Keystone Academic SolutionsAdaptability in the face of a pandemic: how students and universities have prevailed

Adaptability in the face of a pandemic: how students and universities have prevailed


A new survey from Keystone Academic Solutions reports changing attitudes towards online learning and international study since March

With lockdown restrictions creating uncertainty about the autumn 2020 term, two months might feel like a long time to students getting ready to embark on a new university course. 

However, a comparison of student attitudes between April and June from Keystone Academic Solutions has found that students remain open-minded about starting courses online and many still hope to study internationally when travel restrictions are lifted. 

Keystone’s second poll of student preferences in June gathered responses from more than 11,000 students visiting its site. The proportion of students whose study plans had changed since the start of the coronavirus pandemic increased by just 1 per cent, to 62.1 per cent. Meanwhile, those planning to study abroad rather than in their home country since the Covid-19 outbreak rose slightly, from 51.9 per cent to 56.5 per cent. 

“We thought we might see different results but the main trends were the same,” says Keystone’s chief marketing officer Saba Chafiki. The high proportion of those whose study plans have changed could be down to a number of factors, she adds. “Perhaps they have decided to change their field of study or go for a different location, or are even contemplating going back to university.” Twenty-three per cent of students polled who were not interested in studying prior to the pandemic were now considering a master’s degree, she adds, reflecting an increased interest in upskilling or reskilling in the face of an uncertain labour market. 

Hybrid learning and investing in training

Many universities have pivoted to offer fully online courses as well as hybrid courses, a mix of on-campus and digital learning. Likewise, students are open to at least starting an on-campus course online. In both June and April, about three-quarters of students said that they would be happy to begin their studies remotely, according to Keystone’s polls. In both surveys, more than half said that they had considered opting for purely online courses. “At first this was through necessity but now I think it’s considered a more viable option generally,” adds Chafiki, pointing to institutions such as Harvard University, which recently announced it would conduct all classes online for at least the first semester of the 2020/21 academic year. 

This shift has pushed universities to adapt what they offer, as well as how they market themselves. “They’re investing in training their academic staff and have adapted swiftly to digital transformation. Universities have become more digitally savvy since the pandemic, We’ve seen a lot more digital marketing activity, increased communication with students and higher engagement on social media,” Chafiki explains.   

Maintaining the student experience

Universities have also discovered that adopting greater transparency and authenticity is effective during these uncertain times. Using digital tools to keep prospective and current students up to date with the latest developments on their courses and campus openings is key, adds Chafiki. It also helps universities build a sense of community, something that is frequently cited as lacking when there is no on-campus experience. “Many are using storytelling as a more authentic way of marketing programmes,” she says. “They might focus on alumni experiences. There might be virtual networking events or the chance for prospective students to join an online class, so they can see what the programme would be like. It’s about maintaining that student experience, even if the student is still at home.” 

New trends and opportunities

The switch to a digital academic offering could also help improve access to universities and broaden their appeal to groups that may previously have considered a university course out of their reach. “The expansion of online learning means that students who could not normally attend an on-campus programme because they need to juggle it with other commitments or struggle financially can now do so online,” says Chafiki. “On-campus programmes will still go strong, but [there is] an opportunity for universities to broaden their appeal. This was always inevitable, but Covid-19 has accelerated the process.” 

Keystone’s research suggests that the key trends to watch are the ever increasing adaptability of both students and universities. Students will still be willing to study abroad once travel restrictions are lifted, but feel comfortable beginning a course online from home until the pandemic is over. For their part, universities have moved courses and communication on to digital platforms as quickly and comprehensively as possible, with the main focus responding to students’ needs.  

Find out more about Keystone Academic Solutions.  

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