University Digital Services: is an avalanche coming?

  • Boards (exec and non exec) should consider technology integrated with university services, not a separate concern the ‘IT department’. This is not yet the default behaviour within the HE sector.
  • Specific opportunities include: faster assessment & feedback, personalised tuition, and paperless administration processes. These reforms will increase University efficiency and effectiveness.
  • Digital is not the same as IT: the software is an evolving service more than a technology product; it will be designed around user needs not centrally specified ‘functional requirements’; and there should be an incremental approach to design & build, not monolithic procurement exercises.
  • Digitally effective universities will have the in-house capacity to build, operate and improve digital services, as well as to commission them from suppliers.
  • The chances of sector disruption are rising.


For the last three years I have served on the University of Exeter governing body, the Council. Unusually for most Higher Education governing boards, independent members of Council hold a specific portfolio of responsibility alongside an Executive lead – in my case, for Digital and Technology.

During that time, I’ve worked with a talented and committed group of colleagues on the Council and Executive to identify and respond to a rapidly changing technology landscape that has influenced pedagogy, research and administration. This year, the University will embark on the biggest programme of Digital change ever undertaken. A very significant sum of capital has been allocated for investment among many other competing calls, including international expansion and the improvement of the existing physical infrastructure on campus. The expectations for ‘digital’ are that it will be a core enabling element of the effective provision of education services in the years to come.

And yet. Higher Education still stands out as one of the few sectors of human endeavour that has been changed little by the digital revolution sweeping retail, publishing, banking, transport, and so many other sectors of the economy. Over the last 30 years, the internet has fundamentally changed the accessibility of knowledge, but the Victorians would still recognise our classrooms. More recently, real world artificial intelligence techniques offer the ability to automate and personalise assessment and pedagogy, yet tutors and lecturers still spend hours laboriously marking student scripts and providing written feedback.

The value of a degree has been falling for years, even as the cost to students has risen. Yet it is still the default choice and destination for half of those aged 17 to 30, with participation reaching record highs in recent years. In 2013, Michael Barber promised that ‘An Avalanche Is Coming’ for Higher Education. Yet six years later, despite gathering clouds, the resorts, instructors, and the skiers of higher education look much the same as they ever did.

In this chapter, I want to address how a governing body should think about Digital in the context of a University. What the strategic place of technology is among competing priorities. And how a University Council can best equip their University’s executive to succeed in an uncertain future.

There are well understood reasons why the University sector is conservative by nature. Three reasons stand out. First, the choice to study is often influenced, if not funded, by parents who will tend to gravitate towards replicating their own youthful experiences. The continuing ubiquity of the degree means that for many, university is still more an unquestioned assumption than a choice.  Second, while information is more accessible, the availability of knowledge is not the predominant attraction of Universities which provide, in addition, a ritualised gateway to adulthood and independent living, a social environment to develop friendships and networks, an accredited qualification that may be worth as much or more as the skills students acquire. And third, in the UK at least, the prestige of the institution, and the signalling value of a degree is strongly correlated with the age of the HE institution, not the quality of the tuition. Moreover, the lack of differentiation in degree outcome – most students end up with either a 2.1 or a first class degree – which means that there is little to set them apart aside from the reputation of the institution that they went to. This both makes it difficult for new entrants like NMITE and LIS to compete, and reduces the incentive for students to complain about teaching even as many Universities use tuition fees to cross-subsidise research activity. The London School of Economics was poorly ranked in the 2018 Teaching Excellence Framework, but it still managed to top the table for graduate earnings.

In that context, and amid other such pressing concerns as resolving a staff pension disputes, growing physical campus capacity, and access to EU research funding under Brexit, a University’s digital activity might be seen to be more a matter of hygiene than strategy. Does the wifi across campus work? Is there reasonable information on the University website for new applicants? Can students view recordings of lectures and access course notes digitally? Are we reasonably well protected from cyber-crime? The answer to all of these questions should be an emphatic ‘yes’! But any University Council should set a higher bar for mere adequacy, let alone competitive success.

Digital and Technology now means more than the provision of infrastructure and hardware for students and staff. More also, than merely the efficient administration and automation of routine and manual tasks. Almost every service the university offers: admissions, enrollments, timetabling, lectures, assessments & student feedback, student counselling, research grant applications, performance management processes, and expense claims are significantly enabled or inhibited by the quality of the digital service that surrounds them. Furthermore, any ambitions to add distance learning as part of the University service offer will succeed as much because of the quality of the platform students have to use, as the effectiveness of the course materials and tuition.

How should boards target and measure the effectiveness of university digital transformation programmes? The National Student Survey (NSS), and functional benchmarking of efficiency for university professional services (e.g. Cubane’s UniForum) provide two core sources of data to derive programme performance indicators. Nevertheless, separation of the influence of digital is not straightforward, with several factors including digital plausibly driving the answers to questions such as ‘Feedback on my work has been timely’, or ‘The course is well organised and is running smoothly.

There is not space to go into detail with an explanation of how boards should work with a University executive to drive a digital transformation, but I would suggest the following ten elements as a summary:

  1. Appoint Senior Digital Leadership with a seat at the top table. This is now commonplace within other corporate organisations, and Digital is no less important to the strategic objectives of a university.
  2. Focus on user needs, not technological requirements. The Government’s Digital Service design manual gives more detail here.
  3. Do the hard work to make digital services simple for their users. For example, digital services like Lingvist use machine learning to personalise the rate of revision and progression for each student to maximise the rate of learning. Complex technology, but with a very simple user interface.
  4. Allocate sufficient capital and resource funding, and ensure flexible and open digital procurement frameworks are used. For example the Government’s Digital Services and Outcomes framework through the DigitalMarketplace.
  5. Ensure competitive compensation for digital staff. For example, the UK Government has used ‘recruitment and retention allowances’ to ensure the ability to attract digital skills in the face of wider market competition. The government submitted evidence in relation to senior salaries earlier this year here (see annex D).
  6. Establish the in-house capability to build as well as buy your digital services. The quality of your built digital services should be a core-differentiator for the student and staff experience. For example, the Deacon Genie, a personal assistant tool for students built by the university.
  7. Drive ownership for digital services from the academic faculty, not the IT function. For example, IsaacPhysics, conceived and directed by Professor Mark Warner at the University of Cambridge. 
  8. Consider incubating disruptive services in a separate company away from the University, in order to innovation to survive, where it might otherwise be perceived as a threat to existing ways of working. For example, FutureLearn, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Open University.
  9. Visibly reward academic staff that generate or promote effective digital innovations. For example, the Exeter Education Incubator has funded and promoted many bottom up pedagogical experiments, including to the University Council, such as Dr. Barrie Cooper’s experiments to embrace a Digital Pedagogy for Maths covered here.
  10. Accept the necessity of funding and administering continuous iteration of digital services. It is near-impossible to contract for a digital service that meets users needs, because both the needs of users, the capability envelope of digital services (and therefore user expectations) will change over time.

Will an avalanche come eventually? I believe the inexorable advance of change upon the HE sector is indeed coming, but that is likely to come at the speed of a giant snail rather than as a cataclysmic fall of snow and ice. Nevertheless, given the pace of change possible within such a large and conservative institution as a University, transformation should start today. Organisations such as Kodak, Blockbuster, and Borders could all see transformation coming when it was years away, and still couldn’t move fast enough to avoid being overtaken. I believe over the next decade we will see a number of Higher Education institutions reforming or going bust, and student satisfaction gradually falling. Alternatives to university education such as apprenticeships will gradually become more credible for more students. Policy changes such as lowering tuition fees; breaking the link between tuition and degree accreditation; or offering student loans to pay for apprenticeships would further accelerate change.

Digital is neither a singular source of salvation for the sector, nor a nemesis to dwarf other challenges such as Brexit, Pensions, and strengthening international HE competition. But Digital services are now pervasively important for students and staff, and strongly linked to education quality. Digital has traditionally been overlooked because of the lack of familiarity that University boards have with technology. Corporate Boards in Retail, Publishing, and Financial Services sectors have long grappled with the meaning of Digital Transformation for their own organisations. Higher Education now has the chance to do the same.