Across the World, higher education has become big business and a major contributor to the economic prosperity of many nations. For example, it has been estimated that in the UK alone, universities generate £95 billion for the country’s economy and support more than 940,000 jobs.

However, an increasing number of experts believe that rather than expanding further, the university sector in many countries will actually contract due to the changing environment for learning. Indeed, one of the world’s leading experts on innovation has suggested that a significant number of universities in the USA will fail over the next decade. 

In examining how the education sector may be disrupted over the next few years, Professor Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School believes that due to innovations such as online learning, 50 percent of the 4,000 colleges and universities in the USA could be closed within the next fifteen years.

Whether this will turn to be the case (and whether UK universities will follow this decline) remains to be seen but it is clear there are now a number of challenges that higher education institutions face as innovation becomes more prevalent across the sector, especially given the opportunities and threats from the digital revolution and new technologies such as smart mobile devices and sensors, cloud-based IT and advanced analytics.

For example, as Professor Christensen has pointed out, the digital revolution means that students no longer have to go to their local university to be taught and can choose, if they wish, to learn online from colleges on the other side of the globe.

More relevantly, online learning can complement the traditional lecture for those who do choose to study at their home universities especially if there is investment in creating a digital learning environment that can give students the flexibility of a virtual campus.

And those institutions which fail to embrace online learning to complement the classroom may lose out in the long run to those that do.

But it is not online learning that is important to those who have grown up in the digital age. Students will expect that educational experience – including courses, support and services - can be managed through their phones, tablets and personal computers. Yet, research suggests that many student information systems have been around for over a decade at a time when the digital environment has changed dramatically through innovations such as cloud computing.

According to the global accountancy firm PWC, many universities do not have a clear vision on the way that digital is (and will continue to) disrupt the sector. This is due to a lack of understanding on how to engage with the new digitally savvy student, an inability to add new techniques, tools and capabilities to support new ways of working and maintaining a culture that inhibits the adoption of new technologies because of a lack of trust in digital services and cloud technologies.

So how can universities avoid being left behind by the rapid changes in digital technologies?

According to PWC, the first step is to understand that any digital transformation will affect the entire university and not just the IT department. In this respect, it is not just about buying new technology platforms and imposing it on staff and students.

More important is to understand the wider role of digital across the institution and ensuring that those that should benefit from the introduction of new technologies should be driving the change. In fact, linking all digital activity into the university’s overall vision and strategy will ensure that all stakeholders buy into new strategic programmes to improve digital capabilities by understanding what their role will be in achieving the right outcomes and in developing a system that is simple, flexible and that can react quickly in a changing marketplace.

Another key issue is having sufficient ongoing investment in digital technologies training for academics and other university staff, and ensuring that they are given the freedom and flexibility to try innovative new ways of working that can benefit the student experience and wider efficiencies within the university.

Finally, the changing dynamic between the university and its students with higher education becoming very much a consumer driven industry means that students expect far more from institutions than they would have done in previous years. In that respect, there needs to be an approach that is not about how the university is currently managed but rather what customers (i.e. students) actually need and how they want information, courses and services delivered.

With their personal lives being increasingly managed via their phones, many young people will expect the same for their education as well and universities must look beyond just emails (which many students shun) as a method of communication.

Therefore, as with all other industries, new digital technologies are having (and are going to have) a major disruptive effect on the higher education sector. The question is whether universities will be left behind as Clayton Christensen has predicted or whether they will fully  embrace the digital revolution to not only survive but to thrive in an increasingly fast changing global environment.

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