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How online and hybrid models can support the recovery of our international education sector

19 August, 2022

To support our international education sector as it recovers from the pandemic, the Federal Government released the Australian Strategy for International Education 2021-2030. A review of the Education Services for Overseas Students Act 2000 (ESOS Act) is also underway. Both note that “rapid adaptation, growth and innovation in online delivery” is transforming higher education globally and at OES, we believe this presents a unique opportunity for Australia to rebuild and grow our international education sector, with a focus on quality and flexibility.

Why online and hybrid models appeal to international students

Increased demand from international students to participate in online and hybrid study presents a compelling growth opportunity for Australia. At OES we anticipate hybrid (i.e., ‘online to on-campus’) programs will become of increasing interest because they enable international students to start a course online in their home countries before coming to Australia to study in person. We expect significant demand from international markets for hybrid programs which guarantee entry to Australian institutions, contingent on meeting certain academic criteria.

Because they allow students to study part of an Australian program online in their home country, hybrid models reduce the overall cost and make the option of studying in Australia viable for a larger proportion of international students, thus expanding access while supporting economic growth.

OES recently submitted a formal response to the ESOS Review 2022 discussion paper. If adopted, we believe our two key recommendations around online and hybrid study models can support the sustainable recovery, growth and expansion of Australia’s international education sector:

Recommendation 1: Increase the percentage of online study that international students can undertake

Hybrid ‘online to on-campus’ delivery models are set to experience significant growth in demand over the next decade, yet the current ESOS framework deters providers from exploring their full potential.

During COVID, the requirement for at least two thirds of a program to be delivered face to face was temporarily waived to enable existing international student visa holders already enrolled in on-campus programs to continue their studies on an online basis from their home countries. Increasing the percentage of online study that international students can undertake as part of their program and enabling Australian institutions to offer new online and hybrid program options will drive international student enrolment growth.

Recommendation 2: Develop best practice standards for delivering hybrid and online courses to international students

The most significant lesson the sector has learnt in responding to the pandemic is that the preferred teaching model of Australian providers, i.e., the in-person, on-campus delivery model – is not the only model preferred by international markets.

Even before COVID-19, the global online higher education sector was forecast to outgrow the overall higher education sector by up to seven times . However, the increased exposure to online learning during the pandemic has accelerated this trend and permanently altered student preferences in the process.

Many institutions have demonstrated they are capable of pivoting to online delivery, and many current students are expected to want to maintain the delivery flexibility they have experienced over the past two years. Future students will increasingly expect flexible delivery options to become core elements of their program. However, as we saw with the pandemic induced move to online learning, the experience of students varied according to the quality of the delivery*.

The challenge for the Australian higher education sector is to adapt our regulatory frameworks to address the changing preferences of students and rising demand for flexible delivery options. To ensure we maintain the quality of our higher education offering, OES recommends developing guidelines and standards for online and hybrid education specifically for the international cohort, similar to the TEQSA guidance note on Technology Enhanced Learning.

Embracing hybrid, blended and partnership models will broaden the enrolment options for future international students. This includes the potential to study part of an Australian program online in their home country before completing the program on-campus in Australia, attracting a wider and more diverse range of students who may lack the financial ability to study for multiple years in Australia.

We believe high quality online and hybrid models can power Australia’s international education sector recovery, while delivering optimal study experiences and outcomes to current and future students.

* TEQSA: Foundations for good practice: The student experience of online learning in Australian higher education during the COVID-19 pandemic Nov 2020