Three positives to emerge from Covid

“This pandemic dictated immediate upskilling in online teaching capability in order to reach students in their homes”

For all of us in international education, Covid-19 has ripped up the rule book. While it’s been the most challenging time of our careers, there have been many positives – our digital ambition has accelerated; we’ve been forced to innovate; and the student experience has been front and centre, writes Tom Gifford, Head of Student Recruitment (International & Domestic) at RMIT University.

Let’s not forget that even before Covid, we were facing significant disruption. Our traditional markets were slowing, there were difficulties in government relations with China and there has been deep-rooted change in postgraduate student behaviour. With a global pandemic thrown into the mix, the need to change our approach to recruitment, retention and the courses we offer is monumental.

Here are changes I’ve seen over the past two years that give me confidence for the future our industry.

A better understanding of what students need

The Covid-19 pandemic has demanded we rethink how we deliver education and the wider student experience. Universities have broken down silos in order to listen to and deliver what students needed. Because the pandemic disrupted the way students live, learn and work, we’ve had to evolve our offerings to meet students’ expectations while keeping pace with the digitised environment.

International students impacted by lockdowns or travel restrictions have reported feeling anxious and isolated. This has highlighted the need for universities to help students build strong social connections and support networks. Many Australian universities responded quickly to establish offshore pop-up study centres which offer face-to-face engagement and build a sense of community for students studying in their home country. The set-up of these study centres shows universities have listened and acted quickly to replicate a face-to-face experience for those students unable to travel.

If we continue this approach of providing services that are tailored to students’ needs, we can offer an experience that reflects the motivations and decision drivers of prospective students.

Building community

Our physical campuses have always been the beating heart of international student communities. With no access to campuses there has been a need to foster a sense of belonging in the virtual space.

Online engagement and support have been essential in the absence of face-to-face services. We have seen investment in extra support for students to help with study, making friends, and technology troubleshooting.

We now have an opportunity to focus on developing holistic edtech ecosystems to build meaningful digital communities. If we successfully leverage our technology to maintain strong digital support along with our face-to-face services, we can offer personalised experiences to all students regardless of their preference or location.

Acceleration of our digital infrastructure

Covid-19 has accelerated our innovation in education models, with a combination of face-to-face and digital delivery now essential. These hybrid models present international students with new opportunities, and a competitive edge for those institutions that deliver it well.

A recent study by FutureLearn showed that two-thirds of Australian adults looking for a career change are more interested in online and flexible blended courses. If this is a global trend, we will need to reimagine learning in the digital age. Education will transition to borderless digital delivery, and we will need to offer flexibility in terms of timetables, intakes, and content, so we can compete with the likes of Google and LinkedIn Learning, and allow students to better balance work, study and life commitments.

There is no doubt that the pandemic has changed education. We have seen global disruption with schools and universities all around the world shut down. Here in my home city of Melbourne, students have endured 260 days in lockdown. This pandemic dictated immediate upskilling in online teaching capability in order to reach students in their homes. We also had to reimagine our course content and services to address the needs of our students.

2020 and 2021 have been hard. Yet among the uncertainty, it has highlighted the resilience of the education community, our ability to listen and understand students’ needs, and embracement of digital. If we can hold onto these gains, we can be confident of our post Covid future.

About the author: Tom Gifford is the Head of Student Recruitment (International & Domestic) at RMIT University. Tom is also the International Audience Lead and is responsible for overseeing a collection of squads and ensuring alignment and integration across marketing, recruitment, sales & conversion.