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The digital transformation challenges facing the tertiary education sector

Many institutions responded quickly to the new education environment, pivoting to digital tools for teaching, learning delivery and student support. But the change has been uneven, with many institutions still in the early stages of transformation. Peter Nikoletatos, Industry General Manager - Education, TechnologyOne and Adjunct Professor at La Trobe University, explores the factors shaping the transformation of the tertiary education sector.

The pandemic has triggered something of a digital arms race among tertiary institutions as they refocus their efforts on attracting and retaining a new breed of students. Many institutions responded quickly to the new environment, adopting digital modes of teaching, learning delivery, student support and academic research. But the exciting changes were happening on the back end, as institutions revisited their technology investment priorities, re-examined their operational models, and sought to evolve the student experience they offered.

Even so, progress has been far from uniform. According to the 2021 Tertiary Education Digital Transformation Index, 77 per cent of the institutions surveyed do not use cloud solutions for research management, 54 per cent do not use the cloud for HR resources, 46 per cent do not use cloud systems for student management, and 45 per cent do not use the cloud for finance systems. These numbers show us that the tertiary education sector as a whole, is still in the early stages of digital transformation. But time is no longer a luxury that institutions can afford.

The need for cyber security is becoming more critical
Shadow IT, or unofficial IT workarounds deployed by people from non-IT departments, is still a risk at many institutions, especially those in the early stages of their digital transformation. Cyber security risks are a growing issue for all institutions and are particularly relevant to research-oriented universities. Research outcomes have a direct impact on an institution’s profile and is a huge driver for attracting international students and researchers. For such universities, protecting intellectual property from cyber risks is a key priority, and they are keenly aware of the reputational damage that could happen if their intellectual property is compromised.

The current reality is that every institution has a known cyber security vulnerability. The report found that 74 per cent of respondents relied on internal resources to manage cyber security. Cyber security initiatives in institutions tend to be reactive, though regular federal and state audits are driving change in this area. Savvy institutions are thinking about ways to outsource some cyber security functions.

While university leaders were generally aware of the cyber risks in their existing models, the pace of change was gradual until the pandemic struck. Crisis is the driver of change, and COVID-19 gave institutions the push to accelerate their digital transformation.

Student experience is becoming the biggest driver for change
The report found that 87 per cent of respondents ranked student satisfaction as the highest priority for digital transformation and 82 per cent believe it to be a high priority for increasing enrolment.

With the shift to digital modes of learning, the quality of the student experience has a big impact on attrition rates, which directly affects the kind of government funding an institution can attract. Campuses are striving to personalise their students’ experience and are becoming highly responsive to student feedback, realising that student experience is a highly competitive advantage that can win (or cost) them students and funding.

The importance of executive leadership
82 per cent of the best-in-class institutions reported that their executive teams are either actively involved with their digital transformation or taking part in quarterly reviews of their strategies. However, for most campuses, digital transformation is viewed as an operational or IT issue instead of the all-encompassing business transformation it actually is.

Any change at an organisation-wide scale will be disruptive. Institutions often encounter resistance from established cultural norms and from workers uncertain about how the change will affect them. Lack of communication or executive buy-in only creates more uncertainty.

That is why digital transformation needs to be driven by the executive leadership to be effective. Only with their support can institutional culture evolve, and the concerns of the people affected be addressed.

The human and cultural aspects of digital transformation cannot be ignored. People in these institutions need to see their leaders actively leading the change. They also want to feel involved in the process and be clear on what digital transformation will mean for them, the students, the staff and the institution as a whole.

The COVID-19 crisis has greatly accelerated the move toward digital transformation in the tertiary education sector. It has also highlighted some key learnings, the largest of which is that no business can ignore customer experience, even if that customer is a student.

To discover more insights into the state of digital transformation in the tertiary education sector, download the 2021 Tertiary Education Digital Transformation Index.

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