COVID-19 and Student Sentiment in 2020 – A Handbook for Education Providers

Claudia Reiners
June 21, 2021

COVID-19 and Student Sentiment in 2020 – A Handbook for Education Providers

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The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent restrictions caused widespread economic disruption and volatility.

These impacts – mass job losses, heightened financial stress, travel restrictions and more – have placed an enormous strain on Australians, resulting in turbulent student attitudes and behaviours in 2020.

Explore our findings from our 2020 Student Sentiment Index.

Key takeaways from our 2020 Student Sentiment Index

  • On average, women had lower motivation and urgency to study than men.

  • Despite an initial spike at the start of the pandemic, young peoples’ urgency, motivation and confidence dropped significantly in the latter half of the year.

  • There has been a national increase in students’ sensitivity to education and training funding initiatives.

Explore our 2020 publications

Each year, we publish a series of articles that unpack our Student Sentiment Index in more depth. These articles delve into each sub-index, providing a greater scope of insights for stakeholders.

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How COVID-19 Has Impacted Women’s Employment and Education

How has the pandemic disrupted women’s work and education opportunities?

Read more

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Young People, COVID-19 and its Toll on Study

How have mass job losses, travel restrictions and mental health concerns impacted young Australians and their education goals?

Read more

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Australia’s Response to National Education Funding Schemes

Have mass lay-offs and increased financial vulnerability made Australians more sensitive to government funding schemes?

Read more

How the pandemic changed the education industry

The Australian tertiary education sector generates $30 billion of export income and over 4 million enrolments in any given year.

The COVID-19 outbreak brought unprecedented challenges for our nation’s third-largest export industry. Education institutions faced disruptions, such as:

  • Local and international border restrictions
  • Closures of campuses
  • Migration to online learning

The pandemic-induced restrictions and lockdowns significantly impacted the volume of domestic and international student enrolments in 2020. 

PWC estimates the 2020 loss of international student income is as high as $4 billion, with additional indirect economic impacts to tourism and consumer spending. Universities alone are predicted to lose $16 billion in revenue by 2023 due to the pandemic. 

Finding solutions to the challenges our education sectors now face is front of mind. Our governments recognise the integral role of education in reviving our economy. In 2020, the Federal Government invested in several initiatives to bolster our domestic education and training sector capabilities. 

It is expected our governments will continue to prioritise workforce education and training in the years to come – the extension to the JobTrainer and free TAFE schemes in 2021 affirming this.

How are students feeling?

The pandemic caused student sentiment to waver. Prospective students displayed more unstable attitudes and behaviours towards commencing study in 2020 than any other year. 

The Australian Bureau of Statistics reported 112,000 fewer students enrolled in tertiary education in May 2020 than the previous year. 

Historical student enrolment and sentiment trends are no longer representative of the current state of our sector. External factors like job losses and heightened financial stress triggered a shift in prospective students. They no longer perceive and react to study opportunities in the same way.

At Candlefox, we love data. Understanding student sentiment and how it translates to enrolment rates are a fundamental part of what we do.  

As the pandemic unfolded, we wanted to gain a deeper understanding of how it was impacting specific student segments and whether it influenced their degree of optimism or enthusiasm to study. 

We collected Australian students’ attitudes and behaviours through our Student Sentiment Index. This index explored prospective students’:

  • Dependency on government education grants and initiatives
  • Urgency to commence study
  • Motivation to enrol and continue studying throughout the pandemic
  • Confidence in the teaching capabilities of our education providers

The data from our four-indices – Sensitivity to Funding, Urgency, Motivation and Confidence – enabled us to critically analyse and report on how COVID-19 uniquely impacted the mindsets, attitudes and behaviours of students in 2020.

Key themes from our Index

1. On average, women had lower motivation and urgency to study than men.

The impacts of COVID-19 were highly gendered, with women experiencing job instability, financial insecurity and increased domestic responsibilities. It is reported that 55% of the 600,000 jobs lost in April of 2020 were held by women – more than double those lost by men. 

These factors have triggered unpredictable enrolment behaviours and attitudes among women. 

In 2020, women demonstrated lower urgency to commence study, despite previously representing a greater percentage of the university cohort. Women’s enrolment in tertiary education dropped by 7% compared to a much lower 2% for men in May 2020. 

Interestingly, more women enrolled in higher education than men pre-COVID-19, with 60% of new enrolments in 2019 being female.

Despite low urgency and motivation to study, women were far more sensitive to the availability (or lack) of education funding than men. The pink recession heavily affected women’s financial stability, resulting in more women unable to study without funding support.

2. Despite an initial spike at the start of the pandemic, young peoples’ urgency, motivation and confidence dropped significantly in the latter half of the year.

Young people, aged 18 to 24, felt the effects of the pandemic the hardest. 

Disruptions to international travel and lockdown restrictions forced young people to pivot their short-term plans and take up domestic study instead. 

Our Index recorded an initial spike in student interest with higher urgency, motivation and confidence reported in March 2020. However, the positivity and enthusiasm to study declined as the pandemic continued. 

Young Australians withdrew their confidence and motivation to study when tertiary institutions pivoted to online learning. The rapid transition to online learning was not well received amongst learners, with only 78% of Gen Z students feeling confident about online learning in universities. 

Up to 50% of university students reported having a negative online learning experience, citing lack of engagement, isolation from peers, and technology issues as some of the top reasons why.

3. There has been a national increase in students’ sensitivity to education and training funding initiatives.

Without a doubt, the pandemic has had a devastating financial impact on Australia. Individuals experienced higher stress and anxiety due to:

  • Mass workplace redundancies
  • Job and workforce insecurity
  • Increased domestic and care responsibilities
  • National lockdowns and restrictions

These factors have contributed to heightened financial concerns and anxiety. Australians were more concerned about their finances in 2020 than in 2019. Close to 800,000 people lost their jobs at the height of the pandemic, with 30% of Australians feeling financially stressed as a result.

Financial instability prompted individuals to seek out more cost-effective education options. 

This was confirmed through our Sensitivity to Funding Index. Prospective students were shown to be more sensitive to government funding schemes and were more likely to undertake education if it was financially supported. 

To combat rising unemployment rates and meet the demands of the future of work, the Australian Government launched various initiatives – including JobTrainer, free TAFE and Boosting Apprenticeship Commencements – to help train, upskill or reskill Australians.

Ongoing government funding will be key to future-proofing Australia’s workforce and strengthening its post-COVID-19 economic recovery. 

How stakeholders can use and apply our Student Sentiment insights?

The Student Sentiment is highly valuable to all operating in the education industry. Our data unpacked how prospective students – regardless of age, gender and location – reacted to the COVID-19 pandemic and how it changed their enrolment attitudes and behaviours. 

Our Index will continue to deliver benefits for a range of education stakeholders, including policy developers, industry and research bodies. These insights provide stakeholders with credible, real time insights into the health of our sector, useful for identifying areas of concern or improvement.

Recommendations for education providers

The Index provides the most value and opportunity for education institutions in Australia. Here are several actionable recommendations for providers:

  • Promote government-funded programs.

    The Federal Government has extended national funding initiatives such as JobTrainer, free TAFE and the Boosting Apprenticeship Commencements scheme.

    Our Index has indicated that prospective students are in higher financial stress and therefore more reliant on funding to pursue study in the months or years to come.

    There is an opportunity for providers to take advantage of these funding schemes and market government-assisted courses more heavily to prospective students – generating more student interest and boosting enrolments.

  • Encourage more women to return to study.

    Women have had arguably a worse year than males, with a significant drop in enrolment numbers. Providers can tailor their marketing and sales strategy to encourage more women to enrol in a course or program in 2021 to help diversify our workforce and ensure equal gender representation in workplaces.

    Strategies can include making government funding more accessible to women, removing the stigma around male-dominated programs and increasing engagement through student experience.

  • Create meaningful student experiences, even online.

    There’s no doubt the student learning experience plays an integral role in education retention rates. It can single-handedly determine whether a student continues their program through to graduation.

    As education campuses open and traditional classes resume, many institutions are offering a blended mode of learning. Regardless of whether providers offer traditional or e-learning, it’s essential to continue to provide resources and initiatives to encourage and support students during their education journey.

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Claudia Reiners
Head of Strategy
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