Post-pandemic: Some ‘forever’ changes to higher education

In May 2022, the World Bank, UNESCO and UNICEF called the COVID-19 pandemic the “worst education crisis on record”.

Since COVID-19 marched across the world disrupting most aspects of life, including higher education, numerous articles have been written detailing the impact of the virus on higher education. Most of what has been written and discussed has centred on what we know now about the changes to higher education.

We know international student mobility has been disrupted and we know a hybrid form of educational delivery has been accepted by colleges and universities worldwide. And we know millions of students have abandoned their higher education goals.

In addition to disrupting higher education for more than two years, there are permanent changes to higher education that were more deeply exposed by COVID-19. This article will outline two of the forever changes to higher education brought about by the pandemic.

These changes are the rise of the student-consumer as a dominant player in some higher education systems and increased recognition of the mental and emotional needs of students, which were heightened during the pandemic.

The post-COVID student-consumer

According to a 30 July 2020 article in the Journal of Health Management, authors Seema Mehta, Tanjul Saxena and Neetu Purohit make the case that, in every market, consumers are the drivers of market competitiveness, growth and economic integration.

In this article, the authors define a consumer as a person who identifies a need or desire and makes a purchase. In crisis times, new trends in consumer behaviour emerge that include the demand for uncomplicated, value-oriented products and services that simplify their lives.

The student-consumer, post COVID-19, has educational options that did not exist prior to the pandemic. Student mobility patterns over the past two years reveal that the student-consumer will enrol in schools that offer classes year long, both online and in person.

They will enrol in schools with robust digital capabilities and career counselling services which provide roadmaps for future employment and graduate and professional school placement after graduation. Several surveys support these student-consumer preferences.

An INTO survey, conducted in August 2021, of students from China, India, Nigeria, Kenya, Japan, Australia and Brazil revealed that students are demanding concrete returns on their educational investment.

A survey in 48 countries conducted by the OECD found that the student-consumer is interested in how their college or university can assist with future employment opportunities. And a report by ICEF revealed similar student preferences.

Michael Huseby, the CEO of online bookstore Barnes and Noble, wrote that higher education students, post-pandemic, want an academic experience that is both flexible and personalised. I would add that the post-pandemic student-consumer wants an uncomplicated value-oriented educational experience.

The post-pandemic student-consumer is as likely to investigate a school’s carbon footprint and its commitment to climate change as they are to investigate a school’s worldwide ranking.

The post-pandemic student-consumer is as likely to have participated, or know someone who participated, in the International Youth Day Conference held at the United Nations headquarters in New York on 12 August as they are to consider pledging for a sorority or fraternity.

The post-pandemic student-consumer is as likely to enrol in a school with rigorous virus protocols as to enrol in a school with no known policies.

Of course, student-consumer behaviour can, and will, differ from country to country. Consumer behaviour is not homogenised. What is forever is that the post-COVID-19 student-consumer will play a dominant role in higher education in the future.

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