The higher education (HE) sector is in a difficult financial position, with costs rising substantially while undergraduate tuition fees remain frozen. In the past, when costs have risen, the sector's reaction has been to look for cost-cutting measures and promote efficiency savings.
Higher education institutions (HEIs) have long invested in technology to change business processes and deliver efficiencies. But can the sector use digital to change business models to look for growth and increase income?
In our research for Jisc’s new digital strategies report, we interviewed ten senior HE leaders to understand how digital technology is used to create impact today.
The traditional structures and support systems of HE were primarily designed for full-time students aged 18 to 25.
But these students increasingly combine study with work. There are also many people who might look to HE but find that the current offer doesn’t accommodate them: people with careers and families, who face challenges engaging with learning in a system which doesn’t provide the flexibility they need.
Incorporating digital approaches can better serve existing students and attract new students who thought HE was not for them. Digital can improve student experiences, conduct research at an increasing scale, and create growth opportunities for institutions.
Successful use of digital isn’t about replicating existing practice but with added technology. It is about doing things differently: using technology to better meet the needs of students and staff, in ways that weren’t previously possible.
Digital can help institutions tackle some of their greatest challenges, e.g. limited space on campus and timetable constraints. It can improve working practices, boost organisational efficiency, and offer greater resilience during disruption.
Where we are seeing universities stride forward with digital is where they are bringing digital into the mainstream, with a holistic approach that supports every aspect of the student’s journey.
If curriculum teams work closely with learning technologists, estates teams, IT, and those with responsibility for timetabling together with students, it will enable a more inclusive and seamless digital experience. Forward-looking institutions are pulling these previously separate worlds together to create dynamic systems and digital curricula that sit at the heart of their strategic plans.
Our research shows that this transformation is not about technology adoption. It is first and foremost about transforming the mindset and culture of an organisation, to ensure that technology can be deployed in a way that maximises impact and value.
Steps to develop success in digital
The digital journey is not easy: it requires universities to be realistic about where they are, their journey, and the resources needed to reach their goals. The HEIs making progress use a similar roadmap to improve their digital maturity.
Below we outline five of the significant steps they are following to achieve success:
Invest in infrastructure and systems
We found that HEIs with an ambitious digital agenda are nonetheless focused on “fixing the basics”, infrastructure that works reliably and systems that talk with each other. This ensures that data can be exchanged and the user experience is seamless.
Universities that want world-class services recognise that world-class infrastructure is an essential enabler.
Invest in people and skills
The most important element of any organisation is its people. We spoke with HEIs that had identified a skills gap and lack of digital confidence amongst staff and students.
They already had the technology, they then needed to support staff to develop the confidence and capability to use it effectively, so they put skills development at the heart of the digital strategy and made it a shared institutional priority.
The first step to achieving this is benchmarking your staff and students, using self-assessment tools to understand their skill level and development needs. Combining this with dynamic and flexible training programmes can empower staff and build their confidence so they can support students to be digitally ready for their professions and careers.
Strong customer and stakeholder focus
The successful teams we encountered across the sector maintained a clear focus on the needs of their stakeholders: students and staff.
They use surveys, focus groups and other sources to gather data, and involve a wide group of stakeholders to develop strategies and implementation plans.
Combining this customer-centric view with a light-touch, iterative development process permits a ‘test-evaluate-improve' model which can develop services more quickly.
Quick, lightweight processes to resource projects
Some HEIs still use a very traditional project management approach. All elements are planned at the beginning, including budgets and delivery dates. This approach requires a cast-iron business case, but this can be slow to develop while the user requirements and technology landscape is changing fast.
We encountered successful organisations with a two-tier approach to funding. They still have a traditional business case process for the largest change programmes, but they also have a discrete digital strategy or innovation fund from which they resource smaller projects without a complex approval process.
This autonomy allows them to gather evidence of what works before iterating it and rolling it out across the larger organisation.
Change in attitude towards digital technologies and outcomes
Digital strategies require time, investment and support from leadership to drive them forward.
Digital transformation can be very challenging for HE leaders, with many moving parts that touch all areas of the institution.
For this reason it needs leadership from the top. Senior leaders must contribute to a digital vision aligning with strategic organisational goals. They should model good digital practice and support the development of an organisational-wide digital culture.
Forward-looking universities are using digital as the golden thread through all their corporate strategies. For digital transformation to be achieved, there needs to be collective ownership of and responsibility for digital across senior leaders across the organisation.
Having one person with digital responsibility in the executive team is not enough: htere should be collective ownership of digital across senior leaders in the organisation, not just with those with digital or IT in their job title.
Building belief in digital
Where we’ve seen success in digital, it’s been where there is an understanding of the growth potential for the organisation, and the opportunity to develop learning, teaching and research that reflects the requirements of the future digitally enabled workplace.
Read our report Digital strategies in UK higher education: making digital mainstream to find out how today’s HE leaders drive digital innovation within their institutions.