The OECD recently conducted a review of the disruption in higher education as a result of the pandemic. In many ways universities have been able to adapt to the changing demands of online learning. There have also been welcome learning opportunities that provide information to guide policy settings that can help modernise learning and build a more robust system. 

As NSC Commissioner Adam Boyton noted at a recent Centre for Education and Training webinar, the trends in the skills ecosystem remain largely the same as we emerge from COVID-19. Instead what the pandemic has done is accelerate the rate at which these underlying trends are affecting the education and training sector. This acceleration will require policy support to ensure that the right skill mix is available to power the economy into a strong skill-led recovery. 

Considering the change to the economy and pressing skill needs, the OECD points to the need for more responsive higher education systems that is able to deliver quality education outcomes for all students (domestic, international, and online). Higher education systems provide an important pathway to fulfilling work for students embarking on their careers and provide essential up-skilling programs to life-long learners at different points in their working life.  

In their recent report, the OECD delivers a review of the difficulties and challenges for higher education in the wake of the pandemic and identifies two key disruptive themes – digitalisation and international students.  


With the closure of universities through lockdowns throughout the globe during the onset of the pandemic, there was an enormous push to move learning exclusively to online platforms. This led to an increase in the use and uptake of online learning management systems (LMS) and Blackboard, a market leading supplier in these products, reported to the OECD that LMS usage rose 9000 per cent by September 2020.  

The shift to online learning delivery has not been seamless and over 50 per cent of teaching staff surveyed across the OECD reported an increase in stress and workload as they moved learning materials online and reformatted content for online sessions.

The subsequent period of complete online delivery also reduced satisfaction for teaching staff and students alike – with increases in reports of feeling isolated, lower work/life balances and increases in difficulty to gain competencies that would otherwise require in-person learning opportunities. Moreover, a recent European Students’ Union survey in 2020 provided a clear signal that students prefer face-to-face learning that includes student-teacher interaction.  

The OECD says the digitalisation of the university experience has been a long time coming, however, the emergency measures pursued to continue classes through lockdowns should not become the new norm. The future of higher education and  vocational education and training (VET) learning may be best augmented by digital learning opportunities and not replaced by it.  

International Students and Higher Education Funding 

The OECD report singles Australia out as an example of a nation with a strong higher-education sector that relies heavily on international students and the associated revenue from international fees. They estimated that the pandemic would cut $2.7bn-$4.07bn from Australian University revenue in 2020. While the initial decline was not as significant as anticipated (estimates are closer to $2.2bn), researchers are suggesting that this is not a one-off event and the disruption will continue to beleaguer University budgets for the next few years. 

In response to the pandemic and amid declining revenues, Public spending on higher education rose in 59 per cent of the countries surveyed. Australia’s higher education expense climbed 8.6 per cent while revenue fell sharply to -2.2 per cent. 

The rise in expenses is said to be driven by new technological expenses (i.e. new computers, networks, and online learning systems) and increased costs related to personal protective equipment on campuses (hand sanitiser stations, masks for staff, antibacterial wipes for high contact zones etc.).  

The revenue decline is in context with the drop in mobility of international students. Current students returned to their home countries and new students were unable to even begin their studies due to travel restrictions. While this was a global phenomenon, Australia’s higher education cohorts comprise over 50 per cent international students (in Doctorate Level degrees), and sit closer to 30 per cent for other skill levels (Masters degrees and short-cycle courses). Australian higher education providers had a 12 per cent drop in enrolments of international students as international students completing their courses were unlikely to be replaced given the imposition of the pandemic.  

Some Nordic and European countries that have been able to open their borders to international students earlier than other nations but have still had trouble enrolling new international students. This has led to policy reform considerations that point to a simplification of the visa process for international students and increases in the duration that students are able to stay in the country after completing their intended studies. Some nations have opted to allow international students to stay after completing their studies and work for extended periods of time.  

The OECD says as the international borders open and students potentially recommence their travels in search of international learning opportunities, it is important that Australia has an accommodative visa system that will encourage international students to return. Additionally, as global competition for international students intensifies, the Australian higher education sector can no longer simply rely on its high-quality courses and international reputation to draw students from abroad. International students may begin to shop around in search of a country that provides the best opportunities for them during and after their studies and may avoid countries with burdensome  visa conditions and limited working opportunities after completion.  

Source: Impact of COVID-19 on International Student Flows: OECD Policy Implications

Brett Crossley

Brett is a Research & Policy Officer and contributes to the ongoing research and policy development projects in the Centre for Education and Training. Prior to joining the team, Brett had various roles in assisting clients with business processes, strategy research, market analysis and digital marketing. He is passionate about praxis and is motivated to ensure that research insights are operationalised in policy or business operations. Brett holds a Bachelor of Commerce and Master of Environment and wrote his thesis about the influence of global private regulatory schemes on the Australian coffee market.