There’s no doubt that the acceleration of digital adoption, predominantly driven by the events of the last 12 months, has transformed society and industries at large. The education sector has not been exempt from the technology revolution. Universities around the world have undergone – or are currently undergoing – significant change, and now the global higher education sector must unravel how student perceptions and motivations have changed.
Homing in on Australia (Aus) and New Zealand (NZ), TechnologyOne launched a survey in September 2020 to provide a snapshot of the COVID student experience. Focusing on enrolment and admission, the importance of technology and innovation, as well as the impact of the pandemic itself, the company analysed 1,718 current students – some enrolled in tertiary-level universities and some vocational learners in VET institutions – across the two countries.
TechnologyOne’s recently published 2020 Australia and New Zealand Higher Education Student Survey follows a similar study conducted in March 2019.
Among the survey’s most significant findings was the fact that two in three respondents said they would consider transferring universities if they found one that offered a ‘better’ technology experience, presenting major implications for the ways in which higher education providers must evolve to meet the demands of a post-COVID world.
This is important because universities, along with technical and further education colleges (TAFEs), are forecasting forward budgets and staffing on the basis that they will be able to retain students who enrol, but the new ‘student stickiness’ trend evidenced across Aus and NZ higher education could lead to further adverse impacts.
“Fast-forward to 2020, and technology became the equivalent of the front gate for many students, especially those in Victoria. The experience has thrown the strengths and weaknesses of institution’s virtual learning and administrative systems into stark relief. The pass-fail mark has now effectively been raised” – Peter Nikoletatos, TechnologyOne
Of the students who took part, almost a third (31%) said they would ‘definitely’ switch universities or TAFEs in favour of superior technology, while a third said they would consider changing institutions if it had better tech on offer.
The last 12 months have shown that edtech and digital will continue to play a fundamental role in the reinvented student experience, said TechnologyOne’s global industry manager of education, Peter Nikoletatos, also standing as a pillar of students’ continuing relationship with their respective institution throughout their post-secondary career.
“Eighteen months ago, when we last conducted our survey, we found a significant gap between students’ expectations of technology at their place of study and their experience of it,” said Nikoletatos.
“Back then though, it wasn’t enough of an issue to cause such an impact, with only 17 percent saying they’d change institution for a better technology experience.
“Fast-forward to 2020, and technology became the equivalent of the front gate for many students, especially those in Victoria. The experience has thrown the strengths and weaknesses of institution’s virtual learning and administrative systems into stark relief. The pass-fail mark has now effectively been raised,” he added.
With the current student cohort comprising a generation equipped with unmatched digital fluency, the expectation is for the technology at their disposal to be seamless, efficient, accessible and easy-to-use, Nikoletatos explains.
“As students start back at studies for 2021, it is important to recognise the importance [they] put on a uni or TAFE’s technology, and continue to change and adjust in line with expectations.”
The research shines a light on areas in which the coronavirus crisis could drive inter-institution student mobility, meaning they are less ‘sticky’ towards specific universities and TAFEs.
Two in every three respondents said they would consider a micro-credential, while almost half were keen for more sub-bachelor degrees. This all relates to employability expectations, with most learners expecting their institution to provide relevant professional opportunities – and many students now feel that ‘stackable’ qualifications such as these could give them the competitive edge needed to win in the job recruitment process.
Impressed by the COVID response
Overall, the majority of the students surveyed were impressed with their institution’s handling of the pandemic, with three in four saying their university or TAFE handled the pivot to online teaching well.
A similar proportion of respondents also believe their institution has communicated effectively throughout the pandemic, and continues to do so to date.
Nikoletatos commented: “The higher education sector was hit hard by COVID-19, so, it’s pleasing to see the students who were the end customers of those education services have, as a majority, had a positive experience with their places of study, despite the most challenging circumstances in memory.”
Areas for improvement
The research also highlights the sector’s opportunities for improvement. While the online enrolment process is now, generally, more streamlined and accessible, students across Aus and NZ cited ongoing challenges with the process and the number of steps required.
“For school leavers especially, the enrolment process is often their first direct experience of university life and it is important to start off well” – Peter Nikoletatos
While one in three (38%) students described the process as intuitive and easy, 32% reported moderate or major issues with their enrolment process overall.
On top of this, one in five respondents detailed a relatively simple five or less step process – but one in four (24%), on the other hand, said theirs required 20 steps or more.
“Institutions have invested considerable effort into making the enrolment process easier for students and that’s with good reason,” said Mr Nikoletatos. “For school leavers especially, the enrolment process is often their first direct experience of university life and it is important to start off well.”
But the higher education landscape itself is not the only thing that has undergone such a heavy transformation – student technology behaviours are fast-evolving, too.
Pretty much all of the students surveyed (97%) believed it’s important to be able to self-manage the online enrolment process, while only one in five preferred in-person interaction with their respective institution’s administration office.
In terms of the student perspective, it’s clear that the digital transformation across Aus and NZ higher education is here to stay long-term.