Background and benefits
Page 3 of 10 - Digital at the core: a 2030 strategy framework for university leaders
About this guide
Across the UK higher education sector, the need for longer-term strategic thinking about how digital technology is used in universities is clear.
The sector is facing iIncreasing domestic and international competition, the challenges of supporting lifelong and more flexible learning, questions about the cost and efficiency of delivering higher education – in this context, digital as a strategic question is more important than ever. The COVID-19 pandemic has given senior leaders across the sector a new sense of urgency.
Not too long ago, if you asked most university leaders how long it would take to move their operations online, their answers would range from several years to decades. And yet, in March 2020, the sector moved mountains in a matter of just a few weeks. This rapid response showed that, faced with a clear and immediate need, university staff will work together effectively to adopt new technologies, tools, and ways of working, at real pace. Where previously leaders used to ask ‘Is this at all possible?’ when faced with a decision about digital, they now know: ‘It absolutely is’.
Benefits of a long-term digital strategy
The COVID-19 crisis shone a harsh light on some of the biggest risks to the dominant model of higher education. With financial sustainability a growing concern, the past decade has seen the expansion of the campus university. By contrast, investment in technology (‘bricks vs clicks’) has lagged. As one contributor put it, universities spend billions on buildings but millions on IT.
Risk aversion is often seen as the culprit. If IT is perceived as a source of risk — of data loss or security incidents, of system failure or subpar user experience, indeed as a risk to the university model itself — there is little incentive to invest. However, a coherent strategic approach to digital can help address many of the major existential risks the sector faces, mitigating rather than creating them. To achieve this, university strategy must adopt a longer-term view on the role of digital technology.
This framework adopts a ten-year planning horizon – a long enough time to realise the benefits of long-term strategic thinking, but not so far off that imagining the future becomes impossible. What are some of those benefits?
Resilience in the face of uncertainty
With the acceleration of new technologies, changes in demography and the labour market, and a rapidly shifting policy landscape, universities are operating in what one contributor to the project described as the ‘VUCA world’ – volatile, uncertain, changing, and ambiguous. The COVID-19 crisis was just one example of the challenges the sector will face. Those with a long-term digital strategy in place have found that it helped them better cope with the pandemic, giving them a response roadmap and accelerating processes already underway.
In the future, digital strategy will ensure that staff are prepared to move between modes of delivery as necessary, the business model can adapt to rapid shifts in the market, and the necessary infrastructure and support are there to deliver a high-quality experience for students.
Flexibility and international competitiveness
A digital strategy can underpin expansion into new markets for recruitment and for delivery, internationally and domestically (for example, in lifelong learning) and can create new opportunities for revenue diversification approaches that go beyond a ‘lift-and-shift’ of existing activity online. It will enable universities to build on network aggregation effects of digital platforms to massively scale collaboration with employers to better meet changing student needs and policy priorities.
There is now a genuine opportunity for the UK to become a world leader in the use of technology in higher education, augmenting existing strengths in the sector.
Technology as an integral part of the student and staff experience, not an add-on
Thinking strategically about digital technology will allow universities to make the most of its potential to create a step change in the way students and staff interact with each other. Digital needs to be recognised as a strategic asset and as a way to help deliver the university’s mission. It must be given the care and resources this implies.
All too often, digital solutions within universities are seen just as tools or point systems and are introduced on an ad-hoc basis, with insufficient support, ending up at best a bonus and sometimes a source of frustration. A more strategic approach, which sees digital innovation as a core element of that experience, will lead to greater buy-in, open up new ways of working and learning, and ultimately produce a clear return on the investment.
Digital strategy success factors
- Explicit alignment to university mission
- Building and maintaining momentum
- Dedicated, well-resourced strategy