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Trust in a time of coronavirus and beyond

Author: Dave Musson

In the latest in our series of blog posts previewing our virtual conference on the future student recruitment, this time we're hearing from our sales and marketing director, Nick Golding.

Our conference takes place tomorrow, Thursday 4 June, and is completely free to join - sign up now to get access to all sessions - live and on demand. You'll find the full lineup in this blog post.

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The Anglophone education sector is awash with stark predictions about its future in the wake of Covid-19. The Economist this week talks of universities facing “their greatest challenge in history” and there are widespread predictions of redundancies, consolidation and closures in all of the big ‘study abroad’ destinations – the US, Australia and the UK.

With normal in-person models of both teaching and student procurement suddenly unsafe, and hanging under the cloud of disruption even after the lockdown eases, everyone wants to know what ‘the new normal’ will be like. And will the forthcoming academic year herald a permanent new normal – with more remote components to it – or a relieved return to the old normal, albeit with shaken-up apparatus?

In short, we are heading into a time of profound change and uncertainty. For a sector that champions, and is one of the main agencies of innovation, HE has remained remarkably impervious to change of its centuries’ old methods of teaching and somewhat old-fashioned forms of recruitment – bumf, open days and in-country presentations.

That’s largely because the sector has been comfortable for a very long time and, faced with funding pressures, institutions have recruited lucrative international students who have been in bountiful supply, rather than re-consider their modus operandi. One commentator has even described international students as the crack cocaine of the HE sector, with agents somewhat unfortunately painted as dealers.

Given the sector’s resistance to change, there is a risk that Coronavirus will be adopted as the scapegoat for all of its ills and casualties, rather than as the instrument that exposed the band aids holding it together, and catalysed its modernisation.

In our anxiety to define the new normal we have rather overlooked the lessons of previous shocks, such as SARS, Swine flu and 9/11. One of those is that, when it comes to their education and career development, students are remarkably robust. Whereas international incidents and economic downturns have had a dramatic impact on the English language learning sector in the past, they have barely affected overall flows of international students seeking a university education. Arguably, a premium is placed on international education in difficult times.

Of course, flows of students to individual countries have been affected but these are almost always due to perceptions about that individual country at a given time, in terms of its safety, ease of entry, cost, welcome to foreigners, and availability of employment.

There are absolutely no signs that Coronavirus is going to diminish long-term demand for HE, domestically and internationally, although it may cause a dramatic shake-up in the sector where there is significant over-capacity, as well as in modes of delivery and recruitment. How individual institutions and countries will fare will depend upon the trust they can engender in future students about the value of the education they provide, safety, the welcome they will receive and the experience that they are going to have.

While a lot of that is down to government policy and individual institutions, in this period of uncertain transition, future students will undoubtedly place even more reliance on the testimony of current students as the most trustworthy source of information about their choice of destination.

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