4 key questions facing digital leaders in Higher Education

higher education digital strategy

Update September 2020: Manifesto have since launched a Digital estates in Higher Education whitepaper, based on focussed interviews with Higher Education digital leaders. A discussion of shared challenges relating to digital presence, along with real world solutions.



On the 13th September, in partnership with Digital Clarity Group and Acquia, Manifesto hosted the first round table event focusing on digital transformation in the Higher Education sector.

The session was a great success. We were joined by digital leaders from 14 HE institutions, as well as Mary Laplante, one of the authors of the recent Digital Transformation in Higher Education report. Not a second was wasted as we dug into the major challenges facing the sector as a result of the changing technological landscape, and discussed how universities should be reacting to them.

Here are some of the major talking points that came out of the session.

How can we work out what students actually need?

The current and next generation of students are digital natives, and there’s no question that their expectations when it comes to digital experiences are vastly higher and more refined than those of their predecessors. It’s also true that today’s prospective students, conscious of the high costs of a university education and the diminishing employment prospects at the other end, are much more discerning shoppers than previous years’ intakes.

This has left higher education leaders clamouring to present their institutions as offering the best digital experiences for students, but with little understanding of how to deliver those experiences. Throwing cash at the problem might generate fancy looking apps, but doesn’t necessarily meet the needs of students.

It was generally agreed that often the actual needs of digital natives are simpler than they appear, and that, in order to understand those needs, it’s necessary to go straight to students themselves (not student administrators). By involving students directly in user research and testing, by creating user personas to guide product development, and by working iteratively to deliver the most valuable features first, it’s possible to meet the digital needs of students with less than might be initially expected.

How can institutions measure the success of digital initiatives?

Impact on bottom line is generally measured in terms of student enrollment. As a result, many institutions see parents as target audience instead of students and lots of funding is diverted to activities with a sales drive. We heard from several leaders who’d faced resistance when trying to deliver better digital experiences for existing students.

The idea of a tipping point came up repeatedly – the time at which a change or effect can not be stopped. In typical institutions this results in falling so far behind the digital curve that it’s impossible to catch up; a concept further described in this post. This creates the point where students will start to choose between institutions based on their digital services.

There’s a recognition that the more serious-minded students of today want to extract as much value as possible from their university experience and that they will shop around for institutions that help them work harder and smarter, and not necessarily ones which will make them happier. This too is reflective of the way Higher Education perceives their relationship with students.

But to navigate this inflexion point, institutions will need to achieve a broad agreement between different schools/departments on how to join up customer journeys, what constitutes success and how to demonstrate it through simple, straightforward KPIs. When asking the room about their priorities, student retention, the ability of staff to do their jobs, alumni, parents and student experience were all discussion points.

How can digital excellence be scaled up from small experiments to the broader, institutional level?

Most of the digital change in higher education is happening in small pockets, not at the institutional level. The general impression is therefore a sector that lacks appetite for tackling the challenge of meeting the digital expectations of its key audience.

But this impression is misleading: there are some great initiatives out there. We heard about graduation day snapchat filter at Brunel University which generated over 50k shares, Brighton’s virtual reality campus tours for prospective overseas students and the high regard in which Clemson’s digital offerings are held.

Ultimately the responsibility lies with digital leaders. As I’ve said before, a strong vision needs to be put in place to help guide universities through the kind of cultural change required to deliver digital excellence. Keeping digital in a silo doesn’t help achieve this. To quote Kay Boycott of Asthma UK (again), “having a digital strategy will soon look as ridiculous as having an electricity strategy”.

Good governance also allows for a more responsive approach, one which can react to the further, market-driven changes that will be coming down the pipeline in the next 18 to 24 months.

How can institutions get on top of their legacy content management issues?

It seems that most institutions are barely able to keep up with content management, let alone attempt new ways of working. Amidst the controlled chaos of large volumes of content spread across many sites, publishers spread around the institution, a lack of governance structures and the ever-present resource constraints, it never seems like the right time to implement large projects or make sweeping cultural changes.

However, technology is available to make life easier. If institutions were to lean on service providers more, it would be possible to architect solutions which go beyond core content management and create lasting value for the organisation by providing a platform from which to deliver first-rate digital experiences.

To find out how Manifesto can help your institution meet the rising expectations of today’s digitally native students, and help navigate the cultural shift towards digital excellence, drop us a line.


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  1. Hugh

    Good write up and thanks to Manifesto for facilitating the roundtable.

    I think the point regarding governance is one worth reinforcing. Here at Queen’s University Belfast we have come through an initial phase of digital transformation – researching student needs, re-working the website, overhauling the content and so on.

    We benefitted hugely by putting significant effort into developing our digital governance framework. A lot of our governance work was based on work done by Lisa Welchman @lwelchman – if you want to learn about digital governance in higher education or any sector Lisa is a terrific resource to start with.


    • Hugh James says:

      Hi Owen,

      Thanks for your feedback and even more so for making the trip over from Belfast for the roundtable! A truly heroic effort.

      I’ll definitely look into Lisa Welchman. Perhaps we could ask her very nicely if she’d like to attend the next event or do a video interview with us. Sounds like QUB have made some excellent headway in Digital Transformation. Look forward to catching in the future for a further update.


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