Coronavirus goes berserk: HEC issues new policy guidance to continue educational activities

By Hamid Khan Wazir

ISLAMABAD: As the deadly Coronavirus is fast spreading its tentacles, the Higher Education Commission (HEC) has announced a new policy guidance for the Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) in compliance with the government’s decision to ensure the continuation of educational activities during the second wave of COVID-19.

As per the government’s directions, all academic institutions shall be closed from November 26, 2020 until 24 December 2020.

However, they shall continue to deliver education through online or hybrid means or through assigning homework (especially if there are problems of connectivity).

The winter holidays shall be scheduled from December 25, 2020 to January 10, 2021, and all academic institutions shall remain closed during this period.

The academic institutions are scheduled to open on January 11, 2021. However, a review meeting will be held during the first week of January 2021 to assess the situation and authorize the opening of academic institutions.

In the light of the government’s directions, the Vice-Chancellors have been authorized to allow small groups of “essential” individuals on campus, subject to the implementation of scrutiny mechanisms or safeguards.

Only certain categories of students may be allowed on campus. These categories may comprise low-income students who may have connectivity problems at home because of lack of access to the internet or the availability of proper devices, foreign students, those PhD or MPhil students (or final year students) who need to use the laboratories to complete their thesis work, or third year or higher medical students who need to obtain clinical training.

The total number of students permitted to come to campus should not exceed 30 percent of the total enrollment, or a lower number if dictated by the campus conditions.

Similarly, the Vice-Chancellors may require the faculty members to come to campus for delivering or preparing their online lectures.

All the large examinations planned for December 2020 have been postponed, with exception of assessment examinations such as MDCAT, other entrance exams, recruitment exams, or prescheduled small examinations (e.g., less than 30 students). These may be conducted, if absolutely necessary, with strict observance of all health and safety protocols.

As for hostels, the new policy guidance says that the Vice Chancellors have the authority to allow limited occupancy of hostels, subject to the instructed restrictions. Only the students in the “essential” categories will be allowed. The total number of students shall not exceed 30 percent of the design capacity of the hotels (or a small number if so dictated by health considerations).

All SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures) shall be implemented strictly and diligently. The universities will put in place appropriate measures including isolating hostel residents (i.e., treating the hostel as a safe bubble) to protect them from external infection.

Besides, the universities shall draw up rules regarding the presence of faculty members or staff on campus.

“All the Vice Chancellors and heads of institutions shall ensure that the flexibility granted by the government is exercised in a judicious manner, authorized at the highest level, and monitored and managed effectively and efficiently,” reads the new policy guidance.

The HEC has also released Rs 10 million each to all public sector universities to help them establish any supportive arrangements needed to improve the quality of the online education process.

Besides, the universities may recruit senior, tech-savvy students to assist faculty members in technology-related problems involved in online education.

Furthermore, the HEC has constituted a COVID Response Oversight Committee to collaborate with the Vice Chancellors in their respective regions, clarify questions or concerns, share best practices, and oversee implementation.

The Committee is headed by Dr. Niaz Akhtar, Vice-Chancellor Punjab University, and comprises Dr. Tabassum Afzal (for ICT), Vice-Chancellor COMSATS University Islamabad, Dr. Aslam Uqaili, Vice Chancellor Mehran University of Engineering and Technology (for Sindh), Dr. Abid Ali, Vice-Chancellor Peshawar University (for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa), Engr. Farooq Bazai, Vice-Chancellor BUITEMS (for Balochistan), Dr. Kaleem Abbasi, Vice-Chancellor AJK University (for AJK), and Dr. Naeem Khan, Vice-Chancellor Baltistan University (for Gilgit-Baltistan).

The Committee will also interact with the respective provincial governments to ensure synchronized and cooperative action.