What's the outlook for tertiary education in 2021?

By Peter Nikoletatos, Industry Director – Education, TechnologyOne

The past year has been like no other in living memory. The academic year began with uncertainty—and that bedded down to major disruption to tertiary education providers. International students were unable to enter the country, while students already here faced lockdown. Many of them lost their ability to earn the means of paying their tuition fees. Australia’s third-largest export industry was undeniably in crisis.

With a massive loss of income from fee paying students and no access to the JobKeeper scheme, institutions were forced to reduce teaching and research staff—as well as administration and support staff, including IT. To add to all that, in mid-year, the government announced dramatic changes to subsidies for domestic students across a wide range of disciplines. This threatened many courses, requiring the closing or consolidation of many offerings, especially at the undergraduate level.

From my perspective, there are now three areas that institutions must pay attention to in the short- and medium-term in order to compete and thrive in this ‘new outlook’.

Deliver a distributed model

Online and remote learning was an option most institutions offered, but in 2020 it became the sole way of delivering tertiary education. This will remain more or less true in 2021 and potentially well into the next few years, perhaps the classroom has now flipped.

Student experience has always been an important differentiator between institutions; in recent years that has included a consumer-quality interactive experience. When we surveyed over a thousand students in 2019, 17% said that they would definitely switch to a different university or TAFE if they were offered better levels of technology and innovation. In our 2020 survey, that had risen to 31%.

Endless delivery of learning via web conferencing tools like Zoom is not sustainable. It’s too easy for students to get bored, feel peripheral and simply disengage. This means institutions must prioritise investment in smarter ways to deliver a truly interactive and effective learning experience to students engaged. That will call for increasing investment in remote technology that enables a distributed teaching and team participation model.

Manage student and staff wellbeing

The wellbeing of students has always been a challenge in maximising retention and academic success. Early indications are that 2020 saw a meteoric rise in issues—and I believe we are yet to witness the full scale of the problem.

The morale of staff has also taken a blow, with some of the top performers taking redundancies to enter the private sector. Some remaining staff have lost research funding and working hours, while all staff have been under pressure to deliver services remotely, some for the first time.

Financial and emotional stress has become a significant factor throughout academic life—which means that institutions will need to redefine and model their approach to pastoral care.

Reach out to enrol and recruit

When the GFC hit in the late noughties—the last major global recession—the tertiary sector suffered fewer job losses compared to other industries. This is because responsive institutions grasped the opportunity to educate workers who’d lost their jobs. Upskilling was seen as a way to invest redundancy payments in order to change career or gain competitive advantage in a shrinking job market.

It remains to be seen whether universities, TAFEs and private education providers will be ready to exploit and benefit from a similar strategy during this and coming years. With the government’s change of course subsidisation from 2021, they are under even greater pressure to deliver the types of education which lead directly to students finding jobs.

Unfortunately, unlike the GFC, overseas recruitment forums, open days and other face-to-face recruitment drives are off the agenda. This calls for innovative marketing and outreach to potential cohorts in an even more competitive market.

Tertiary education has withstood many changes over time, and the current crisis will eventually pass. However, it's those Institutions that invest wisely now that will prosper when the world as we knew it returns to a reset level of normality.

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Publish date

09 Apr 2021

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