If the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that online education has a future. How big a future remains to be seen, but private colleges have been able to adapt to lockdown with remarkable speed.
There has been debate among academics about the future of online learning in Africa. All it appeared to need is sufficient content and the ability to reach the farthest flung corners of the continent. Education is the great equaliser, but for that dream to flower, the internet would have to be cheap and ubiquitous.
In reality, that dream is still some way off, but the alacrity with which private colleges have adapted to the new environment should be studied by our own Department of Education.
AdvTech suprises itself
AdvTech’s results for the six months to June 2020 were better than many expected, in large part due to the speed with which it was able to transition to online learning during lockdown.
“We surprised ourselves. We transitioned to an online format within three weeks of the start of lockdown, and we were able to offer a fully interactive experience which meant minimal disruption to the academic programmes,” says AdvTech CEO Roy Douglas.
Though Covid knocked revenue by R88 million, and added R72.5 million to doubtful debtors, overall student numbers are up 4% over the same period last year – despite losing 8% of pre-primary school enrolments and 1% of primary school enrolments. SA high school student numbers were up 4%, versus 12% for the rest of Africa.
These figures are similar to those of Curro, which last week reported a 5% growth in student numbers over the same period in 2019.
Curro’s student retention was buttressed by discounts amounting to 12.6% of revenue, which compares with 7.5% for the same period in 2019.
Embracing the new age
Private schools have embraced the digital age, with Curro connecting 60 000 devices to its network and dishing out 22 terabytes of data daily during lockdown.
AdvTech started investing in an online learning management system in 2015, then got buy-in from teachers and lecturers, backed by a centralised academic faculty and IT team to ensure students would be able to complete the full academic curriculum for the year.
Does this mean the future of education will look more like Zoom than classroom?
“I don’t think so,” says Douglas. “I see more of a blended model, using face-to-face tuition alongside online delivery. A very large percentage of our students couldn’t wait to get back to school once the lockdown was lifted, and this tells us you cannot displace the classroom environment and the social interaction which is a vital part of education.”
The disruption due to lockdown is evident in the results of both Curro and AdvTech, which eased into online tuition after hard lockdowns in Kenya and Botswana, as well as SA.
In Kenya, the government abandoned the entire academic year for the national Kenyan curriculum schools, and has stopped all schools from having students on site until 2021. AdvTech’s Crawford International School in Kenya was able to offer the Cambridge international curriculum online, while its Makini schools in Kenya had to develop an e-learning curriculum due to the government’s school closure until 2021.
AdvTech’s revenue for the six months to June 2020 was up 13% to R2.9 billion, with tertiary facilities and schools contributing roughly R1.2 billion each. Revenue from the job placement business was R490 million, which was 20% up on the same period a year ago – due mostly to business from the rest of Africa.
Overall, earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation (Ebitda) was up 5% to R610 million (2019: R580 million). No dividend was declared for the interim period, while the focus shifts to building balance sheet strength to help it ride out the uncertain times ahead. Capex for the year will be around R300 million.
In contrast, Curro’s revenue for the same period went up 7% to R1.59 billion (2019: R1.48 billion), with Ebitda increasing 12% to R466 million (2019: R415 million).
“We expect the socio and macro-economic environment to remain weak in South Africa and have therefore taken the tough but necessary decision to further rationalise the business without harming it or destroying shareholder value,” says Douglas.
“We have considered the business environment, the expected impact of the economy on our stakeholders, on fees and collections, as well as the capital expenditure needs of the group in the short to medium term.”
A year from now we will have a better idea of how permanent online learning has become. But there seems little doubt it will be a crucial part of private education going forward.