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Hard Lessons: Digital Disruption in Higher Education

Universities in the UK are big business. As with businesses in every domain, the seismic hit delivered by the current crisis is creating chaos in higher education as universities consider the short- and long-term impacts on their business strategy. Facing massive uncertainty, they are trying to both survive in the short term and understand the implications for financial sustainability in the long term. As a result, the HE sector is an interesting example of “the good, the bad, and the ugly” of digital transformation in action.

The extent of the challenge to universities is stark. Here are just a few of the relevant facts that highlight the scale of what they must address. As stated by Universities UK, at the end of 2018:

  • The total income of UK universities was £35.7 billion.
  • Around half of university income comes from tuition fees.
  • In 2018, more than 400,000 international students came to study in the UK, which is 19% of all students.

Universities in the UK face a difficult reality: They are significantly under prepared for business in the emerging digital economy. Great academics and career administrators do not necessarily make the best business leaders, particularly when their business is undergoing a digital revolution. Where universities have made appointments that recognize the need for transformation, too often they have had to operate within tight constraints and existing bureaucracies. Some of the hard yards being covered by IT teams to deploy a learning management system or offer video recording of classes is to be welcomed. But a more fundamental focus on digital transformation is very different beast.

The consequence for universities is that they must find ways to address the current concerns about online education and must address major operational challenges from a position of digital weakness rather than one of strength. Profound change is very likely to be adopted, voluntarily or otherwise but for now in the short term, universities must focus their attention in 4 areas:

  1. Getting all their teaching online, fast. Many universities are way behind. They are trying to get the new academic year delivered largely remotely to widely dispersed students with teaching staff who have little experience of online teaching and learning. For many educators designing, delivering, and administering courses at UK universities this is the first time they have taken online learning seriously. In spite of many efforts over the past few years, It is not a surprise that Learning Management Systems (LMSs) and online collaboration tools are plagued with administrative and pedagogical objections. This is quickly changing. But the application and use of online learning approaches will remain very patchy for some time.
  2. Onboarding the students for the new academic year. Over the summer universities have had to completely redefine the signup, registration, and timetabling of all students based on criteria constantly in flux. The discussions between universities and the government about how this will work (and how to make it fair) will rumble on  In postgraduate courses, quickly being moved online, many universities will not be able to pivot their programmes to do this well, and will struggle to manage such programmes when they do.
  3. Restructuring their IT infrastructure. There are huge implications for IT when moving operations to a fully distributed, diverse set of digital technologies. Most large established organizations in the commercial sector have invested many millions of pounds and over many years to set up infrastructures to deliver this in a secure, productive way. Many universities will find themselves far behind in this area due to lack of investment, difficulties in recruiting and retaining skilled staff, and insufficient attention from senior university management. The arcane decision making approaches in universities via a variety of Boards and committees, exacerbate the struggle and inhibit agility to adapt quickly. High profile failures are inevitable and may only serve to make the task facing IT teams more difficult.
  4. Maintaining the student experience. Much of the attention at universities in the past few years has been focused on issues of scale and growth. This has been the mantra for over a decade, and especially since the cap on student numbers was lifted altogether in 2015. (For example, the University of Manchester has over 40,000 students based at a single site.) To address this, the huge investments in capital projects on most campus-based universities has been in physical facilities to make the campuses like villages with abundant shops, cafes, and pleasant places to gather, meet, and work. The result of the restrictions now in force is that the quality of experience for current and incoming students can very low, inconsistent, and painful.

All of these factors point to difficult times ahead for UK universities. And while it would be wrong to underplay the enormous efforts taking place right now by many people in the university sector to ensure business continuity in these difficult times, it is essential we use this crisis as an opportunity to hold up a mirror to recognize the reality of the state of digital transformation in universities, and seek to make significant improvements. The opportunity is to make this a watershed moment for digital transformation in the Highers Education sector. Although not without pain, that could herald a new era for teaching and learning.

Source: AWB Digital Economy Dispatch #003

Alan Brown

Alan W. Brown is Professor in Digital Economy at the University of Exeter Business School where he co-leads the Initiative in Digital Economy at Exeter (INDEX). Alan’s research is focused on agile approaches to business transformation, and the relationship between technology innovation and business innovation in today’s rapidly-evolving digital economy. After receiving a PhD in Computational Science at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Alan spent almost 2 decades in the USA in commercial high-tech companies leading R&D teams, building leading-edge solutions, and driving innovation in software product delivery. He then spent 5 years in Madrid leading enterprise strategy as European CTO for IBM’s Software group. Most recently Alan co-founded the Surrey Centre for the Digital Economy (CoDE) at the University of Surrey where he led research initiatives in 4 EPSRC-funded research projects.

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