GWILYM CROUCHER and WILLIAM LOCKE. A post-coronavirus pandemic world for Australian higher education: Part 1

May 20, 2020

The pandemic is magnifying existing pressures for universities but is also providing new possibilities. How universities respond will determine their future.

What the coming months and years will mean for higher education in Australia and around the world depends on the response of governments and providers to the unfolding disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic. While the speed of developments during the pandemic makes prediction fraught, past experiences of similar economic, political and social ‘shocks’ to the provision of higher education in advanced economies provide some hints to where we might be heading. The pandemic is magnifying existing pressures for universities but is also providing new possibilities. We outline here some trends and their implications for Australian higher education and public policy.

Part 1 examines some of the trends as they directly relate to students, while part 2 looks at those more closely related to institutions, as well as compounding factors including the diminishing capacity for governments to invest in education and research.

Diminishing student capacity and preference for travel to undertake international education

For many students their preference for traveling to another country for study will diminish because leaving their home country for study becomes perceived as less safe. Growing nationalism may also promote studying domestically, exacerbated by the relationship between a home country and the one where students study. This will be framed by shifting geopolitical tensions that are almost entirely divorced from people-to-people or educational relationships. Moreover, many students will face stricter rules and regulations in gaining entry to a chosen host country for study and, possibly, post-study residence and employment.

For Australia, this means the international student market may recover somewhat but, at best, slowly, and the incentive for studying abroad will be much diminished because of the perceived risks. This will likely have most impact on laboratory and practice-based disciplines, some of which have high proportions of international students. The impact could also be particularly acute for business and commerce disciplines, which have the most international students and are usually in the higher margin range of offerings. Australia may be better positioned to attract students than the two other large destination countries, the UK and US, if there is continuing success in Australia mitigating the worst effects of the pandemic. China and one or two other Asian countries may take advantage to retain students who might have gone abroad to study, as well as attracting more international students from the region and beyond.

Much depends on how and when the government is in a position to lift travel restrictions. Yet, as international education has particular cultural dimensions and is not just another trade in services, socio-political factors may inhibit recovery of the market even if the government does open the borders. The reputational effects following the uneven initial response have yet to be fully known. So, too, is the impact of the sudden shift to online teaching and learning and how engaged international students continue to feel, especially when those students already in Australia start to return to campus.

There are uncertain prospects for university-delivered transnational education, too, such as at international branch campuses. Despite Australia’s success over several decades, there may be little practical option to grow new large-scale provision overseas in the immediate term. Existing markets may become increasingly challenging as more countries and multi-national companies look for new opportunities outside their own markets. For Australian international and transnational education, the future may be uneven. One factor affecting this is the growth of online study.

Growing student acceptance of online study

Many, if not most, large institutions in major higher education systems have made this shift to more online study with a likely growth in students’ acceptance of it, even if it does not remain their preference. Yet, the perception of online course delivery as inferior to face-to-face delivery will likely remain for many students, as will concerns that it is not equivalent or equally valuable to face-to-face no matter how well it is done. For many the cognitive learning may be deemed to be as good but not the rest of the educational experience. Some disciplines have not been able to transition as easily, especially those relying on experiences out of the classroom, nor can some cohorts of students transition as well due to limited access and capability of technologies.

Australia is unevenly positioned to respond. In many ways its universities have been at the forefront of online education provision and some have developed sophisticated modes of delivering wholly online programmes. For instance, universities now partner with MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses) platforms (e.g. Coursera, EdX, FutureLearn) or dedicated online programme managers (e.g. 2U, Wiley, Pearson, Keypath Education) to support wholly online programme delivery. Australia’s proximity to key markets (in the Asia-Pacific especially) and a shared time zone with Asia are advantages in terms of enabling synchronous communication, service and support. For example, strong demand for English language courses continues, particularly from some Asian countries, such as Vietnam.

Yet the online capacity that has been built in this crisis will allow international brands and leading universities to offer courses without the need for residence. An increasingly competitive landscape raises questions about which areas of demand universities should focus on and what are realistic expectations about demand and growth. There are also challenges in implementing innovative pedagogies for wholly online courses, particularly when some students will continue to prefer a more traditional, classroom approach. Nonetheless universities can benefit from economies of scale in the development of online delivery across their offerings.

Diminishing attractiveness of certain degrees and programs

Deteriorating economic circumstances in most countries and growing unemployment affect decisions about what to study and whether it will provide financial benefit and employment security in the future. While recession often means that study is an attractive option for those unemployed or underemployed, it also means students are more likely to select courses perceived to lead to professional entry or to enhance their employment prospects. The global lockdown and disruption to many industries may affect the future trajectory for some, such as accelerating and amplifying use of automation, data analytics (including Artificial Intelligence) and online systems, and so reduce the requirements for some skills sets and degrees, such as accounting.

For Australia, there may be less domestic and international student demand for courses not perceived to lead to professional entry or to enhance employment prospects, such as arts, some pure science and commerce degrees such as marketing. Australian providers that specialise in professional and vocational subjects may be well placed to accommodate the shifts in student demand.

These trends have significant implications for universities and higher education policy, which we examine in part 2, as well as compounding factors including the diminishing capacity for governments to invest in education and research and the reorganisation of universities and their workforces.

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