Covid-19: What we’ve learned so far and where next?

Posted: 02/04/2020

The Higher Education sector has been acutely aware of its dependence on international students and, in many cases, its over-dependence on Chinese students, and most universities have worked hard over the last few years to diversify international student recruitment.

Understandably, most Australian universities were assuming that the threat to the flow of Chinese students would come directly from China, never from a virus that forces our own government to close the doors. Most universities assumed there was time for diversification, but the closed-door was sudden, unannounced and at the worst possible time of the year for the sector.

So, what are we learning?

Covid-19 has revealed three big, pressing issues:

1. Communication systems and methodology are lacking

One of the key issues was that universities didn’t know where students were so they struggled to communicate to the right students, and it also took a while to find the right message.

In the end, the caring message that is now being distributed is on the right track, but most International students suffered several weeks of anxiety.

2. Many weren’t ready to transition to online learning

As expected, universities jumped to ‘online learning’ as the best solution but quickly realised that it was far more complicated than first thought.

Those without mature online practices quickly realised the challenge of getting traditional face-to-face courses rebuilt online at a rapid pace. And all universities were challenged by their own lack of knowledge around what would, and wouldn’t, work in international markets.

Was there the bandwidth? Could students access the courses and all the content? Could our academics teach online? Could we deliver the quality expected by students?

3. The ability to comply with rules

The question on everyone’s lips is “What are we going to do about the rules?” Will TEQSA be understanding and cooperative? The answer to this is still in doubt, but TEQSA has said all the right things and has certainly portrayed a willingness to be part of the solution.

But the devil is in the detail. Many of the TEQSA ‘rules’ are legislated and can’t just be ignored. The indication seems to be one of “do your best; keep good records on individual students, and we’ll try to look at it case-by-case”. A huge challenge in a fluid environment that is changing by the day.

Lessons moving forward

1. Think about how we can, or should, know what happens to our international students out of teaching time. Where does our duty of care start and stop?
2. Build greater knowledge and maturity into online delivery, no matter what size it is in your institution.
3. Ensure your record management (student system, CRM, or whatever you use) is up to the task of keeping adequate records, even in unusual and unpredictable situations.

As we move forward, we will have to have our planning in two places. There is the immediate need to react; to manage the health of our staff and students; and rapidly move to new teaching and assessment practices.

But then there is the need to be planning future recruitment. The impact of COVID-19 will end, and we will come out the other side. Semester 1 has been a disaster and Semester 2 may well follow. But you need to be recruiting now for 2021 to prevent that from being a disaster as well. But without travel and international student fairs, and possibly Open Days, our traditional recruitment methods have been taken away. A new way of thinking will be needed.

Need help? Contact the team at DVE for a no-obligation chat about your own situation.