On-line courses to end home-town advantage

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There’s a new national market in education and training – it’s bad news for local heroes.

For decades the good folk of the Apple Isle have wrung their collective hands over the loss of a few of its’ best minds and, worse still, hottest football talents to the reviled mainland.

However the virtual loss of Bass Strait has opened up the Tasmanian higher education market to a host of well-resourced raiders, particularly from Victoria, meaning the good folk at UTas have a lot more to worry about than real estate prices being paid for new university buildings in Hobart.

Similarly, while hairdressing and plumbing courses are doubtless safe for now, TasTAFE enrolments in courses that could be easily delivered online are also at risk as a result of the new online world that has emerged during lockdown.

Ironically, the very same lockdowns which have isolated Australia’s island State and obliged us all to reacquaint ourselves with the bathroom schedules of our families have also caused a significant disruption to market dynamics in Australian higher education – with implications for every regional university and TAFE.

In the PC (pre-COVID-19) world, the challenges of populating classroom chairs with enthusiastic recruits drawn from a sparse population across a large geographic area meant that hunting grounds for university and TAFE recruitment were tribal. Local students pretty much stuck to their choice of local institutions, barring the leaching of a few pointy-headed individuals who followed dreams of career success or just escape from parents by moving interstate to study.

In the AC (after-COVID-19) world, there will be a new dynamic. Right now, every Australian institution is scrambling to get courses online. Market research for years has shown that a minority of students want to study online, and the unhappy educational experience of feeling confused, unloved and isolated by a bad experience of online teaching had created a significant market for institutions that invested in delivering a better online experience. 

National lockdowns during the COVID-19 crisis have forced significant change – with all higher education providers forced to invest quickly in providing at least a rudimentary online experience for students (and also for researchers – but the story of subsequent changes in the talent market is for another time).

Many institutions that are relatively new to online learning are making rudimentary mistakes – with management so busy getting the photoshoot done for their daily COVID-19 updates that they are missing the opportunity to quantify, identify and replicate best practice. Individual schools, colleges, faculties and departments are typically being left to devise their own online learning experience within an LMS shell and consequently, some course experiences are poor. 

On the flipside, some course experiences created by innovative individual educators are awesome, attracting strong student support for online experiences for institutions that have previously not had a strong track record in online delivery. It’s this issue that poses a significant future risk not just for higher education institutions in Tasmania, but for all regions.

Smart institutions will gear up to measure student satisfaction without the need to share results through private market research, with a view to identifying and understanding how to make students happy and better educated online, knowing that while overall satisfaction may be dismal, there is much to be learned from individual educators who are gifted at forging online connection. Identifying and systematising these approaches will change the face of online learning – and open up a significant truly national market for both TAFE and university education.

Regional universities that have relied on loyalty or desperation of local markets and/or a comparative advantage in online delivery will start to face increased competition from the big-branded, big-walleted behemoths of Australian higher education.

Institutions in the AC world will be better prepared to compete and deliver online, while a greater proportion of students in the AC world will have been conditioned to accept online education.

Furthermore, no risk management plan going forwards will be complete without a COVID-19 playbook, as higher education institutions steel themselves for the reality of potential future episodes of plague or pestilence. Geographic barriers such as Bass Strait that previously prevented interstate activity will virtually disappear as universities spread their newly-minted online delivery capabilities direct to households across the country.

The much-feared virus has carried with it many lessons. Ironically, an education system in lockdown in fact creates a far more open market for students than we have ever seen before. Institutions need to substantially alter their plans if they want to retain a strong future within it. 

Tim Winkler is Director of Australia’s first strategy and marketing consultancy for Higher Education, Twig Marketing.