January 2, 2024

Why university enrolments hit a near-decade low

Jeanette Cheah 🇦🇺🇲🇾🇺🇸
Why university enrolments hit a near-decade low

Response to an article in on “School leavers shun uni, enrolments hit near-decade low”

For the first time since the 1950s, first-year university enrollments went backwards, according to an article by Education Editor, Julie Hare, in The Australian Financial Review yesterday. 

This means high school leavers, who are usually the most reliable source of new uni enrolments, are deciding to do other things - whether that is take a gap year, go straight to work, do alternative study, or just take a damn break. 

The advantage of doing gap years for student leavers

In other news, 2022 and 2023 saw the ‘return of the gap year’, with pandemic-locked young people casting aside their degrees after just one year once they were able to explore the world beyond their bubbles. 

When diving deeper into this, a study from the Melbourne Institute at the University of Melbourne found that nearly 60% of people found the costs of degrees too high, and half of all people (uni grads and those who have never attended) said they didn’t think uni degrees led to a better job. This is despite the Education Minister’s office claiming that 9 out of 10 Australian jobs being created today will require a degree or TAFE qualification. 

These insights are consistent with what we hear from HEX learners, who regularly tell us that the few weeks they spend with us gave them more job readiness than their entire 4-year degree – and the disillusioned graduate employers who fill up my inbox looking for HEX Alumni talent. 

So what’s going on? What signals can we read from these trends?

The rise of SX - Student Experience.

Student Experience departments and Employability departments at universities will become more important, just as they have been to non-uni sector educators for years. This is a space where disruptors can easily cut a uni’s lunch, just like the fintechs did to banks, attracting a youthful new market (think – the UpBank customer experience versus the CommBank customer experience). 

It says something when some of the best research institutions in the country have the lowest student experience scores. Students, and especially Gen Z, have grown up in a consumer world that gives them personalised attention, high production quality and awesome digital experiences, so they have high expectations – and universities are no exception.

Gap years will become multi-purpose.

There is no reason why a student should have to choose between life experience and learning. What’s needed is a system that allows you to pull beers in London, play gigs in Langwarrin, or hike around Laos while also gaining credit towards a qualification.

The next evolution of online learning will be fun, mobile and engaging – and have the backing of a uni credential (just like HEX…). And new ‘stacked credentials’ that recognise life skills, such as travel, caring duties or creative passions, will unlock so many opportunities.

“Going pro early” is a rising trend.

With so many options to monetise content, time and micro-skills, students no longer see the need to wait until their degree is complete before they start work, freelance, or build their own businesses. I think we’ll see more savvy employers and education institutions team up to help students access real, paid employment during their degrees (not just unpaid internships). We will definitely see more independent educators muscling in on the ‘employability’ territory. 10 years ago, it was all about General Assembly and their coding and UX courses. These days, we’re seeing EntryLevel and others bring Data Analysis and Venture Capital Analyst programs to life. 

I’d also love to see the rise of the ‘CEO internship’ – letting students flex their entrepreneurial muscles with support and scaffolding from trusted program providers. At HEX, we cover the best of all worlds, combining uni credit with startup accelerator programs and future tech skills. 

Education is still a business – and students are still customers.

I know it’s taboo in the sector to call students ‘customers’ but that’s the reality of it. And like all dissatisfied customers, if they don’t get the experience and the outcomes they expect for the price they pay, they will vote with their wallets. Universities that react too slowly will be under financial pressure, forcing budget cuts and mergers, like what we are seeing in South Australia. 

Forward-thinking universities will be looking to expand their appeal to new learners, such as under-represented groups or growing populations, and figure out ways to build relationships with those communities and create offers that work for diverse students. An example of this is the deep investment in NSW’s Parramatta region by the University of Sydney and the University of Wollongong, or Curtin University’s appointment of Associate Professor Tuguy Esgin, a proud Noongar Yamatji man, as their Dean of Indigenous Engagement in the Faculty of Business and Law.

Truly innovative universities, like our new partners at the University of Sydney, will find ways to integrate with new players and industry to expand their ‘legacy sandstone’ offerings, blending excellent academic rigor with the fast-moving expectations of students, and a fun and engaging bridge to learning, life and employment. 

Serving the student: the rise of SX (Student Experience) is one of the main reasons the enrolments are so low.

The bottom line

The legacy university business model is in trouble. But it’s not too late to innovate, to engage with student expectations, and to join forces with unexpected partners to deliver outsized outcomes. Students still value qualifications and still want to learn, and it’s up to the sector to deliver this in a way that makes sense for today’s generation.

If you are a learner looking to explore your options, see the available journey you can take with HEX here.

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