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A learning curve? Digital challenges facing the Higher Education sector

Digital Challenges In Higher Education

by Hugh James

How can Higher Education institutions make the most of digital technologies and mindsets to operate more effectively?

Higher Education (HE) has historically trailed behind the curve of digital innovation uptake; at least, that’s the familiar narrative. But in 2020 Covid-19 forced this sector to reimagine its entire offering. With campuses shut and lectures on hold, universities suddenly became more dependent than ever on their digital channels of communication. 

The global pandemic, combined with students’ greater expectations for their university experience, has placed added pressure on higher education institutions to innovate. Most are now aware of the importance of digital transformation. But where to start?

Why universities need to think like businesses

Whilst universities’ prime focus should be on the quality of education they deliver, this can skew the level of efficiency at which these institutions can run. Just like a manufacturing or commerce business, HE institutions are struggling to balance costs with income as they try to modernise to stay relevant.

If universities were to think of fellow institutions both as competitors and educational partners, then the HE sector would naturally start to shape itself more like a business sector.

“I believe that UK universities must face the reality that they are significantly under-prepared for business in the emerging digital economy,” says Alan Brown, professor in digital economy at Exeter Business School. 

Viewing digital as a valuable investment

Universities are heavily dependent upon public funds, which breeds cautious spending environments and deeply risk-averse cultures. However, it is more damaging in digital realms to undercommit when investing.

Take page load speeds as an example. Not only does Google rank websites with slow load times lower in search results, but students are largely millennials and Gen Z who are more likely to leave a slow page than older users.

 “I don’t think that web and digital teams generally have easy access to a pot of money,” says digital governance consultant at Leeds Trinity University, Claire Gibbons. 

“We need to get better at convincing upwards that we need investment early doors, so that we have the money to react when we need to, rather than taking three months to go through the committee structure.” 

One size doesn’t fit every institution

There is no one single path towards digital transformation amongst HE institutions. 

This is why we decided to conduct in-depth interviews with digital leaders across the HE sector. We spoke to them about digital presence, shared challenges in the industry, and how they’ve revamped their technology to tackle some of these challenges.

What we learnt from Higher Education leaders

Digital governance is a must

When universities undertake digital transformation, they need to think ahead to understand how both users — internal and external — will interact with their newly built interfaces.

“We need to start trusting our users”

For remote working to work, the HE sector needs both the technology and the culture. That means breeding a culture of trust amongst university employees when it comes to off-site work. 

It’s time to break up those silos

Universities still work largely on highly decentralised operating models. These institutions therefore need to reach a single source of the truth with their digital estates, and avoid any discrepancies that could put them at legislative risk.

Download the full report

For a fuller overview of the HE sector’s position in digital transformation, read our report: Digital estates within Higher Education. Here you’ll find a discussion of the shared challenges faced by the HE sector relating to digital presence, along with real world solutions.

Based on our interviews, we see that universities are taking note of innovation trends and are showing more of an interest in digital realms. This often starts with their website, as the tool that gives university audiences their first, lasting impression of a physical campus. 

Yet, as we’ll explore, it’s also about a change in mindset and culture that will help them operate effectively and secure their future — even in the challenging times ahead.

Hugh James's avatar

Hugh James

Partner for Digital Experience

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