Universities should shake off our wariness about investment in digital

UK universities need to adopt a clear digital strategy for the future - or risk being left behind, argues Graham Galbraith.

The higher education sector is known for its traditional model and mindset. But now is the time to shake off the dust and take advantage of the technology we have at our disposal.

Understandably, there is reluctance to make dramatic changes to the way we do things. After all, our current model has been very successful, so why take the risk and change now? This scepticism means that while HE leaders are comfortable using significant chunks of capital budgets to invest in physical infrastructure, we can be very wary of digital investment.

With finances increasingly stretched, nervousness about investing in something new is also understandable. But by putting off a proper consideration of such investment, we risk missing an opportunity and being left behind.

UK universities’ ability to apply their inherent creativity and innovation to the delivery of higher education has been proven through lockdown. The steps taken to pivot to online delivery almost overnight was a credit to HE. This move has helped leaders realise two things: one, the model we’ve got has huge risks to it, because we’re reliant on only one mode of operation. Two, we really want to do things differently – and we are capable of doing so. It’s not that we haven’t been able to implement a digital transformation in the past, it’s more that there hasn’t necessarily been the widespread willingness and determination needed to succeed.

Acting with intention

The education space is changing – it is no longer mostly physical. Even without the acceleration that the pandemic has forced upon the sector, when you look at how technology has impacted all our lives, it’s impossible to ignore. In light of this, a number of vice-chancellors have come together with Jisc, Universities UK, Emerge Education and technology partner Salesforce, to create Digital at the core: a 2030 strategy framework for university leaders.

The purpose of the framework is to enable university leaders to explore the balance of risk and opportunity, and to make their own decisions about what digital technology can do to help their organisation reach its own particular goals. The framework will enable university leaders to ask the right questions about what it is they want to achieve in the longer-term, and how they might be able to apply their creativity to achieve it, rather than thinking that things must be done the way they’ve always been done.

UK universities provide some of the best teaching and learning available anywhere. But with the world moving so quickly in the direction of digital, if we don’t keep up, we will simply be left behind. This could be a watershed moment for HE: this is why having a clear, agreed strategy is vital.

The possibility of enhancement

There is often a worry, whenever the subject of digital transformation crops up, that everything about the way HE currently works and what it stands for will be lost. But embracing, designing and implementing a digital strategy doesn’t necessarily mean the end of in-person staff-student engagement. This may well continue to be the core of what we do.

Digital transformation is about harnessing the power of the technology that’s available to enhance the education experience of students. It would be irresponsible not to give proper consideration of where this will fit within our institutions’ futures.

We all know that we should use the best tools and approaches available to complete a task. Sometimes that means using digital technology, sometimes it doesn’t, but a strategy will help clarify where, when and how technology will be best invested in and used for your organisation.

Higher education in the UK has worked in largely the same way for centuries, but now more than ever we cannot assume that tomorrow will be like yesterday. Universities need to embrace digital transformation and develop their own digital strategies. I believe that this new co-created framework will provide indispensable support for different universities’ digital journey.

5 responses to “Universities should shake off our wariness about investment in digital

  1. It’s the back office where the investment is needed – it’s not sexy and you cannot show it off on open days but think how many hours are wasted because there is no proper workflow around say external examiner processes or it takes 30 minutes rather than seconds to find a single bit of information.

    1. Oh, you don’t work where I work. Our digital teams all publish electronic newsletters. Detail us with the intricacies of each move they make. Rather than adopting a real internal external examiner process that is digital (and wholly unnecessary but that is another post) we focused on updating routine HR systems. The kind industry has had for 30 years. Now I can see my annual leave in the third system in 10 years. yay!

  2. A most welcome article, thank you. It is the digital age and this affords us with opportunities in HE as well as more widely in society e.g. in transforming healthcare. It seems to me that we can do at least two things; improve the efficiency and effectiveness of some of our existing processes (back and front of office) and use digitalisation as a tool for creativity and innovation – which has the more transformative potential for universities.

  3. A well directed addition to the weight of evidence, already in place across all sectors, which points to a future we can’t ignore and must embrace if we are to thrive. Being opportunistic is only useful if we are already positioned to act with an acceptable degree of safety and confidence. That means having a firm grip on the overarching business process; end to end and supporting elements. Whilst proper consideration of investment in ‘digital’ is critical to future success, it must not be treated as ‘spending on stuff’ but rather as the implementation of ideas.

  4. Where has UK higher ed been for 30 years? Systems have been in place around the world for ages and especially in HE. Just make the changes and stop making such a big deal about them. They are like electricity. They should be there when you flip a switch. AND please stop talking about what you do not know about computing UK. It is embarrassing.

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