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How Digital Innovation is Shaping the Future of Higher Ed in the UK

At the end of 2019, when the first reports of an unknown virus started emanating from Asia nobody could have predicted the devastating impact that has resulted in hundreds of thousands of lives being lost globally. Like a pebble being dropped into a still pond, the ripple effects of the pandemic are still significantly impacting everyday lives despite governments in many countries attempting to return to what is being called the ‘new normal’.

The global impact has been so monumental for some industry sectors that there may never be a ‘new normal’ with numerous organisations going out of business or shedding significant portions of their workforce that they will never recover. For many individuals, suddenly losing a secure job has been life-changing, and although many have been fortunate to secure new employment others are taking time to assess their future and consider alternative career paths. The demand for reskilling, training, apprenticeships, and education may soon be greater than it has ever been as populations seek to transition into employment that is pandemic-proof.

Higher Education has taken a battering like most industries, but this ‘perfect storm’ may be the silver lining that Education needed to reimagine itself whilst also providing a platform for global recovery and future growth.

The Present and Future of Higher Education

In the United Kingdom, the Higher Education sector, like others, quickly responded to the need to continue to operate remotely despite this being a fundamental challenge to their whole operating model of in-person attendance. Many years ago, the concept of working from home would have been a pipedream, but now, with the advances in technologies available to all and high-speed broadband available across 95% of the UK, the pandemic has been a catalyst for change and many institutions have achieved, in a matter of months, what they believed would take years.

The breadth of change has been staggering too. Not only have institutions enabled their academic and administration staff to work remotely but they have also continued to deliver on their core reasons for existence – teaching and research. As the global race for a cure to the virus has taken on Olympic proportions, the UK research community has been in the leading pack with many UK institutions, with world renowned reputations, continuing to undertake research whilst working in isolation from their colleagues.

Teaching too has continued albeit in a slightly different guise, students have still ‘attended’ lectures, submitted course work and had end-of-year assessments. These have all been enabled due to the superhuman effort by institution IT staff to put in motion their digital transformation. This has demonstrated that although many institutions may be perceived to be very traditional, their staff are more than capable of living in the new digital world.

That said, the work to really embrace and capitalize on the potential this can deliver now needs to happen. The longer-term strategy to transform the way in which new and returning students can be supported in this real and virtual world requires implementing.

This year, the UK Higher Education sector is also facing another challenge due to the impact the pandemic has had on school leavers and the confusion surrounding the qualification results required to progress to Higher Education. The Government deftly shifted the problem to the Higher Education sector by removing the cap on the number of students that an institution can accept into the first year of a degree course. This may seem like a golden opportunity for those with institutional capacity to substantially increase their student populations and thereby increase their revenues, but many are also grappling with the challenge of securing and retaining overseas students as they bring significantly more income to the institution than their UK based counterparts.

Digital Innovation Higher Education  

Institutions need to embrace this momentum for change and consider if the billions spent on new buildings and students facilities will deliver a good return on the investment when many students may not spend as much time, if any, on campus. The future very different than it did a year ago, and perhaps more resources need to be spent on building an IT estate that aligns better to the new University model and that will enable it to expand into new markets for recruitment and delivery. Having embraced the use of Cloud solutions, the investment in IT must also be appropriate to leverage the opportunity Software-as-a-Service offers to both ‘front office’ and ‘back office’ business systems. It’s imperative that the quality of academic online delivery is maintained, and even enhanced, to ensure students still receive value. The ever-demanding student experience will be judged by ease of access to staff and ubiquitous communication on all aspects of student learning delivered by utilising student management solutions that can exploit RPA capabilities to provide a more consumer-like experience.

In this ‘new normal’, institutions will require the right platforms to continue to deliver their core operations, but tools are required to support their staff in a remote world. Digital innovation in Higher Education should improve office efficiency to help address possible funding challenges, provide planning solutions to better assess impacts if there’s ever another such crisis, identify opportunities for income growth from delivery of profitable curriculum, and ensure the appropriate skill mix is available within the institution’s workforce to live and grow in the digital world that they are moving towards.

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