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Digital degree market a totally different ball game, says Oxford’s Simon Marginson

9 Sep 2020, by Amy Sarcevic

From retail, to healthcare, to corporate enterprise, the COVID-19 pandemic has spurred digital disruption in almost every sector.

For some activities, the digital medium has proven to be more popular than its in-person alternative. With the arrival of bulk-billable telehealth, for example, overall GP consultations have surged. As have virtual meeting software sign-ups, with research predicting that in-person gatherings will account for just 25% of enterprise meetings by 2024 — a drop from 60% before COVID-19.

In the context of higher education, however, digital degrees have failed to gather the same levels of momentum, with the pandemic leaving a hole to the tune of $16 billion in the sector.

Sold on being a profound, formative life experience, the decision to attend university often extends far beyond the lesson content and qualification.

Although many prospective students will settle for a digital substitute, experts like Professor Simon Marginson of the University of Oxford claim that the digital degree market will be an entirely different ball game for universities to navigate.

Importantly, he fears that digitisation in the degree market may position Australian universities less favourably in the global arena.

“My feeling is that, if forced to go online for their degrees, students may select universities on completely different criteria,” said Simon ahead of the Australian Financial Review Higher Education Summit.

“Whilst Australian universities do have a good reputation, globally, in terms of research and academia, this means nothing if the primary motive for signing-up to an Australian university was the experience of living in Sydney or Melbourne, for example.

“The appeal of living in Australia is a major drawcard for prospective students – with even some top-performing pupils foregoing a high-ranking institution in favour of this.

“With liveability out of the picture, prospective students are left with very different decision-making criteria – and not all of these will be a good match for the Australian degree offering,” he argued.

Budgeting for an in-person university experience – but only having access to a digital degree – will also free up personal funds for globally-renowned prestige universities, Simon warned.

“Attending a medium-ranking Australian university may be cost-equivalent to ‘attending’ a globally prestigious university online,” Simon continued.

“For those that were only sold on the experience of living in Australia – not the institution itself – it makes more sense to go to the top of the line in the global market; instead doing a digital degree at MIT or Stanford, for example.”

Compounding this, admission for global prestige universities may become easier during this time, as certain institutions seek to replenish their lost international student income through online student volume.

“Of course, not all universities will want – or need – to do this. Harvard University, for example, has a multi-billion dollar research endowment, which dwarfs its student fee revenue stream. I expect that Harvard, even in the thick of the crisis, will opt to preserve its brand – for which scarcity of places is a major facet,” said Simon.

“However, not all prestige universities are in this position. If the likes of MIT or Stanford are to open their gates more widely to online international students, then Australian may be in big trouble.

“Of course, Australia does have 23 of the world’s top 500 universities which is a major drawcard. But on the global scale, there is a lot of difference between rank 35 and 5 in terms of prestige. To put things in perspective, a few years back, ‘How to get into Harvard’ was china’s top selling book, on all topics. This gives an idea of the level of esteem these globally-renowned universities are held in,” he said.

The situation for higher education in Australia is far from doomed, however, with attitudes towards face-to-face education still largely intact.

“It could easily have been the case that the pandemic made permanent changes to the traditional degree market. We have seen this disruption happen in other sectors already,” said Simon.

“Thankfully, the perceived value of in-person degrees appears to have been retained, which is certainly something to celebrate.

“I think the focus for Australian universities will be to get through this sticky period as gracefully as possible, with globally competitive strategies. Whether that be a more attractive fee structure, flexible course design or content delivery. There will also, of course, need to be an emphasis on student experience in the digital realm.

“Once the storm has passed, I believe Australia’s international student market will flourish, perhaps even booming higher than pre-pandemic levels, as students acquire a new sense of appreciation for what Australia has to offer. In the meantime, focus and adaptability will be key.”

Simon Marginson is Professor of Higher Education the University of Oxford, Director of the ESRC/OFSRE Centre for Global Higher Education (CGHE), and Editor-in-Chief of the journal Higher Education.

Join him for more discussion on this topic at the Australian Financial Review Higher Education Summit – held as a virtual event on September 30 – October 1, 2020.

Simon will discuss the current state of play in the global international student market and give expert recommendations on how Australia can elevate its position.

Joining him on the virtual stage are Minister for Education, The Hon Dan Tehan MP, Shadow Minister for Education & Training, The Hon Tanya Plibersek and UCS Australia VC and President, Professor Helen Bartlett.

Learn more and register.

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