On student recruitment mid-crisis, learn from Australia

COVID-19 is forcing those of us who work in the education sector further online. But the education industry in Australia has seen challenges the rest of the world hasn’t had to face yet: particularly, the effect of the pandemic on a major annual student intake. Importantly, for higher education institutions in the northern hemisphere, Australia’s response provides valuable foresight into what the rest of the world may face in the near future.

When COVID-19 reached boiling point in late January, Australian universities were faced with a problem. They were right in the middle of their main academic year intake as thousands of students were preparing to enter the country and classes were scheduled to commence at the end of February. With up to AU$3 billion (US$1.9 billion) of revenue on the line, in an industry that is in the top three exports for the country, the situation was unprecedented.

To compound matters further, the severity of the crisis was getting worse day by day and, a week closer to intake, flight cancellations began forcing universities and students to act quickly.

Many options were considered. Initially, a number of universities encouraged students from China to spend 14 days in a low-risk country before they made their way to Australia. Others offered students up to AU$7,500 to wait in an attempt to prolong the inevitable.

In fairness to universities the idea was backed by the Government of Australia which, at the time, may have assumed COVID-19 would be contained or prove to be a lower risk. However, new cases were being discovered in new countries every day, disavowing this strategy.

Next came reports that universities planned to house students in quarantined communities situated in rural areas. Students would take classes online and be steadily and safely reintegrated into on-campus study. Unfortunately, this plan came uncomfortably close to the unfolding cruise-ship crisis; and placing hundreds of students in close-quarters living arrangements seemed risky. Australia’s Group of Eight (Go8) later denied reports that this plan was under consideration.

As February progressed it became clear there was no quick fix to this problem and no end in sight for the pandemic at large. Australian universities settled on the only thing that they knew would help them retain international students and give them the best chance at a good outcome: flexibility.

To achieve this universities pushed back enrolment deadlines, some over a month after term commencement. This allowed students time to carry out travel plans and comply with mandatory quarantine rules that were now in effect for many international arrivals. The uncertainty was not limited to just students – recruitment and admissions teams were also forced to think on their feet. On top of handling the usual chaotic back and forth over immigration documents, they also juggled new communication requirements around ever-changing travel plans and government restrictions.

This was and continues to be a stress test for international recruitment processes, and with this in mind we’ve reached out to some colleagues in Australia and asked them to share their experience in advance of larger upcoming intakes for universities around the world.

The view from Australian universities

One Australian director of international recruitment told us that they had actually mobilised a serious incident response team in advance of COVID-19 for the Australian bushfires. As a result the transition from one crisis to another was relatively simple.

Recruitment staff reacted quickly, introducing online student counselling, webinars and live-streaming campus tours. They said the effort was extraordinary, and in trying to get ahead of these two events the university has learnt to be “more flexible, innovative and agile” than they could have imagined possible.

This director’s message to other universities: “Most institutions would be well-prepared for changes to delivery and working models. My advice would be to look at these changes, not as temporary fixes to get us through the COVID-19 situation, but as an opportunity to reinvent how we deliver education and how we recruit and support students.”

Shehan Thampapillai, associate vice-chancellor at Central Queensland University, pointed out that Australia is particularly susceptible to volatility in the Chinese market. COVID-19 mobility restrictions in China heightened competitive pressure in other key markets around the world as universities attempted to make up for lost numbers.

He echoed the sentiment that staff needed the ability to pivot quickly and deal with an ever-changing environment. On how roles were changed he said: “Staff who may in the past have focused purely on new student recruitment are now also involved in the retention of students moving from one term into the next.”

Shehan’s message to universities globally is: “Preparation is the key. In this ever-changing environment which we find ourselves operating in, change occurs quickly and unexpectedly.”

Private providers in Australia echoed the feedback we received from universities.

Tony Cullen, executive general manager for global engagement at Navitas, Australia’s largest higher education provider, says: “We are looking at a range of measures to ensure we can sustain our operations during these uncertain times without compromising our commitment to the student experience and academic outcomes. From both a local and global perspective border restrictions are constantly evolving, so planning is required to keep students in or to prevent them from coming.

“With regard to 2020 intakes we’re expecting major interest in online delivery with key challenges around accommodation and any isolation periods should borders reopen.

“In these unprecedented times it is our shared and collective responsibility to do what we can to support one another.

“We know the COVID-19 outbreak will impact higher education providers significantly. Our challenge, while following all advice and putting our students and staff first, is to ensure that we can come out of this the other side ready to recover and grow, without losing focus on the experience and academic outcomes of our students.”

Recovery may be just as fast and unpredictable

At Enroly, we build solutions for this kind of problem, including an automated applicant retention platform that takes care of CAS (confirmation of acceptance for studies) and visa administration tasks like document collection, which otherwise take up valuable staff time.

Speaking to several universities recently, there is clearly a higher level of confidence in – and demand for – digital transformation. Sudden changes to recruitment processes are forcing universities to re-examine their technology, motivated by what it can do to increase the efficiency of their teams and students. In just the past three weeks we’ve had three UK universities agree to commence pilots. It has been surprising to see such a sudden increase in interest and this may well be down to learning from markets like Australia.

With the world currently in lockdown, it is clear that the future will not look the same as Australia’s last student intake. But the agility of Australia’s response will be vital for others to learn from and to contend with a recovery that may prove just as fast and unpredictable as the onset.

Universities should heed the message from Australia that “preparation is key”. Any measures put in place now to give recruitment staff more time to pivot will be hugely beneficial.

Jeff Williams and Maynard Inkster are co-founders of Enroly, a technology company providing conversion and compliance automation software for higher education.
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