Providers of pathway courses must be prepared to “flip-flop” between online and face-to-face instruction in the long run, even after pandemic-induced disruption subsides, Study Group’s chief executive has told EducationInvestor Global.

Emma Lancaster, who heads up the London-based organisation, told this publication that demand for online-only pathway courses – which are typically delivered in-person at partner universities – has surged amid the pandemic, which restricted international student mobility and universities’ capacity.

Lancaster expects this trend to outlive the coronavirus crisis and, as a result, pathway providers should expand digital course offerings, which are cheaper to deliver and help widen access to foundation courses among less affluent international students.

“In the long term, I think we have to be prepared to flip-flop from online to face-to-face to online again and be much more flexible in the way we operate as we see Covid-19 affecting countries in different parts of the world at different rates,” she said.

The operations of Study Group, which makes money by channelling international students into foundation, pre-undergraduate and pre-master’s courses who then go on to study at overseas ‘partner’ universities, have been severely disrupted by Covid-19.

And while Lancaster said that she had anticipated a significant reduction in students from key source markets – such as China and India – she had “underestimated” the impact on Study Group’s operations in destination markets – namely the UK and Australia – where local lockdowns and travel restrictions remain in place.

“I thought there would be an impact on our source countries, with students not being able to travel, but what I didn’t expect was that our destination countries would be [impacted as much as they have],” she said.

However, while Lancaster admitted that enrolments have taken a hit this year, she said that Study Group, which was last year acquired by private equity house Ardian, has managed to avert financial meltdown thanks, in part, to its timely acquisition of Insendi in February.

Insendi, an online learning platform developer, enabled Study Group to quickly pivot to online delivery when the pandemic began curtailing air routes and shutting down universities, said Lancaster. (In an interview with this publication last month, Insendi chief executive Terry Sweeney revealed that its user numbers had tripled throughout the pandemic.)

The takeover of Insendi gave Study Group a digital edge over its competitors at a time when in-person instruction was halted, said Lancaster, many of which did not have robust online-learning capabilities.

“I can well imagine that, without having bought Insendi, we would have spun wheels for a few weeks or chucked a whole load of PowerPoints online and called that online learning, which I know a lot of people in the sector did because they had no choice,” said Lancaster.

Study Group will continue to invest in developing its online capacity, said Lancaster, who noted that digital tools have streamlined traditionally cumbersome processes, such as onboarding new students and carrying out assessments.

The firm, which has historically relied on a global network of agents and physical events to source new students, has also attended several online recruitment fairs in the absence of face-to-face networking opportunities, said Lancaster.

Blended learning – by which students undertake a mix of online courses and modules delivered face-to-face – will be leveraged “much more” by Study Group, she added.

“I think we are going to be in an uncertain world, and we are always going to need some online provision,” said Lancaster.

In the meantime, however, enrolments – and therefore revenue – are expected to dip year-over-year, said Lancaster, due chiefly to “uncertainty that’s keeping many students away”.

But, as a result of the pandemic, Study Group expects “there will be an emerging segment of students who will want to do their pathway course wholly online, particularly in the pre-master’s space”, said Lancaster. This creates a new business opportunity for a company that has historically focused almost entirely on providing in-person instruction.

“Students are starting to realise that online learning, in terms of the outcome, is as good as the real thing. In terms of academic outcome, you still get what you pay for.

“Pathway for many is a means to an end – it’s a way to get to the university, where they can then do their face to face degree. There are a lot of benefits to being together as an international community but, faced with Covid-19, we have discovered there are other ways of providing a recognised stepping stone to degree level,” she added.

“While it would probably be better to be in country, it’s not disastrous to study online.”

“We were already on that journey, but Covid-19 has just presented the opportunity to accelerate a lot of that thinking. We are probably a couple of years ahead of where we would have been if Covid-19 hadn’t happened.”
 

Date published: 16 September 2020

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