Post COVID-19 hope for the Australian education sector

5 minute read

It’s time to put away the koalas, the laneway lattes and the glittering Sydney Harbour vistas, says Twig Marketing’s Tim Winkler. The pathway out of the international enrolment slump in Australian education requires a more authentic approach, with a forensic focus on the new drivers of demand.

While we may be feeling deflated by Victoria’s ‘second wave’, it’s worth remembering that we’re still a sunny, relatively safe country with 4 of the world’s top 50 universities, relatively few new coronavirus cases, little gun crime and benign weather.

COVID-19 has inflicted severe short-term pain and promises some seismic changes to the international education sector. There are significant opportunities, however, for Australia to become an education destination of choice when travel bans drop. 

But an urgent repositioning of Australia’s tertiary education sector is required if we are to realise the true potential of the emerging opportunity.

Australia’s immediate advantage

When international travel resumes, a vast number of well supported 18 and 19 year-olds hungering for an education in a prestigious offshore institution overseas will be clamouring for their boarding passes. Family cash flows may be down, but the desire to escape to a foreign campus will be intensified for many.

Meanwhile, education providers are struggling to contain costs, slashing departmental budgets and focusing more on online delivery.  International sales teams will need to work hard to convince their Boards that there is a future in international students. Not least so they have a chance at mounting a solid recruitment campaign for 2021 – assuming that at least some travel bans are removed in time.

While there are many challenges ahead, the current state of Australia’s competitors in the tertiary education sector has left Australia better poised than many to rebound. 

The US has topped 4 million coronavirus cases. Far right militants are capturing headlines, shouting racist abuse at frontline health workers. As the nation marches towards another bitterly contested general election, there will be many students and parents who consider the US an unattractive or unviable destination for 2021 study.

The UK, meanwhile, faces not just extreme COVID-19 repercussions but Brexit. Some institutions have predicted an 80-100 percent drop in enrolments as a result of these two issues.

While a relatively safe and stable haven, Canada may also struggle to lock in students for a 2021 start from a number of markets because of the timing of its main intakes.

Our student enrolment and intake timing may yet play to our advantage. Growth, however, will depend on our ability to position the new drivers of demand and the willingness of our institutions to adapt.

Institutions must adapt

Make no mistake, there is still a substantial contestable international market in tuition. But the contestable area of that market is much wider than it was before.

Fewer students will be able to afford to study internationally. Some parents will have serious reservations about travel and the health impacts of the virus. There’s no doubt that the size of the pie will be smaller. The opportunity to gain a larger slice of the market, however, is clear and present.

Closures of institutions in the US and the UK changes competitor capacity and market dynamics between nations, while stark differences in capacity and willingness to adapt to new market opportunities also makes market share within national education systems much more fluid.

Products need to evolve in order to offer qualifications relevant to the next five years. COVID-19 should be the market shock that triggers a fresh approach. Successive layers of committees pondering each word of curriculum change may well be redundant to a 19-year-old Shanghai native’s biomedicine degree – and more importantly, to his or her future employer. 

Delivering a genuinely rewarding student experience will take on new importance fuelled by the incursion of highly desirable offshore university brands with strong online learning products.  

In terms of disciplines, travel and tourism degrees are going to be a tough sell into 2021 and beyond, with graduate employment prospects likely to be sluggish at best. The arts will be even more clearly for love, rather than money. Immunology will suddenly be far more popular. Biomedical engineering and IT courses will also benefit.

In the medium term, the impacts of the virus and the recovery process will reshape occupational demand. There is already increasing industry and community recognition of the importance of multidisciplinary collaboration in fields such as epidemiology and many fields of business. Institutions hoping to remain relevant will have to relax their grip on rigid divisions between disciplines.

Price is less important than value

Price changes will have a minimal impact on demand while they remain reasonably close to those of international competitors. Increases in value, on the other hand, will make a big difference.

Course fees are often a key indicator of quality, particularly for higher-ranked universities. As a result, back-end cost adjustments will need to be aggressively applied, with a blossoming of scholarships, bursaries and travel subsidies throughout the remainder of the year. 

As in the past, some universities will achieve strong results through a strategic application of post-purchase discounts, but with disruption and widespread dissatisfaction over the study experience of 2020, initiatives to retain existing international students will need to be intensified.

International inclusion should be essential to Australian education

The well-worn ‘we love international students’ welcome mat put out by the sector hasn’t worked because it is still positioned at the tradesman’s entrance for many Australian institutions, while domestic students are ushered in the front door and engaged in additional opportunities and discourse in the front parlour.

The Australian education narrative has failed to convince domestic students, international students or the Australian community that international education is anything more than icing on the cake. It needs to be recognised as a fundamental ingredient.

We need to recognise that the effective education of our domestic students, the future of our workforce, and the growth and maturity of our culture is dependent upon the continued presence of international students on our shores.

The slow response to the rejection of inferior support for international students during the COVID-19 crisis highlights the gap that we need to rapidly close to demonstrate that international students are valued.

The central role of international educational exchange and experience needs to become a mantra owned not just by the education sector, but by the academic community – and will only be recognised as such when a clear, evidence-based case for the future is made clear.

COVID-19 is both an opportunity and a rationale for the embracing of international education as a cornerstone of our education system. If we do not take this step, we’ll see diminished market share and a sluggish recovery.

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Article adapted from an article by Tim Winkler published in the IEAA.


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