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Tim Orton, Nous, and Edward Curry-Hyde, Cubane

Earlier in 2021, Nous announced it would acquire Cubane Consulting to form an “authoritative” higher education service business operating in five key international education markets. In this week’s PIE Chat, founder and CEO of Nous, Tim Orton, and founder and group managing director of Cubane Edward Curry-Hyde speak about how universities have managed Covid-19 and what to expect in popular study destinations in the future.


"The concern is what's going to happen when universities have to start moving from crisis mode to working out how we now make this the new normal"

The PIE: What have the challenges associated with the most popular destination countries been during the pandemic? 

Tim Orton: There’s much more in common across the UK, Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand than there is different. Commonalities include very rapid adoption of new teaching and working practises and substantial disruption of research. Universities have become better at dealing with uncertainty.

But there has also been operational and financial shock after decades of solid growth. In many respects, higher education has grown substantially in these economies over the past three decades. This is the first time they’ve taken a real shock. But it has been varied.

Ironically, although Australia and New Zealand have had some of the best pandemic management, it’s come at a very substantial cost. With closed borders and the biggest losses in international students, it will have a long-term impact. Universities in Australia are struggling to bring in new students because borders are shut.

“Governments in the UK and Canada have been more sensitised to the needs of international students”

Governments in the UK and Canada have been more sensitised to the needs of international students, and with borders kept open, they’re going to benefit big time. To a lesser extent, the US is also starting to improve.

Australia and New Zealand have been really slow with vaccination. Some Australians don’t even think they need to get vaccinated. From the university’s perspective this makes things more difficult because governments are slower to open borders.

Edward Curry-Hyde: Pre-pandemic, governments in the UK and the US had been making it less attractive for international students. Australia really benefited from that. That’s provided a sting in the tail because Australia saw very strong growth in the last four years. And of course, that’s now exposing these Australian universities more than they might have been exposed otherwise.

Closed borders in Australia are also tightening labour markets. And there’s increasing concern that that may actually dampen domestic student demand if those trends continue.

T O: As a country of 25 million, Australia would typically have one million people from overseas heading to the labour force. In a country where 12 or 13 million are working, you can see what adding another 8% would do to unemployment.

The PIE: Moving to institutions’ management during the crisis, what has that looked like? 

E C-H: The universities that have fared best are those that had already invested in online teaching capabilities. Surprisingly, a number of universities took a long time to switch. For universities that we work with closely, we’ve seen they were able to switch to online delivery at quite an astounding rate. Those that invested in developing academic support and administration models to create more flexibility to respond to changes have also fared well.

We run a program for universities that works with them to redesign academic roles. That has enabled some universities traditionally resourced with many generalist roles to move very quickly into online support. They are building programs that are consistent and take a coherent approach.

“Covid-19 hasn’t been quite as bad as expected for UK institutions, but there’s still a lot of uncertainty”

T O: It’s hard to know right now who has done really well and who has done badly because everyone’s scrambling like crazy. It’s like a duck swimming in the water. They’re all floating, but the concern is what’s going to happen in the next year, two or three, when they have to start moving from crisis mode to working out how we now make this the new normal.

The PIE: Can you expand a little bit about your focus in the UK? 

E C-H: Covid-19 hasn’t been quite as bad as expected for institutions, but there’s still a lot of uncertainty. Our focus right now is helping universities invest and bank that benefit, not just paper over the tough choices they’ve known for a while they need to make.

Working from home and students not expecting to be on campus all the time – that’s going to reshape how space is being used and what campus development is needed. Master plans that were conceived before the pandemic are highly unlikely to be left untouched now.

T O: One real strength about the UK higher education system is its diversity. You’ve got everything from universities in the top five in the world to universities that are very small and focused on their local community. We think that’s a tremendous strength.

Covid-19 has prompted universities to think even more acutely about their points of differentiation. The research effort tends to be easily determined for the highly ranked universities, but for the universities that are less well ranked, they are thinking very carefully about where they can make a genuine contribution.

Institutions are thinking about making big investments in online learning to ensure they have courses that most interest students. And they may well let courses with less interest disappear over time. So we may have even sharper differentiation in future, which we suspect will be a good thing.

The PIE: Will that negatively impact student choice? 

T O: It makes choice easier, in a way. In Australia, all the universities are very similar, not because they are trying to be, but partly because that’s where government policy drives them. And so there’s a real debate in Australia at the moment, where many say we’d have a better system if we had the sort of differentiation we see in other countries.

There is an interesting argument as to whether the UK would be better off if it had more sizeable universities rather than a very long tail of small universities. We’re surprised that has not being interrogated more in the policy reviews that have been done.

The PIE: What can UK universities learn from experiences with Australia and Canada, or vice versa? 

E C-H: In the UK, the Cubane UniForum program started in 2015 to allow UK universities to engage with Canadian, Australian and New Zealand universities. It started in Australia in 2010, so there were five years of history, transformation and journeys that UK universities could learn from and use to make more informed choices.

“Student recruitment is where the big dollars are, but there are many other things happening as well”

T O: In the work that Nous has been doing, what’s really come through is that internationalisation is a multi-decade and multidimensional game. You don’t turn internationalisation on and off like a tap. Universities that are serious about it will think about recruitment of students and international movement of their own students. They will also think about research and about campuses, including TNE-type campuses, which UK universities have done a good job on.

Internationalisation is most often seen as student recruitment because that’s where the big numbers of students are and where the big dollars are. But there are many other things happening as well.

Australian and UK universities who are heavily committed to internationalisation are taking many students from China, but they’re also cultivating the next marketplace, whether it be India or Africa or South America. If you have all your eggs in the China basket, you should be actively exploring other markets as well, setting up recruitment strategies and agents. We think there’s a lot of evidence to say that international students will continue to be a very strong market and will recover from Covid-19. You need to think about decades not years.

You need critical mass in markets in order to succeed with international students.

Similarly, you need a critical mass in terms of relationships. So universities that have signed hundreds of MOUs with other universities don’t actually have an internationalisation strategy. They just have a smorgasbord, if you like. They can’t choose.

E C-H: Universities are trying to create critical mass in research portfolios with the objective of getting better returns for their research investments. By actively increasing the number of academics per field of research, universities can significantly uplift research dollars earned. Those fields are attracting top quartile academics and creating more output. It’s been a conscious strategy and has delivered good results. A lot of those universities have lifted their rankings significantly.

T O: Those universities then attracted more international students and therefore have more money to invest in research. Obviously the wheels have come off that business model this year. But it is still valid and the question is where it will manifest in the UK and Canada next year.

Universities outside the top 50 are increasingly thinking about where they want to be strong in research and where they will choose not to play. Those that continue to let a thousand flowers bloom are finding they’re wilting due to the lack of intensity.

The economic model for research is very difficult in that most research costs the university more money than it actually earns. So increasingly, universities are thinking about how to successfully engage with industry, with government, with others, prefereably through co-investing.

The PIE: Do you think the international education ecosystem has matured?

T O: The international student market on any scale is about 20 years old. Yes, students have been travelling internationally before that, but on a scale that was shaping university business models, it’s probably only a couple of decades old. There’s been enormous innovation over the past 20 years and a lot of universities have been in start-up and scale-up mode, getting their recruitment and marketing strategies and agent networks in place.

“The one process that’s probably immature is the integration of international and domestic students”

The processes are now fairly mature. The one process that’s probably immature is the integration of international and domestic students. And the student experience is not as good for both domestic students and international students as it could be. International students tend not to have an entirely UK or Australian or Canadian or US experience. They tend to have their own. There’s a bit of a cultural bubble they operate in. Universities could do more there.

It will be interesting to see to what extent Covid-19 disrupts and creates new models. We may be claiming maturity too early because, for example, many universities have discovered they can have students do their first year of university at home and then come in-country for the last two or three years. That would be an innovation, although it wouldn’t be radical, in that universities have been running in-country colleges for a while.

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