Why is digital transformation such a challenge for HE?

Size and legacy approaches are among the barriers universities face when it comes to using technology to improve teaching, learning and research. This six-point plan details what needs to happen

Heidi Fraser-Krauss's avatar
15 Dec 2022
bookmark plus
  • Top of page
  • Main text
  • More on this topic
bookmark plus
Man staring at a maze on a blackboard

You may also like

Digital Universities Week UK task force: put people at the heart of digital transformation
5 minute read
lightbulb in maze illustrating adoption of ed-tech in universities

Universities are facing some of their greatest challenges for more than a generation: increasing student numbers, higher operating costs, greater competition, a complex regulatory landscape, and flat cash funding for home undergraduate tuition fees.

At the same time, staff are challenging institutions about their antiquated IT systems and processes, which they claim add barriers to all aspects of teaching, learning and research. Students expect an “Amazon-like” digital experience for all their interactions with the university; they are often disappointed by poorly integrated systems, Byzantine processes and, in some cases, year-2000-like user interfaces.

Digital transformation – or using digital technologies to improve teaching, learning and research and enhance the student experience – is a hot topic in higher education (HE). However, previous efforts to transform across the sector have often failed, and responses to the challenge of incorporating digital into every element of HE life are hugely varied.

This is why Jisc – the UK’s not-for-profit digital, data and technology agency focused on tertiary education, research and innovation – is working with the sector to develop a framework and maturity model for digital transformation. Our aim is to facilitate transformation within HE, and a re-evaluation of the investment that infrastructure, data governance and digital-skills training require.

What challenges does digital transformation present for UK universities?

Despite the jolt of the pandemic, when the sector had to act quickly, the adoption of a raft of digital technologies was not digital transformation. True transformation goes much deeper and requires long-term investment, strategic leadership and an approach that asks fundamental questions about why, or if, particular systems, processes or activities are required.  

Universities have underinvested in their digital estates for years. Consequently, they are struggling with legacy systems, skills and architectures. Add in poor data management and a lack of strategic leadership, and this makes digital transformation a complex, risky and expensive process.

Data is one of the foundational elements of digital transformation, but it is also one of the biggest challenges. The traditional university structure of separate departments, schools and faculties means that data siloes – inaccessible data within departments – are the norm. This is one of the largest and most complex challenges for higher education institutions (HEIs) to solve. Using data effectively can help to improve learning outcomes, reduce costs through estate management, and reduce staff workload by helping them record and access records more easily.

Digitally transforming also requires HEIs to understand the digital capability of their staff. To use digital technologies effectively in teaching practice and beyond requires a robust digital skill set; most HEIs are unaware of their staff’s digital capabilities. Jisc’s 2022 HE teaching staff digital experience insights survey revealed that only 14 per cent of teaching staff said they had received an assessment of their digital skills and training needs.

What successful digital transformation requires

Digital transformation needs six elements to be successful. These are:

Strategic leadership 

There needs to be a clear commitment to digital transformation from the top table, who must also recognise that this is a long haul, not a quick fix. Senior leaders are hesitant about getting involved in technology-related projects, usually because they are not confident in their own IT skills. This needs to change. Senior leaders must gain a better understanding of how to lead change that involves technology, as almost everything nowadays does.

More realistic levels of investment 

A change in mindset is required around the level of resource that needs to be invested in the digital estate. Exact figures are hard to come by, but my best guess is that 3 to 5 per cent of turnover is invested by universities in their digital estates. This probably needs to double over the next 10 years, with a refocus from investment in the physical to the digital estate.

A relentless focus on reducing complexity 

Universities have immensely complex and fragmented business processes, with very little in the way of standardisation among, or sometimes even within, academic departments. This is especially true in the management of teaching and assessment, with different course structures, assessment regimes and quality-assurance activities in use.

As the Tickell review noted, internal university bureaucracy in research management is a huge issue, too. The “benefits” of this complexity are rarely challenged or costed, but what is clear is that it’s very difficult to benefit fully from digital platforms when standardisation is so lacking.

An incremental plan that ensures the basics are in place

Trying to transform a digital infrastructure without having the fundamentals in place is a waste of time and money. The trouble with infrastructure fundamentals is that they are invisible and poorly understood by most people outside the IT department. 

They include:

  • a secure and pervasive wired and wireless network
  • a robust and well-understood approach to managing user access and identity
  • a good understanding of the institution’s data model and data flows
  • a consistent approach to data integration
  • a clear enterprise architecture that joins the dots.

Without these building blocks, the hacks and workarounds that are used to get things to work simply build in more complexity and risk.

Good governance 

Transformation needs a body with oversight of all the things happening to enable coordination and prioritisation, to make sure the benefits of each investment are clearly articulated and have all their enablers well defined and in place.

A recognition that people are at the core of any transformation 

Changing behaviour is much harder than changing technology. Almost all the technology we used in lockdown was already there; we just didn’t use it!

Why digital transformation is worth it

Digital transformation is more than a strategic decision; it is an investment in the future of an organisation. It provides a raft of new opportunities for the sector and can deliver better learning outcomes, more efficient organisations and improved experiences for students and staff. UK universities need a rethink of their approach because the benefits of getting it right are huge for students and staff alike.

Heidi Fraser-Krauss is the CEO of Jisc.

If you found this interesting and want advice and insight from academics and university staff delivered direct to your inbox each week, sign up for the THE Campus newsletter.


You may also like

sticky sign up

Register for free

and unlock a host of features on the THE site