Universities and colleges around the world are facing financial and operational disruption on a scale not witnessed for decades, but they have no way of knowing whether business as usual is suspended for months, years or forever.

If you were a higher education god right now, responsible for the plight of the global sector, then yes, you’re going to be feeling pretty worried. International education enrolments around the world are pulverised by the economic devastation and travel bans resulting from COVID-19.

In the UK, Brexit had already devastated confidence, with 15 per cent of UK university staff considering moving to Europe and even the University of Cambridge reporting a significant drop in applications – all before COVID-19 emptied campuses.

In the US, Moody’s reported that 15 per cent of public universities had less than 90 days of cash on hand before the crisis hit – prompting speculation that numerous institutions will close campus doors before year end.

But you’re not a god of higher education, and trying to manage a national system, then chances are you are working in or with an institution that has a fighting chance of growing your market share and potentially coming out of this stronger than you were before.

The chances of achieving the positive outcome are infinitely higher if you stop for a moment and recalibrate not just your narrative, but also your operations.

Here are five key steps for May, drawn straight from the zone previously known as the Too Hard Basket, but now known as Areas To Consider Because Everything Really Is On The Table Now.

Throw out your playbook

The golden years of stable revenue growth and a predictable carve-up of key international markets are gone – for now. In the past, when enrolments tanked, you gave the marketing team three months to sort it out, then if growth didn’t trend up, you sacked the surplus staff and/or the marketing team.

The problem with this operational model is it ignores the fact that higher education is one of the world’s most imperfect markets. I can – and will continue to – walk into pretty much any university and improve enrolments through some fairly simple steps (usually communication / process / basic performance management), because the institution becomes consumed by supply-side factors, and needs outside help to tune into what students, employers and stakeholders want. In the background though, the fundamental problem of universities teaching what they think is right and important has built in structural rigidity. Many of Australia’s most intelligent people are chained within silos and hobbled by bureaucratic inertia.

At a time of large-scale business interruption, the old prescriptions of cut staff until it is better simply won’t work.

Revise offerings and recognise the competition from outside the sector

If you Google ‘best courses to do during lockdown’ you will find there will be nary a university programme in sight.

Language courses, which universities have taught for millenia, are offered free via duolingo, by various national language courses (soft power at its best), or at very low cost through a range of on-line subscription services. University courses rarely get a mention.

There are also instantly-available low cost and really quite fun looking courses on-line offering lessons on cooking, photography, or drawing. Private providers are enrolling tens of thousands of students in low cost, non-accredited courses to gain knowledge and experience learning things that they actually want to practice and understand.

Some university courses are an exception though. Yale’s Science of Well Being MOOC (via Coursera) received 500,000 new enrolments in a weekend and has been recently viewed more than 35 million times.

Set up a sales function that is not stuck in the days of Mad Men

Could the MOOC renaissance kick-start paid enrolments in the near future? Certainly, plenty of Australian universities hope so, with a flurry of new short courses offering fresh opportunities for lead generation.

For a sector ill-equipped to achieve strong rates of conversion from non-traditional channels, this is a significant problem. Recruitment teams have been built-up to deliver through shock and awe, armed with a heavily curated generic set of PowerPoint slides and a holster of free pens. Forsaking the jingoistic broadcast for some genuine two-way communication with students is a challenge to the model still used by universities and expected by traditional careers advisors and agents.

For the past decade secondary students across Australia have told me they see little distinction between presentations by universities visiting their schools. Each claims to be the best at something, each has pictures of smiling students and nice campuses – and presentations are frequently identical year to year. The clearly ineffective process of so-called engagement with schools is a microcosm of the larger issue that universities have in their marketing departments – an abiding love of broadcasting the brand rather than meaningful and effective communication.

The bombastic model of idle boasts may have worked in the mid 20th century, but has no place in the world of young people seeking clarity as they prepare for a labour market stained by a litany of shocks and surprises.

Address attrition

It is a basic rule for anyone who has ever gathered water from a stream – use a container that doesn’t leak. At the moment, institutions focus resources and effort strongly at filling their vessels with enrolments, without paying attention to the massive hole in the side, as students are lost from the system.

Remember all those casuals you have relied to teach over the past decade, who are now cut off your books like they don’t belong? Higher education in Australia has become reliant on a casualised workforce of teachers and researchers who play a critical role in service delivery, enhancing educational experience and providing support to students. If casuals had somewhere else to go, they would – and so if an institution starts to treat them like valued professionals, they will quickly pick up the best support team in the business. That translates directly to better student satisfaction, better graduate outcomes, and stronger word of mouth.

Because casuals are treated as disposable chattels in most places, the opportunities for an organisation ready to fete them have not yet been realised – but they will be, as the virus inspires institutions to re-examine how they work. And to the early adopter will go the pick of the casuals.

Of course, many other issues need to be addressed to reduce attrition – but the fundamental principle of putting as much effort into retention as goes into recruitment would transform the perception of value and also learning outcomes for many students.

Cauterise committees

Committees and embedded inefficiency have replaced the notion of accountable, effective governance at many institutions. Most people will immediately be able to think of meetings that were a waste of time, but that have to be repeated annually or even weekly.

Do all four levels of committees really have to examine changes to the wording of guidelines to a course? Does every Open Day Meeting need arguments about apportioning table balloons?

In higher education administration, the holy grail is a single IT system that can be used to monitor and engage leads, accept applications and offers, enrol, assess and then graduate students. This hasn’t been possible, not because the technology is hard to develop, but because of the siloes and redundant traditions within each organisation that prevent implementation.

After recovering from the initial shock of the COVID-19 impact, it’s time to recognise that business as usual cannot – and should not – continue. A host of changes are possible right now and higher education institutions that make the decision to change will reap substantial benefits down the track.

Tim Winkler is Director of Australia’s first specialist higher education marketing and strategy consultancy, Twig Marketing.


to get daily updates on what's happening in the world of Australian Higher Education