COVID-19 has impacted us in many ways, including education. The UNCTAD data indicates approximately 1.38 billion students were forced to rely on e-learning due to the lockdown. All Australian universities were forced to changed offline lectures to online in March 2020 when both the number of confirmed cases and deaths increased sharply. There is now concern about the negative impacts of a second wave, as we have witnessed in Victoria. This means that the impact of COVID-19 on education will be more prolonged than initially expected.
COVID-19 is expected to impact demand for tertiary education both positively and negatively. On the positive side, demand from non-school leavers is expected to rise. Flexibility is one of the biggest advantages of online education, including adjustable course duration, accessibility beyond physical distance and time differences, student’s study time management as well as lecturer’s degree of freedom in running the course. This flexibility decreases production costs in education. These reduced costs and flexibility in turn will increase demand for education products such as online certificate and short courses particularly from non-school leavers. The imposed lockdown forced all academics to deliver online lectures which reduced any negative perceptions of online education as they gained confidence. Indeed, preparing online lecture materials requires approximately three times more effort than for offline lectures so the quality of online lectures maintain a high standard of learning for students.
Existing studies demonstrate a negative correlation between the business cycle and demand for tertiary education. It indicates an economic recession will increase demand for higher levels of education to acquire more advanced skills and knowledge. Some may want to delay joining the job market until the economy recovers from the recession. Considering youth unemployment is 14.1%, combined with general the unemployment rate of 7.4%, demand for tertiary education from school leavers will more than likely increase.
Absence of opportunities to establish networks and gain international experiences are disadvantages of online learning. Meeting new friends on campus from different countries provides a good opportunity to establish networks. A research article co-authored with Rod Falvey in 2018, illustrates that an increase in international students has led to the deepening bilateral market integration between Australia and the student’s source countries. In contrast, people’s behaviours during the pandemic indicates that the lockdown increased people’s focus on existing network circles. Social isolation can also cause an increase in anxiety and stress in students—particularly international students who are more vulnerable.
The negative impact on the economy is largely through wealth effects (asset price), production (supply) and consumer confidence (demand). In particular, the lockdown destroyed the global supply chain network, increased unemployment rates and reduced consumer confidence. The IMF’s predicted global economy will have a -4.9% contraction in 2020. A reduction in effective demand, led by the economic recession and income effect, is certainly one of the crucial determinants of international education.
Online education overcomes physical constraints, resulting in more direct competition among universities both domestically and internationally. That is, the decreased costs of online education also decrease entry barriers. Boutique style education providers—national and global—could be drawn towards customising demands for short courses and online certificates. However, it remains to be seen how this intensified competition will affect the structure of tertiary education sector.
To accommodate the change in demand, universities may have to provide diversified education products in addition to the traditional semester/trimester-based degree programs. The Morrison government announced further financial subsidies to support VET in July 2020. To combat fragmented social networks, universities may also need to design courses to improve students’ employability by emphasising hands-on-skills, critical thinking, and place greater focus on facilitating online discussions and interactions. The changing education environment has also generated pressure on the international education agent industry as student demand for their service will also be changed. Considering that more than half of international students’ mobility is organised through education agents, more proactive collaboration between universities and the agent industry has become crucial.
At the national level, the Australian government may need to consider providing incentives for international students learning online when they seek migration and/or an entry visa to Australia. Diplomatic efforts must be undertaken to minimise the negative impact of political tensions between China and Australia that occurred amid COVID-19 on Chinese students’ demand for Australian education. Compared to the US and UK, Australia is considered to be much safer from COVID-19 in terms of both numbers of confirmed cases and deaths—and this fact must be used for the government’s promotion plan to attract international students.
Dr Byung-Seong Min, Department of Business Strategy and Innovation and Griffith Asia Institute member.