The Higher Education Industry has been severely affected by the global COVID-19 pandemic; this is especially true of the private higher education institutions whose principal source of revenue are programme fees paid by students.
With most institutions moving their classes, assignments and examinations online to cope with the new normal, the predictions of the imminent demise of colleges and universities in their current form seem to grow louder.
Suddenly, the proliferation of Zoom classes and Google Meet and Hangout interactions seemingly ushers in the age where MOOCs were supposed to rule the education landscape.
The future of education
But is this the inevitable scenario for the Future of Education? Au contraire, says this humble educator; instead, the current situation shines a white-hot spotlight on the hard choices that parents have to consider in choosing the geographies and institutions for their children's education.
One could well argue, as proposed in a recent online discussion hosted by the Khazanah Research Institute, that the deglobalisation of education is inevitable. When queried, according to several education marketing agents that we work with, many parents in this region seem highly reluctant to send their children away to the 'traditional' education countries like the UK and the US. One of the main reasons given was the unpredictable and dynamic travelling, immigration processing and quarantine restrictions (or the lack of). The current escalating number of fatalities in these countries due to the COVID-19 pandemic further urges the parents to think of closer and more accessible education options that still deliver the desired quality.
The continued online education of tertiary students during the Movement Control Order implemented in Malaysia, as well as similar efforts in other countries, has made apparent the complexity of quickly migrating academic teaching to a purely online offering. Classroom-based pedagogical approaches do not translate well online; many educators are starting to realise the extent of specific planning and appropriate teaching and learning strategies that need to be implemented to achieve the required efficacy of learning outcomes.
Conducive learning environment
Many students have also reported screen fatigue exacerbated by inconducive learning environment at home during the lockdown, and many also experience difficulties with patchy Internet connectivity possibly due to the surge in use during the lockdown.
At EduCity Iskandar, located in Iskandar Puteri, Johor, the most southern state in Malaysia, we have made several observations about students and learning. Many students from the seven universities and colleges in EduCity Iskandar had preferred to stay within our Education Hub even when they were allowed to return home to their parents and guardians.
Among the reasons cited were convenient access to the high-speed Internet connection, the ability to do group work with their classmates for assignments, the ease of formation of study groups to prepare for the online exams, and the safe managed environment within EduCity Iskandar. Those reasons underline the importance of having a conducive context for learning to continue under such circumstances, especially when conditions at their respective homes in a lockdown situation may not be as amenable.
We would argue that taking into account the three observations made above, namely the reluctance of parents to send their children too far away for studies, the difficulty of a purely online learning mode for students, and the preference for students to be in an education-friendly physical environment has presented a fertile environment for the resurgence of the Education Hub Model.
Universities and colleges in the popular student destinations of US, Europe and Australia are bracing for a steep decline in international student recruitment which is often a significant contributor to their revenue stream. The model of 'bringing education to the student' or at least much closer to the student without going purely online has to be seriously considered. Additionally, parents would be carefully monitoring which countries have been managing the COVID-19 pandemic effectively to entrust their children's educational journey.
This situation provides an opportunity for education hubs like EduCity Iskandar in Malaysia, Dubai International Academic City in UAE, Education City in Qatar and Uniciti in Mauritius to rise to the occasion. These four education hubs also represent their respective regions of South East Asia, the Middle East and Africa, all of which are typically net exporters of students seeking education.
Net importer of students
According to information extracted from the UNESCO Institute of Statistics data from 1997 to 2017 and presented by Education Insight in 2020, Malaysia had the most significant shift from being a net exporter of students to a net importer, thus signifying the most crucial success factor for an International Education Hub.
As universities with a focus on Internationalisation and International Student Mobility look at options for recovery in a post-COVID 19 world, International Education Hubs need to propose much more flexible options to potential institutions. A lowering of the barrier to entry is essential, as institutions tend to shy away from high capital expenditure on land and assets in an uncertain future. We believe that one-off grants would give way to equity participation by the operator of the education hub themselves, as this would lower both market and operation risks for the new entrant.
We at EduCity Iskandar have various partnership models available, including a Student Transit Model, an Incubation Model as well as a Licensing Model, to suit different approaches and risk appetites. Where there is difficulty, there is always opportunity; we believe if implemented appropriately, this marks the beginning of the re-emergence of the Education Hub Model.
Wan Ahmad Saifuddin Wan Ahmad Radzi is Managing Director of EduCity Iskandar Malaysia Sdn Bhd.
Malaysia National News Agency
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