Ernest Hemingway was talking about bankruptcy when he wrote that it happened “Two ways. Gradually, and then suddenly.” The same could be said for the impact of COVID-19 on our universities’ focus on the student experience.

When people speak of the irreversible changes that will come from COVID they mention,  more flexibility to study online, the decline of the lecture in favour of more engaging modes of instruction, duty of care to students on par with research priorities.

COVID will cement those changes. But evidence suggests those seeds were already planted across the sector.

In the last decade our universities have been improving access and participation for marginalised groups, whilst providing better care and consideration for non-traditional students, mature students, employed students, and those juggling family commitments. In addition to pursuing equity between online and campus delivery, these efforts have culminated in the formation of new student experience and success departments. This includes efforts to equalise the experience between on-line-only (disproportionately time-poor students) and on-campus (younger, urban-located) students. This growing focus on student outcomes and wellbeing is the norm. With COVID and post-COVID, it will only strengthen.

Everyone is giving their best right now — students, staff, and leaders — and it is worth shining a light on those efforts that put wellbeing front and centre. A student passed this feedback along last week: “The vice chancell0r has been awesome in updating us regularly. Our Lecturers and Tutors have also been fantastic, during this really unpredictable time and have been in constant contact with us.”

 It is also worth recalling what the public thinks of – and wants from – our universities. The ANU poll from 2019 (released in Oct 2019) revealed that 93 per cent of respondents believe the main role of our universities is to “train young Australians for the future workforce.”

It is difficult to look past next week (much less the daily newsfeed). Still, we need to consider what 2021 and beyond will likely hold for the sector. The focus on student experience (and its impact on the sector’s international reputation) was already flagged by the government in last year’s announcement of Performance Based Funding, as well as proposed legislation to protect academic integrity.

As the fog of COVID lifts later this year, and the scope of diminished international enrolments becomes clearer, all universities will look to Canberra for guidance. It will not be a surprise if a prime consequence of COVID is a rebalancing of efforts by universities away from their historic focus on international rankings and toward improving their performance on QILT/Compared metrics (even if institutions are given a short-term reprieve).

Second, to the extent research at many universities has been substantially underwritten by international student fees, this may create another powerful reason for federal intervention.

Third, there may be a refocusing on regulatory requirements in the Higher Education Standards Framework to support students “equitably and holistically.” If government funding does become a larger portion of a smaller pie, then there will be enormous reputational advantages for those investing more heavily in the student experience.

For leadership teams evaluating the various pathways forward, I propose that you look to cultural and policy changes that put students first, and those that equalise the balance between teaching and research, for an indication of what expectations students and the public will have in 2021 and beyond.


Jack Goodman is the founder and executive chair of Studiosity, Australia’s only provider of on-line academic support to the higher education sector


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