Choppy digital waters lie ahead for many storied institutions

Traditional universities are too often led by the interests of lecturers rather than the employment needs of students or recruitment needs of businesses, says Dilshad Sheikh

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4 Aug 2021
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Traditional universities have often been too slow on the digital uptake

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Created in partnership with

Arden University

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The digital era is proving unnavigable for institutions that have taken far too much time priding themselves on their history and status. Inside their enticing redbrick buildings lie stale and rigid institutions trying to fight their way up a digital river but finding that they set sail too quickly without preparing for the challenges ahead. 

They have forgotten, or never learned in the first place, that when you pay £9,000 a year for something you become a customer. And you expect something good in return. 

In March 2020, students that needed support on their courses were greeted with manifold issues and poor video quality for tutor meetings as well as lectures, so it’s unsurprising that a survey found that one in five people were willing to delay their undergraduate degrees if universities were not operating as normal due to the pandemic.  

It’s also pretty disappointing that these students feel they can only get their money’s worth when sitting in a grand lecture hall. If universities can’t even get a Zoom call right, how do they expect to prepare their students for life post-graduation where tech is embedded into every nook and cranny? 

In 2016, only 29.1 per cent of chief academic officers surveyed reported their faculty accepted “the value and legitimacy of online education”. They may well have the last laugh. 

With the initial snags and disruption out of the way, HE institutions are increasingly boasting about their ability to offer “blended” courses. But they are bolting on digital tech too far down the river − by setting sail as a traditional course, adding a few lectures on Zoom along the way and hoping it won’t capsize. 

The fact is, if higher education wants to be smooth sailing, it needs to be digital at its core, and too many universities still haven’t learned that digital education is so much more than just slapping a dull lecture online. 

What’s needed for this to work? First, lecturers need to stick to what they know best: lecturing. Universities need to hire a separate digital team to redesign courses with digital tech from the bottom up. I’m very proud to work for a university that’s already done this.

Having worked at traditionally structured universities, I know we may not see the “top” universities catching up any time soon. These slow, traditional institutions enjoy taking their time creating a course and are led by the interests of the lecturers rather than the employment needs of the students or the recruitment needs of businesses.

We’ve passed the stage of convincing potential students that £27,000-plus will be worth the certificate, especially with the Higher Education Policy Institute finding that nearly half of all students believe their degree offered poor value for money this year. This includes postgraduates, who are often left behind when it comes to efficacious digital learning.  

This is a strong indication of how much work is yet to be done, and universities need to follow the lead of online learning platforms. Enhancing the online experience comes first. Make it easier for students and tutors to be connected – emails are not good enough.  

Resources should be at their fingertips. Having a decked out virtual library is a must, with access to not only the most important journals and books but also the most interesting podcasts, webinars and events that will heighten the learning experience. 

Digital learning also means offering those who are not as confident with tech a means to become more comfortable with it. This is not just for their degree but for life afterwards when they will need these skills the most.  

The best way to ensure graduates are job-ready is to assess them on their ability to use such tech. For example, replacing marketing students’ essays and referencing with a social media campaign to devise and present is an innovative way to do this. They will learn so much more getting their hands dirty than writing up the theoretics in a two-hour slot.

We can also push the capabilities of tech further − assessing how well a student performs as a company owner in a VR simulation is another effective way of seeing if students are prepared for their future job. Both of these examples are just a snippet of what a well thought out digital programme can do for inquisitive students. 

University courses have to ensure students can meet the demands of their future jobs, and delivering digital programmes will ensure they’re confident with how the professional world now operates. 

And given the increase of remote learning and working, universities also need to be more flexible. Gone are the days when students could focus solely on their studies. A survey found that 74 per cent of UK students work at a part-time job, so making courses available when they are able to study is a much-needed – and relatively simple − shift. Letting students take more control over their university journey will reassure them that their £27,000 is going on something worthwhile.  

The pandemic has allowed us to see what is around the river bend, and we know that it is more flexibility for change and greater demand for value from courses. Students want to know that the courses they are paying for can lead to a job worth doing. And they want courses that match the increasingly remote and flexible world we live in. We can’t just stick a few slides on the internet and a few lectures on Zoom and say it delivers. If we do, disappointed students may migrate elsewhere to satisfy their hunger for effective education.

Dilshad Sheikh is dean of the faculty of business at Arden University. 


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