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Two Southeast Asian nations have offered generous fee reductions or refunds to university students as renewed waves of COVID-19 are expected to keep campuses closed into the new academic year, but critics have said that the aid is too little, too late.

The prime minister of Thailand, Prayut Chan-o-cha, has ordered universities to reduce tuition fees by up to 50 percent, in a move expected to help 1.7 million higher education students from undergraduate to doctoral levels.

Anek Laothamatas, the higher education minister, said that the government would subsidize universities for 60 percent of the discounts.

Public university students would receive discounts on a graded scale, depending on the cost of their education, while private university students would receive a flat fee.

Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal, the student union president at Chulalongkorn University, told Times Higher Education that the new tuition subsidies were “good news” but “came very late, and would not have come at all if students hadn’t demanded them.”

Thai students have been protesting for COVID-19-related tuition subsidies since last year and had rejected an initial offer of a 10 percent discount. In July, student unions increased their lobbying with statements and petitions signed by thousands.

“As public voices grew, the government finally accepted the demands of students struggling across the country,” Chotiphatphaisal said.

The move was likely in response to broader criticism of the state’s management of the pandemic, which has triggered mass protests that continue in Bangkok. Chotiphatphaisal cited rising case numbers, poor vaccine distribution and a lack of trust in Chinese-made vaccines purchased by the Thai government as areas of concern.

“Our most important challenge now is mental health,” he said. “Young people have little hope and feel repressed. The university did not respond swiftly to their needs, and some do not even trust going to the campus health center or clinic.”

Students are demanding a doubling in the number of mental health counselors available on campus.

Malaysian students have also been tossed in various directions for the past year, as the country abruptly ended campus registrations in autumn 2020. Closures left out those in the most disadvantaged areas. One video of a young woman taking online classes in a tree, surrounded by mosquito nets -- the only place she could get a Wi-Fi signal -- went viral. Campuses reopened for several months and then shut again in May.

In response to criticism, the government also announced a fee-reduction initiative. It will help almost 400,000 public university students affected by the pandemic, according to national news agency Bernama.

The higher education ministry said that this would work out to a reduction of 10 to 35 percent, which would compensate for educational and residential costs from the 2019-20 and 2020-21 academic years.

But Sharifah Munirah Alatas, a lecturer in strategic studies and international relations at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, told Times Higher Education that the move was “a drop in the ocean, hardly enough” for students still studying remotely.

“There are ongoing costs that these families have to foot, such as costs for internet connectivity, not to mention poor connectivity in the interior regions,” she said. “My reading of both the Ministry of Higher Education and the Ministry of Education is that they have been too slow to react to pleas from civil society and the public for over a year now.”

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