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Digital challenges facing the Higher Education sector

Higher Education (HE) has historically trailed behind the curve of digital innovation uptake; at least this is what the research told us in a whitepaper we sponsored in 2017. And today, according to research by Educause, just 13% of universities and colleges are engaging in digital transformation. Whilst universities do have money to spend – the 2015-16 cohort of international students made UK institutions £20.3 billion – this money is never guaranteed. It changes from year to year, depending on intake.

This means many universities are still hesitant to invest heavily in digital. Transformations can seem like gambles when there’s little material evidence to show how they might impact the institutions once implemented. 

But COVID-19 has forced this sector to reimagine its entire offering. With campuses shut and lectures on hold, universities are suddenly more dependent than ever on their digital channels of communication. Right now, only 20 UK universities – out of around 150 – have the capacity to offer a range of high-quality online courses this academic year.

 

Think like a business

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,” Alan Brown, professor in digital economy at Exeter Business School, tells Manifesto.

 

Digital is 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.

For example, take page load speeds. 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,” digital governance consultant at Leeds Trinity University, Claire Gibbons, tells Manifesto.

“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, well-trodden road on the path to digital transformation amongst HE institutions. The University of Derby built its new website from the ground up using its in-house developer, but it still brought in digital design agency Deeson to create the user experience.

University of Sheffield took a different approach. It used Drupal, an open-source Content Management System (CMS), to build its new website. “We knew what we really needed money for was to pay people to migrate everything over to the new system,” the university’s Head of Digital, Steve Thompson, tells Manifesto. “So we spent our budget on that, rather than paying a subscription to a service.”

University of Dundee took a different approach again. Using Drupal, the institution decided to go with a managed subscription-based Drupal hosting service, Acquia, which sub-contracted Manifesto for the implementation.

These varied approaches are why we, at Manifesto, 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 HE 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. So these institutions need to reach a single source of the truth which avoids discrepancies that can put a university at a legislative risk.

 

Download the full whitepaper

For a fuller overview of the HE sector’s position in digital transformation, you can read our whitepaper here: ‘Digital estates within Higher Education’. A discussion of shared challenges faced by the HE sector relating to digital presence, along with real-world solutions.

Based on our interviews, the paper shows that universities are taking note and showing more of an interest in digital realms. As a ‘shop window’ that’s visible around the world, a university’s website often gives the first, lasting impression of a physical campus.

Digital teams are still feeling the pinch, largely due to the web being regarded as free to use plus emphasis on campus lifestyle. To alleviate this pinch, short-term third-party partnerships are a good way of tapping more value and up-skilling staff in the process. 

But a large part of digital transformation is mindset and culture. Universities need to shape themselves differently, thinking like businesses to run more efficiently and to mitigate risks which can come with going digital.

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