage or employment provident funds. They are also dependent on whether the courses they teach are being offered in that particular semester,” she said.

In certain instances, Choong noted that the continuance of part-time or contractual staff’s jobs is dependent on the favour of their direct superiors, making it highly likely that they will become the first to go when universities or colleges have to save costs.

“One should not underestimate the mental stress the staff have to face. 

“Not only will academic staff have to learn how to conduct online teaching, perhaps even tweaking their lessons, managing students’ questions and complaints as well as marking papers, they also have to be more responsive to the students’ queries. 

“This would mean a more proactive approach in responding to students’ emails on top of learning how to do online teaching. For those in the applied sciences in particular, it would be even harder for the academic staff to teach since they cannot use the tools in the laboratories,” she said. 

With the addition of non-academic staff having to manage the schedules, complaints and incessant queries from students and staff, Choong said the disruptions will increase the mental stress and raise the possibility of burnout among tertiary education employees.

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