Bite-sized courses provide sustenance in Australia

Despite scepticism about the business model, short courses prove an earner for cash-starved institutions

September 15, 2021
Trainer feeding an Australian sea lion in Sea World Gold Coast Australia as a metaphor for bite-sized courses provide sustenance in Australia
Source: Alamy

Short courses are standing taller in Australian higher education revenue streams as universities harness Covid relief funding and overseas commercial opportunities.

More than 30 universities and a dozen independent providers have shared over A$250 million (£134 million) that was allocated in the 2020 federal budget to subsidise 50,000 certificate course places. The money has helped bankroll 750 offerings, according to an analysis by Australian National University policy expert Andrew Norton.

Innovative commercial models are also emerging. The University of South Australia (UniSA) has joined forces with Irish professional services giant Accenture to deliver both top-up and degree-length courses in a deal that could dwarf enrolments through its conventional programmes.

UNSW Sydney has captured business from overseas students through a 16-week preparatory course for applicants who failed to meet foreign universities’ admission requirements.

Such developments demonstrate short courses’ potential as viable earners, despite Professor Norton’s suspicion that universities could not overcome determined competition from organisations such as LinkedIn Learning and YouTube, which could meet people’s precise skill needs at very low cost.

Professor Norton said he was also sceptical of claims that economic restructuring was driving workers to constantly update their skills. His analyses of the relevant data sources – such as tax claims for self-education expenses and universities’ revenue from continuing education – had found that most were “in decline”.

But some of these indicators have rebounded since Covid’s emergence. And with Canberra subsidising short courses until the end of the year, universities are embracing them and linking them to longer offerings. “They’re desperately looking for any revenue source, and this is one of them,” Professor Norton said.

Monash University’s suite of six-month courses includes an undergraduate certificate in mental health that attracted more than 1,100 students when it began in July – including 800 police alerted to the course by their employer.

Monash said the course, rolled out in the aftermath of the Black Summer bushfires, the pandemic and the Covid-induced recession, met a perceived need for “skilled and empathetic” workers “who truly understand mental health”.

UniSA’s joint venture with Accenture matches the university’s online education capability with the company’s expertise in digital business – not to mention its 500,000-plus employees and its global client base.

Under plans set for 2022, Accenture will supply the educational material, which the university will gauge for quality and tweak for online delivery. Students, including the company’s staff as well as its clients, will gain branded credentials that can be parlayed into full degrees.

“While we’ve had some success in offering professional courses in the past, this opens up an audience that we would never have gained access to through conventional marketing,” said UniSA provost Allan Evans.

“To have sustainable, high-quality online delivery of microcredentials, you have to have a significant customer base, and Accenture pretty much opens up the world to UniSA.”

UNSW’s Transition Program Online, which was planned before Covid’s emergence, guarantees entry to degrees offered by the Australian host and five New Zealand and UK institutions – with more partners in the pipeline. The decision to produce an online version of the course, which has been offered on-campus for 15 years, proved providential after Australia’s borders closed.

While it is designed to enhance UNSW’s profile and boost its overseas enrolments, the course has proven a tidy earner in its own right. Some 100 students so far have paid the tuition fees of A$15,960 each – including aspiring UK students who narrowly failed to gain admission.

UNSW Global’s acting chief executive, Sarah Lightfoot, said such students were surprisingly common. “They’ve just fallen short. Sometimes it’s by one mark.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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