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Can tech help higher ed avoid post-Covid risk?

Australian higher education has been severely impacted by COVID-19 but this will not last forever.


As higher ed and international providers inch closer to a return to normal, they’ll need to ensure that their institutions are ready to take on the expected next phase of growth in Australia and beyond.


This will mean mitigating the associated risks to maximise the future rewards.


COVID-19 has put significant stress on higher ed operational and business models. There’s a risk this pressure will cause cracks to appear in education quality, which could end up impacting individual providers and the sector.


Three areas where technology can help


Australia’s Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) elaborated on this theme in its detailed Compliance Report 2020 released in March 2021, identifying a number of areas of potential risk for providers.


Here are three worth noting as we emerge post-pandemic (and how technology can help).


1. Institutional quality assurance


There’s no doubt higher education quality suffered (at least in some institutions) due to COVID-19. With the need to rapidly shift into online learning delivery mode as well as adapt to unexpected financial challenges, providers were on the back foot when it came to maintaining standards-as-usual.


This will be given a lot of attention as we emerge from COVID-19. TEQSA, for example, is forming a Higher Education Integrity Unit, which it says will be charged with analysing future emerging risks for the sector. Ongoing risks it associates with COVID-19 include areas like student wellbeing and admissions practices.


This means institutional quality assurance will need to be a focus (27% of the 180 active conditions TEQSA had running at the end of 2020 were in this domain). Providers will need to have robust mechanisms in place for monitoring and reviewing activities across student performance, courses and third-party delivery.


  • Higher educators will need to surface regular reports and diagnostic analysis of rates and trends in student performance.


The data housed in student and learning management systems (shared readily through technology integrations) is now extremely advanced in producing insights on how individual students and cohorts are performing. This can be produced at higher levels like course completions, or become very granular, including how individual students are performing throughout a course across a range of different measures.


  • Higher educators need to back this with targeted support strategies to address issues and improve performance.


Providers can wrap a range of services and support around students to boost retention, progression and completion using technology. From gateway and point-in-time measures of student motivation (predictive of completion), to flagging students for learning support, automated wellbeing check-ins or services like counselling, providers can address warning signs earlier and respond to promote strong outcomes.


  • Data analysis should be used to inform areas such as admissions criteria, teaching, learning and academic support.


Technology can deliver significant impact on quality using data. From AI self-assessment platforms for international students that measure students before they enrol, to delivering student surveys on teaching and learning or monitoring engagement across courses and formats, the EdTech ecosystem can now collect and synthesise data across different domains to empower educators to continually level up on quality.


2. English language proficiency


Higher educators are hungry to welcome an influx of international students back to Australian shores. Though less impacted than pure international education, on a sector-wide level higher educators have been starved of about 30% of their business. International students will continue to be important revenue source into the future.


The urgency to recruit will need to be tempered with having the right procedures to ensure English language proficiency. This has been a point of contention in the past: media reports caused TEQSA to investigate this issue, leading to the identification of 10 providers at risk of non-compliance with its HES Framework and National Code.


Though it concluded there were no widespread systemic failures in relation to English language admission standards, it identified a number of areas for improvement. TEQSA paid the most attention to ensuring that higher educators were actively tracking and overseeing their admissions practices to ensure they remain in line with obligations.


  • Ensure analysis and student cohort data is used to track poorly performing cohorts and academic misconduct back to the student entry pathways, basis of admission, country and region of origin, and agents.


The end-to-end student journey is captured by student management and integrated systems. By putting in place the right policies and procedures and backing them with appropriate action and use of technology and data, higher educators will be able to analyse any deficiencies in cohort performance against data points earlier in the journey, from their originating agents to admission by their teams onshore.


3. Student safety and wellbeing


Student safety and wellbeing has become a prominent issue for higher educators during COVID-19. With many international students struggling to cope onshore and local students forced into isolation or difficult circumstances , higher educators have needed to not only meet their basic obligations for student welfare, but go above and beyond to reach out and offer proactive support to students in areas like mental health and financial relief.


This will need to continue after COVID-19. TEQSA has made clear that wellbeing and safety of students shiould be a priority area into the future. While not the subject of a high number of concerns, it singled out instances of sexual assault and harassment at Australian universities for special mention in its report. However educators should expect mental health and general wellbeing of international students in Australia to be the subject of ongoing attention.


  • Higher educators need to be supporting international and local students right along the student journey as well as tracking outcomes to ensure they are continually improving their approach.


Start-ups like Sydney-based Sonder are helping education providers deliver on and off-campus safety, medical and mental health services via a tech-driven platform 24/7. Including responses to student anxiety and depression or suicide risk, they offer an easily accessible wellbeing ecosystem for online and in-person support. Student management systems, likewise, can support educators in flagging attendance or performance, automating check-ins along the student journey, and offering it easy to access a marketplace of services like counselling.