By Professor Clive Barstow
The dramatic effects on international student enrolments as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic are being witnessed in all our institutions. At Edith Cowan University the impact has not been felt as dramatically as in some universities that have a greater reliance on international on-shore students as a major component of their income generation. This is due to a number of local factors including a relatively healthy continuing student load from 2019, a large component of Commonwealth supported places and a growing on-line platform that has helped maintain some level of continuing international student enrolments during 2020/21. However, this warm insulation blanket offers only short term comfort as unless sizeable numbers of international students return onshore in 2022, then ECU will face, like all other institutions in Australia, a very difficult situation with the potential loss of three international cohorts and significant income loss as a result.
The school of Arts & Humanities at ECU is a result of a major restructure and change management process that was completed in late 2018 before the pandemic, therefore the rationalisation and restructure into a broad mega-school in effect prepared us for the onset of cross subsidisation across arts and health disciplines, some of which are now growing in applications. Our international students are evenly spread across the arts, design, communications, psychology and criminology and the social sciences. In response to the first wave of infections in late March, the school has moved over 70% of its core curriculum to an online option to grow its regional domestic load and to maintain its teaching to students both off-shore and in periods of lockdown.
Western Australia has been the lucky state throughout this pandemic and only closed its campuses for a two-month period during the height of the first wave of infections. This allowed the school to continue on-campus teaching for most of the year, facilitating access to important studio teaching and practice when many other arts schools were forced into on-line learning for extended periods of time. Through these troubled and uncertain times our staff shone, many finding novel ways to keep their students active and engaged, a testament to the dedication and commitment of our academics, technicians and professional staff. This also gave ECU some breathing space to shuffle its coffers and thus avoiding staff redundancies through financial savings in other areas of operation.
Although it is early days, 2021 enrolments in the school are 7% up compared to same time last year, but there are some significant factors affecting this. The trend in arts, design and communications are relatively flat while new on-line masters courses in professional psychology and counselling have gone gang busters, enabling the school to maintain its current level of enrolments through 2021. This is of course a dynamic situation, with students clearly shopping around and leaving their enrolments until the last minute, in the context of a marked increase in local students unable to take a gap year in a state that has one of the lowest uptakes of year twelve students into higher education of any state in Australia. At this stage there is very little evidence of the effects of the fee hikes as a result of the government’s job-ready legislation on commencing numbers in the arts & humanities, which might well have been softened by the local factors mentioned above.
So, what does the future hold for ECU? An uncertain one for sure just like every other university across the globe. ECU’s commitment to a $700m creative industries, business and technology city campus by 2025 is certainly a positive statement in the light of so much negative news, and a timely one at that. This project gives us hope and will drive new thinking in terms of how a university of the future will need to reconsider everything from delivery of curriculum, research engagement and above all its risks associated with its central business model which, up to 2020, assumed international students would always arrive on our shores. The pandemic is forcing all of us to rethink our priorities, so we all hope that higher education and particularly in the creative arts becomes a model for new thinking and human resilience, and one that our successive governments might seek to seriously invest in.
Professor Clive Barstow is Executive Dean Arts & Humanities at Edith Cowan University and President of the Australian Council of Deans and Directors of Creative Arts