Impact on the Higher Education Sector

The spread of COVID-19 has necessitated a range of extraordinary responses by states and education institutions, from travel restrictions to campus shutdowns.

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COVID-19 and response from the Higher Education Sector

The spread of COVID-19 has necessitated a range of extraordinary responses by states and education institutions, from travel restrictions to campus shutdowns. Prolonged crisis and recovery periods will drive greater localisation, online learning and financial austerity. Education institutions in “returning back to campus” must focus on both short and long term challenges.

The webinar brings together leaders from global universities and institutes of higher learning to share insights and discuss leading practices.

Prolonged crisis and recovery periods will drive greater localisation, online learning and financial austerity. Education institutions in “returning back to school” must focus on both short and long term challenges. At PwC we are supporting clients to: prepare to protect student safety when classes resume, re-define engagement through the digital agenda, grow the revenue base and re-organise costs in the short and medium term, to rebound in the new normal.

Timeline of State and Higher Education Responses to COVID-19, 2020

Jan - Feb
  • China imposed lockdown in Wuhan; WHO declared outbreak to be Public Health Emergency of International Concern
Feb - Mar
  • Over 29 countries imposed travel restriction on high risk countries and quarantine measures for returning passengers
  • Universities exploring options for online classes for international students amidst travel restrictions
Mar - Apr
  • Most major countries across the world introduced travel ban, closing all external borders upon WHO declaration of pandemic
  • Universities preparing for campus shutdowns and cancellation of all in-person classes
Apr - May
  • Most SEA countries impose movement restriction by shutting schools and businesses; lockdown measures extended
  • Several top universities announced hiring freeze and salary pay cuts; Universities develop Covid-19 task force

Prolonged crisis and recovery periods will drive greater localisation, online learning and financial austerity

Impact of COVID-19 Crisis on Higher Education

  Swift Recovery
Sustained Recession
Prolonged / Acute Recession
  • One-off impact on student enrolments in the upcoming 2021 academic year, particularly in the international student segment due to deferments and offer cancellations / rejections 
  • Cancelled admission tests, examinations and graduations 
  • Recruitment events and further travel bans dampens international enrolments for 2021 cycle
  • Competition for domestic students exacerbates as international reduces
  • Economic slowdown may create opportunities for graduate enrolment as the job-seeking population seeks price-competitive education as a means of gaining a competitive edge for when the economy returns
  • Travel bans and social distancing measures prevent face-to-face learning activities
  • Online learning to predominate over remainder of 2020 academic year; physical learning to resume in 2021 academic year
  • Institutions may switch to an all-online proposition for part of the 2021 academic year and will require more sophisticated online learning tools e.g. testing / examinations 
  • Decline in ancillary revenue sources, e.g. research funding, conferences
  • Extended period of online delivery – strong capabilities will be a major differentiator in the market along with marketing / branding 
  • Online learning approaches more  integrated with physical learning – institutions will be ‘digital-first’ and incorporate essential face-to-face learning
Staffing and operations
  • Sharp immediate impact to bottom line, from refunds issued
  • Incur additional expenses not previously budgeted, e.g. online learning software modules and special compensation for essential staff
  • Operating budgets strained – move to essential spend
  • Shrinking state budget allocations to universities add further constraints
  • Staff hiring freezes and layoffs to minimise costs (teaching and support)
  • Sustained streamlining of spend to only “essential” categories
  • Alternative usage of university premises 
  • Emergence of new staffing models, e.g. flexible working arrangements for faculty members, streamlined support teams

The higher education sector must refine its digital agenda, protect and grow its revenue base and re-organise costs

Key Considerations for Higher Education Institutions  Key Opportunities
1. Re-define Digital Education
Challenge in providing engaging online courses at scale and implementing holistic digital solutions e.g. admissions, lectures, examinations, graduation
  • Re-define digital learning pedagogy for both students and lecturers considering synchronous / asynchronous learning methods 
  • Deepen digital engagement / UX across student and faculty value chain 
2. Protect and Expand Revenues
Challenge in meeting expectations of current / incoming cohorts and seeking new growth opportunities
  • Strengthen existing propositions
  • Identify additional and alternative revenue streams across segments 
  • Diversify customer base and international student concentration 
3. Seek Immediate Cost Optimisation
Challenge in identifying essential and non-essential cost ‘buckets’ and quantum of cost reductions required to maintain quality service / products 
  • Assess cost base to focus on costs which create differentiation, reduce spend in certain areas to ensure minimum operations
  • Eliminate non core spend 
4. Re-Organise for Longer Term Growth
Challenge in responding to longer term structural impacts from the pandemic e.g. prolonged social distancing measures 
  • Re-define aspects of strategy and consider longer term transformation initiatives and associated new capabilities / partnerships    

Guiding questions for higher education institutions across Asia Pacific to respond to both short and longer term challenges from COVID-19

How can I coordinate a campus-wide response and manage my stakeholders?
  • Task force and project management office setup
  • Communications and outreach management with key stakeholders, including students, academic and non-academic staff and health authorities / Government
  • Incident response and prevention policy management
How can I continue to deliver on my core propositions?
  • Digital learning upgrade: evaluation of online delivery methods, testing of new platforms, and implementation of new applications and approaches
  • Infrastructure readiness: assessment of technology readiness for online learning delivery
  • Workforce deployment models: right-sizing of workforce, staffing models
How can I best plan and prepare for the medium and long term amidst the uncertainty?
  • Strategic and Scenario planning based on varying economic outlooks
  • Growth strategies to diversify into new markets and revenue sources
  • Cost optimisation initiatives to protect bottom line and ensure resources are reallocated to strategic areas
  • Digital strategy formulation to develop a longer term ‘digital-first’ campus strategy

Over time, there are also broader transformation questions across strategy, the operating model and culture transformation and change

Components of University Strategy

  • Portfolio strategy
  • Research strategy
  • Campus footprint strategy
  • Recruitment strategy (including rankings optimisation)
  • Industry engagement strategy
  • Teaching and learning strategy
  • International strategy
Curriculum Design & Student Experience
  • Course consolidation
  • Curriculum digitisation agenda
  • Academic calendar
  • Student experience improvement
  • Student success and employment outcomes
Professional Models & Performance
  • Professional staff operating model
  • Professional staff career models
  • Process improvement and efficiency
  • Digital service delivery
  • IT strategy
Procurement, Footprint & Commercial Optimisation
  • Sourcing strategy and procurement improvement
  • Campus footprint utilisation improvement
  • Commercial activity profit and service improvement e.g., childcare
Academic Performance
  • Teaching and education focused roles
  • Individual academic performance evaluation and improvement
Governance & Operating Model
  • University governance
  • University operating model, including faculty design
  • Budget model reform
Culture Transformation & Change Management
  • Leadership development
  • Culture diagnostic and development

Contact us

Tristan Hockley

Tristan Hockley

Government and Public Sector (G&PS) Leader and Salesforce Practice Leader, South East Asia Consulting, PwC Singapore

Tel: +65 9753 6736

Winston Nesfield

Winston Nesfield

Insurance and Wealth Leader, South East Asia Consulting, PwC Singapore

Tel: +65 9159 1425

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