However, in a world where Forbes has found that as many as 84% of digital transformation projects fail3, higher education institutions face an even more difficult challenge than most in achieving success. If higher operating costs, increased competition and funding pressures were not enough for executives to deal with in 2023, they are also being asked to clear significant hurdles on the path to digital excellence.
What is digital transformation in higher education?
Digital transformation in higher education is the integration of digital technology into all areas of a university or other tertiary institution, so much so that it fundamentally changes how it operates and delivers value to students and staff. As opposed to a one-off initiative or improvement, true transformation is all-encompassing and requires a strategic approach that involves multiple campuses, faculties, departments and stakeholders including students, academics and administration staff. Digital transformation is sweeping the world, with the global industry projected to more than double from $470 billion in 2020 to $1.009 billion by 20254.
Digital transformation challenges for higher education
Digital transformation is no longer a maybe but a must for higher education institutions. That said, it is not a simple process due to various factors.
- ‘Client’ expectations: with a client base overwhelmingly made up of digital natives, universities are under intense pressure to deliver the best of digital experiences. Students expect engaging and seamless experiences when interacting online with their universities but are often left disappointed by poorly integrated systems and, in some cases, user interfaces from a bygone digital era. A desire to find quick wins too often sees institutions rush through individual projects rather than investing in overarching digital transformation strategies.
- Lagging investment: when Workday recently surveyed 1,150 senior executives about their digital transformation efforts, only 5% of higher education leaders said at least half of their daily operations had been digitalised5. This compared to 18% of all surveyed leaders, highlighting that many colleges and universities are yet to invest the time, money and effort needed to meet the 21st century needs of their stakeholders. While other sectors have long realised the need to digitise, many universities have underinvested in their digital estates and are subsequently struggling with antiquated systems, skills and architectures.
- Siloed departments: one of the largest challenges for higher education institutions pursuing digital transformation is the complex nature of the institutions themselves. Universities typically consist of multiple faculties, schools, campuses and departments operating under one banner, which means data silos are the norm rather than the exception. This is further exacerbated by a tendency for academics to pledge allegiance to their discipline over their employers. Data lies at the heart of digital transformation but accessing such information can be difficult in a world where fences and barriers are not only in place but often passionately guarded.
- Lack of staff experience: digital transformation is much easier when supported by a tech-savvy and enthusiastic workforce. Unfortunately, higher education institutions often find themselves battling to get the full support of academics who believe they know better than administrators. This can be a significant hurdle, particularly when coupled with workers who do not boast robust digital skill sets. When setting out on a digital transformation journey, it pays to know the digital capabilities of those impacted but one UK study found only 14% of higher education teaching staff had received an assessment of their digital skills and training needs6.
How to improve digital transformation in higher education
The great thing about hurdles is they can be overcome. Here are some tips for achieving digital transformation success in the higher education sector.
- Be a leader: it is not enough for senior leaders to want digital change without fully investing in the process themselves. True change starts at the top, which is why higher education executives need to show a clear commitment to the digital transformation process from the outset. While a lack of confidence in their own IT skills often sees leaders shy away from getting overly involved in tech-related projects, gaining a better understanding of the change process and recognising it is a long-term play rather than a quick fix is invaluable.
- Start with the basics: a common mistake for many organisations pursuing digital transformation is to seek big-ticket items without first putting the fundamentals in place. The very nature of tech infrastructure means it is often invisible and not understood by senior leaders, leading to misguided priorities and the risk of time and money being wasted. By ensuring building blocks such as a secure network, robust user access approach and clear enterprise architecture are in place, there will be less need for hacks and workarounds that simply create more complexity and risk.
- Be realistic about costs: these are difficult financial times for many higher education institutions but the fact is digital transformation costs money. While some leaders may look to paper over the cracks with minor upgrades at minimal expense, smarter organisations appreciate there are substantial long-term benefits to be gained by investing in digital infrastructure and processes. While countless dollars have been spent on physical campuses and facilities in previous decades, that investment will need to increasingly flow towards digital estates.
- Invest in your staff: digital transformation is about people as much as technology. A university can build the greatest system but it will ultimately be for nothing if academics and support staff do not have the skills to utilise it properly. Providing them with support and training will not only give them the skills and confidence to use the technology but help foster enthusiasm to embrace the new way of working. Changing behaviours can be more difficult than changing technology and staff that feel supported will be more open to coming onboard.
- Look to experts: genuine digital transformation is not for the fainthearted. Rather than going it alone, many higher education institutions have reaped the rewards of partnering with tech firms that specialise in guiding the change process. While internal IT teams may be adept at managing systems and one-off upgrades, there are added layers of complexity and stakeholder engagement when rolling out legacy projects and it pays to have people involved with experience in navigating such challenges.
Digital transformation is a game-changer for many reasons. It promotes new opportunities, better learning outcomes and improved experiences for students and staff alike. It is also too important to get wrong. Do your research, talk to experts, invest wisely and, ultimately, enjoy the benefits that come from being a more efficient digital organisation.
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 Campus tours from a distance: Best practices in virtual open houses for international students - ICEF Monitor - Market intelligence for international student recruitment
 Using automation to reduce the admissions burden | THE Campus Learn, Share, Connect (timeshighereducation.com)
 Why 84% Of Companies Fail At Digital Transformation (forbes.com)
 The World's Digital Transformation Industry 2020-2025: (globenewswire.com)
 Workday Global Study: Higher Education’s Digital Transformation Gap
 Teaching staff digital experience insights survey 2021/22: UK higher education findings - Jisc - Jisc