Can the Gaming-Partnerships Industry Save Declining Post-Secondary Enrolment Rates?

Updated: Dec 7, 2020

There is no better way to say it, but I’ll say it without beating around the bush - post-secondary enrolments are decreasing.

According to an article and latest data by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, about one month into the Fall 2020 semester, US undergraduate enrolment has now slipped 4% below last year’s level.

While the numbers haven’t yet been released for Canadian institutions, early findings show they’re quite similar to their American counterparts. The University of British Columbia, for instance, is projecting a $138 million loss in tuition and is also anticipating a deficit for the first time as reported by Maclean’s.

From the Canadian Press, the Association of Atlantic Universities reported late October that full-time enrolment is down 1.3% over last year, and enrolment by full-time visa students declined by 6.6% over the same period.

The kicker? 10.5% decline in first year student enrolment.

What gives? We can blame COVID just because. But, the pandemic piling on top of an already delicate situation can’t be the sole reason to blame.

Can post secondary institutions even survive COVID-19, let alone the steady decrease in enrolments from previous years?

There’s simply no easy solution to "plug in and play" given that academic institutions are still fairly static in delivery methods and the tendency to implement new methods system wide requires years of development. But, there are bright spots.

For one, gaming has already leaned in - not only in just sponsorship with music and traditional sport but experiential learning, financial relief and 'field trip' experiences as well.

Known as the largest indoor farm fair in the world, the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair was cancelled in Toronto this past November. The only other time it was cancelled? The Second World War. However, one thing that will look to continue is the activation of the Agriculture Zone presented by Dairy Farmers of Ontario: Dairycraft

From autonomous electric equipment to reduction of food waste, the free, digital learning platform offers educational activities and resources for students K-12 and is compliant with the Ontario Ministry of Education’s curriculum expectations.

In a not so rigid (‘curriculum compliant’) but yet innovative case study that offers a compelling approach is the use of Assassin’s Creed. Early on in the pandemic, the Washington Post covered a story about how like many administrations across the world ordered school closures and field trip cancellation. Montreal history teacher Kevin Peloquin was set to bring his students to Greece but given the circumstances, was unable to do so.

Instead, he turned to Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey that included an ‘education mode’ and a research based recreation of Ancient Greece.

Prior to this release, the game’s publisher, Ubisoft released Assassin’s Creed: Origins which took place in Ancient Egypt. Similar to the education mode, there was the Discovery Tour - allowing players to tour historical sites and cities.

“My intention is to motivate my students to continue with the course,” Péloquin said, whose course is optional at Collège Saint-Hilaire. “When I spoke about it with my students, they seemed really, really pleased and surprised that we can work on our history course through a video game.”

In response, Ubisoft granted Peloquin and his students free access to Assassin’s Creed for three months using Google Stadia. His students can now play the game regardless of how strong their computers are as it’s through the Cloud. Stadia then offered its pro membership free of cost as part of their exception to Peloquin, paving the way for educators to jump on the opportunity.

Ubisoft has a network of teaching staff looking to implement the platform as part of their offering and will be one of many publishers expanding an education-like mode to students for their curriculum and studies. In the coming years, look for faculty to embrace learning in different capacities to enhance the learning and pedagogy environment.

But, how will a video game save enrolment rates for the foreseeable future? Let’s take a long term look at what the next wave of kids are doing – playing and interacting through games. By studying how the younger generation consumes information and learns habits, easing a transition from a platform they already have familiarity with might just could keep them interested – at the minimum.

Gaming by no means will save enrollment rates, but it gives institutions a shot at staying relevant through innovative delivery models and dynamic experience that goes beyond PowerPoint slides and research papers.

Learning by doing like we see in Dairycraft or other iterations in Minecraft which could offer a whole new meaning for the next generation. Earlier this year, Microsoft made Minecraft free for educators and students due to the pandemic. The edition came with a suite of pre-made lesson plans and the ability for teachers to make some of their own. (And I have not even touched Roblox yet)

“Tomorrow’s” university or college will not be either-or when it comes to face to face learning or virtual. Students these days will perceive true value with a balance of both and utilizing of learning technologies or platforms the industry uses.

Does the industry use the popular classroom, trivia game Kahoot? Maybe to some extent to share some laughs for team chemistry. But I can say for sure that students cannot argue with me by saying they didn’t have fun by playing Kahoot individually or in teams to learn course material.

However, what could further the cause of enticing students to start enrolling again is financial need.

When we look at brand architecture specifically on a partnership that involved the Collegiate StarLeague and TikTok, it makes total sense. Without getting too deep, the Collegiate StarLeague is the largest collegiate esports organization in North America. TikTok is well, TikTok – arguably, one of the more popular social media platforms who’s user base largely leans towards the younger generation.

The target demographic and psychographic is pretty spot on. If we were to humanize both the Collegiate StarLeague and TikTok, one could say they’re basically like siblings - at the very least cousins. You can imagine a fun but yet, competitive (for likes and views) personality and their shared interests with the gaming culture especially on content creation.

Most importantly, the two paired up to create a brand new esports event, the TikTok Cup. Collegiate players received the opportunity to compete online across four gaming titles, earning their share of $60,000 in prize money to support education expenses that will be split amongst the winners. Furthermore, participants can submit their gaming TikTok videos by using the hashtag #TikTokCupContest to win more prizes.

The Collegiate StarLeague is positioned to bring colleges and universities a plethora of esports services including recruitment, advisory services, curriculum development, tournament creation, operations, event production and more. Look for more partnerships in the gaming space that look to directly assist student funding and scholarships in the near future to bridge gamers to post secondary studies.

But, how let’s circle back to experiential learning on a traditional employer-co-op student relationship standpoint? Without a doubt, there will be some sort of enhanced experience and opportunity for co-op experiences to elevate. There has to be support behind continuous learning and re-skilling. With a growing industry in gaming specifically the esports circuit, there will be plenty of opportunity for the industry to lean in further.

I personally will foresee more development in local grassroots communities specifically with esport academies as industry interest grows. There is no definitive “Path to Pro” unlike in traditional sport and there will be opportunity to help develop that for those not interested in making gaming a career. With “Path to Pro” comes the development of events, operations, training and care for the younger generation. With those careers, come the transferrable skills that can be used regardless of industry - selling partnerships/sponsorship, social media management, project management etc.

The more this develops, the more opportunities will open up for students to learn a new channel and audience. We may even seen something emerge further along those lines comes 2021. But, just like brands, academic institutions will have to further understand the ecosystem of what gaming can offer and even find ways to create academic partnerships to supplement what is already being offered in the current curriculum.

The gaming community thrives on virtual collaborations and their core strengths are in remote teamwork and self management due to the nature of both competitive gaming and relaxed lifestyle gaming like we’ve seen with Animal Crossing and Minecraft. Universities and colleges have plenty to learn from how the culture has developed such a phenomenal backbone.

In extension, with the evolution and prominence of e-learning platforms such as Coursera and LinkedIn Learning, we may even see the development of flexible credentials in a way where these academic institutions can partner up with these specialized academies in the grassroots communities. There is a population of non traditional students out there like veterans and adult learners who may need to supplement their degrees and diplomas - offering niche ‘micro credentials’ or certifications, possibly similar to how a postgraduate is delivered.

Lastly, when we circle back and look at partnerships from an architectural standpoint, the community in gaming and academic campus life offers very similar parallels. While there is an aspect of financials, it always comes back to community. Before esports was a thing, it was always community before commerce. The gaming community is so strong and tight knit in respect to their gaming titles. Universities and colleges often will talk about how their campus life is the best and historically, our parents and high school teachers say that university/college are some of the best years of your life because of the people you meet.

They’re right – so let’s see it happen, through collaboration and a fun, innovative approach between academic and gaming.