Students in Laos See a Difficult Future in the “New Normal”

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University students return to in person classes(Photo: Kadankao)

With the government’s recent decree reopening the country, many in Laos are hoping to pick up where they left off before the pandemic abruptly ushered in a new era of lockdowns, closures, distance learning, and general sequestration. 

There is some cause for hope of a brighter future, as infection rates have declined to the point where the Covid Taskforce announced it would discontinue daily announcements. But despite this progress, returning to the vibrant pre-pandemic situation may not be so easy as merely lifting restrictions.

The condition of students, who were abruptly forced into a period of lackluster online learning, became a major focal point of public concern during the Covid times. Secondary students mostly returned to in-person learning during the final semester of 2021, but many continue to suffer poor performance, citing a persistent lack of motivation, psychological unwellness, and a sense of hopelessness and limited opportunity in the future.

Local university students, though, mostly continued to study online. Some students were, as recently as 9 May, ordered to return to in-person learning with only a week’s notice, and only three weeks remaining in the term. Although many felt that online learning was ineffective, the response to the recent decree was not positive. 

An unofficial survey conducted by local university students of their classmates found that 69.6 % of respondents disagreed with returning at this time, and only 23.9% agreed. 

Vilay, a third-year university student and one of the survey respondents, said of the return to university grounds, “I feel miserable and unprepared, and I think that changing like this at the last minute will only disrupt things further.” 

She went on to mention concerns about the cost of commuting during the ongoing fuel crisis, and the considerations of her international classmates who have gone back to their home countries during the online study period. Unlike universities abroad, attendance is mandatory in Laos, and makes up about 30% of a student’s term grade. 

Another student also worried for their attendance grade amid the fuel crisis. 

“How can I tell my professor that if I don’t show up to class, it’s because I have no fuel in my bike?” they asked.

The fuel crisis is just a symptom of worsening financial problems for Laos, whose economy took a nosedive during the pandemic and is experiencing further shocks following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The effects have been rampant inflation, rapid currency depreciation, and an increasing cost of living. The country has totally depleted its foreign exchange reserves, rendering it unable to import enough fuel for the population.

For university students, the future looks bleak. 

“In the current situation, I don’t want to attend face-to-face classes, and tuition has doubled this year. I am a self-funded student. My parents are both farmers, and we don’t make a lot of money. I hope we’ll be allowed to continue online lessons so that I can save money for my parents,” one student said.

Many are beginning to see that pandemic recovery will not be as simple as merely lifting restrictions and hoping for the best. Policy solutions across a wide variety of sectors will need to be forward-thinking, imaginative, and bold. The world of 2019 is long-gone, and only difficult decisions await all of those who hang in the balance. 

Vilay, the university student, looks troubled: “I took a job to get by during this time,” she said, “it’s not much but now I have a week to decide if I quit my job for three weeks of in-person classes. I don’t know what to do.”