Technology is key if universities want to perform well in world university rankings

The best universities need the best technology to stay on top of their game, says Paul Feldman

September 22, 2016
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Access the results of the 2016-2017 THE World University Rankings in full

Congratulations are certainly in order for The University of Oxford. Becoming the first UK university in 12 years to reach the top spot in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings is a phenomenal achievement. I was also extremely pleased to see the University of Cambridge remain in the top 10 and Imperial College London hold on to eighth place. What’s even better is that the number of UK universities in the top 800 has risen from 78 to 88.

We’re going to have to work harder than ever to maintain our position, especially in the context of political uncertainty and the rise of institutions in the Far East. As Louise Richardson, Oxford’s vice-chancellor, has already pointed out, a lack of resources and the introduction of some tough regulations cast a significant shadow of doubt over whether the UK can remain as globally competitive.

Earlier this year, the UK’s Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa) reported that an impressive 633,555 international students studied for a UK higher education qualification in 2014-15. There is a reason that so many international students choose to study in the UK and that the University of Oxford has been ranked as the world leader. We have an extensive history of excellent universities, producing pioneering research and the highest quality of teaching.

Yes, there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding the UK higher education sector right now, but we must not lose sight of our impressive heritage and what we have achieved.

Nobody would disagree that digital technology has revolutionised the world we live and learn in. The days of bulky textbooks, overhead projectors and paper handouts have all but gone. Universities have adapted and evolved to meet the needs of their students and staff. We are now at a point where entering students consider connecting via video to be as meaningful as being in the same room. 

In June, Jisc, the UK higher education technology charity, released the findings of the first in-depth survey into students’ expectations and experiences of their digital environment. The results showed us that 70 per cent of higher education respondents believe that when technology is used effectively by teaching staff it enhances their learning experience. A truly successful global university must have technologically literate staff and students at its core. 

When you consider some of the performance indicators in the methodology of the THE World University Rankings (teaching, research, citations and international outlook), four elements are all strengthened by technology. The University of Oxford shone because of its influential research, among other outstanding achievements. If we’re to continue producing world-leading research, we need to ensure that we maintain our international relationships and live and breathe an open access culture across the UK. 

There is no doubt that we have some of the finest universities in the world. Yet we cannot sit back in today’s continuously evolving educational environment and increasingly competitive global market. To maintain our position as a world-class research and education hub and to keep our universities high in the world rankings, it is crucial that we continue to invest in and utilise the digital solutions that underpin the sector. 

Paul Feldman is chief executive of Jisc.

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