Global Education Leader ,

The future success of higher education will depend on digital transformation, but that doesn’t mean simply relying on new technology. Putting humans at the center of that transformation will be the real measure of success. We know this because our 2022 cross-industry study conducted with Oxford’s Saïd University showed that organizations putting human needs and expectations at the center of their transformation were two to three times more likely to be successful than those that didn’t. 

Too often, when embarking on digital transformation, universities deploy strategies that serve the needs of the institution and its existing structures and processes, rather than the people it serves.  

We believe that is a recipe for failure. So, to understand what the people studying and working in universities really need and want from digital transformation, we collaborated with the Times Higher Education (THE) to survey more than 3,000 students and conduct focus group interviews with hundreds of teaching faculty and professional staff across eight geographies. 

First, the bad news. One-third of students told us they feel neutral or unhappy about their choice of university. This is fueled by a perceived failure to meet student expectations around teaching quality, improving career prospects or preparation for the workplace, suggestive of a disconnect between the tools and platforms that universities are investing in and how that technology is being used to serve the needs of its people.

In order to tackle these problems, universities need to put the needs of their core people — students, teaching faculty, researchers and administrators — at the center of their technology investments, and here’s why: 

Students just want to learn and succeed.

The COVID-19 pandemic fundamentally changed what students want from universities. This new generation expect access to learning, content and administration processes online, in their own time. At the heart of the issue is how institutions can enable optimal learning through personalized, digital self-access to provide students with rich engaging and dynamic content. Too often, students are presented with “online learning” approaches, which are merely serving up the same old content on a new platform, providing a less than ideal learning experience in terms of subject matter and skills.

Three key issues need to be addressed. The first is building digital technologies to improve the teaching experience — 45% of students want to see technology investment directed at training teachers to deliver digital learning more effectively.  

The second is helping students understand how their course will improve their career prospects — 48% of students said the main reason they chose their program was to qualify for a chosen career or improve their career prospects. 

Finally, students also crave a positive learning and social experience. Nearly two-thirds say the campus is where they prefer to make connections and network.

Digitally enabled teachers will produce more successful students.

At present, too many university teachers lack the digital skills and thinking to effectively deliver blended teaching that incorporates the best of digital and in-person learning modes. They also are time starved — digital transformation should enable them to focus more on their core missions of teaching and supporting students, or leading research. Finally, teachers need to be able to analyze and learn from the data generated through digital learning platforms to track progress at an individual, class or program level, identify those students who require more support and offer tailored interventions to improve learning outcomes for all.

Technology can streamline and supercharge research.

Research helps define the pedigree of a modern university — attracting teaching and student talent. However, the sector as a whole has underinvested in the digital transformation of research. This doesn’t just mean investing in better technology and equipment to conduct cutting-edge research. It involves using technology to streamline administrative tasks (such as grant applications, reviews and publication processes) so that researchers have more time to work on their research. Digital technologies can also enable faster, more efficient and effective collaboration within and across institutions — especially at an international level and around niche topics.

Data can make the life of administrators easier, not harder.

Many university administrators feel that digital transition initiatives add to their already considerable workload pressures. Data held by many university faculties and departments is siloed, resulting in a patchwork of systems that are not integrated and have a very different look and feel from each other. As a result, insights that could improve processes remain locked away. Many universities are looking at how to automate HR, finance and procurement processes across the institution. Automating routine student-facing tasks, such as processing applications, can continue to relieve the burden on administrative staff.

How University Leaders Can Embrace Human-Centric Digital Transformation

Students, teachers, researchers and administrators are looking for leadership and support as they navigate higher education’s digital transition. Here are a few examples of the ways universities can do that.

For a stronger student learning experience, institutions should consider replacing mass in-person lectures with a hybrid or blended learning model supported by high-quality digital-first content. They can also use data and analytics to tailor content and teaching methods to facilitate truly personalized and targeted learning. That same data can help universities review program portfolios through a career lens, adapting programs to meet student and workforce demands. This can also identify students at risk of failing and help tailor interventions accordingly.

Teachers can also benefit greatly from a digital-led but human-centric approach. Better use of technology will allow faculty to assess skills gaps and develop effective training and upskilling in digital. But they will need sufficient time and support to embed new ways of working. Using digital technologies to automate simple tasks and streamline common workflows will help free up faculty time.

Researchers will benefit from having end-to-end digital systems for the entire research lifecycle and across the whole institution. Smart use of data will also connect researchers with similar interests to enable innovation and improve research efficiency.

Administrators, meanwhile, will be able to implement a unified data platform or join up existing systems to allow seamless data exchange. They can find ways to automate and reduce low-value, manual tasks, allowing administrative and professional staff to spend time on mission-critical activities. And they can use machine learning — in the form of AI-powered chatbots to give one example — to handle certain tasks, such as international student enquiries, applications, financial aid applications or onboarding new staff hires.

Ultimately, by understanding the needs and expectations of all the people who experience university life — and putting these people at the heart of any transformation — leaders can build strong strategies, invest in the right technologies, and strengthen their offering so that students thrive in a digital era and are fully prepared for work.

The views reflected in this article are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the global EY organization or its member firms.