The demographic challenge facing the higher education (HE) sector, where UCAS projects that the 2030 admissions cycle could have up to one million applicants and then drop sharply thereafter, requires innovative thinking and progressive leadership.
Administrative and pedagogical infrastructures will need to scale up and down to handle the change and ensure the increase can benefit students, institutions, and communities alike. This is why we believe digital transformation is a key, if not an essential, part of the solution.
A more integrated digital infrastructure, underpinned by process review, strong data governance and active student engagement can help the sector see higher numbers as a positive, not solely a challenge.
The solutions the HE sector would normally use to respond to an increase in student numbers are, this time, problematic and difficult to deploy.
Creating new physical capacity for teaching and accommodation through building programmes is costly, slow, carbon intensive, and disruptive. It leaves higher education institutions (HEIs) with expensive spaces to maintain, heat and utilise, long past the predicted peak in student numbers.
Analysis in 2020 of student accommodation in Surrey showed estimated building costs of £61,449 per bedroom/person.i As inflation bites, the cost of materials, maintenance, heating and lighting are increasing at levels not seen for 40 years. In addition, buildings are carbon intensive to construct and run, a real issue with the climate change backdrop.
Ramping up staff numbers for a short period could also hurt the student experience. The University and College Union showed in a 2019 study that between 25 and 30% of teaching in HE is done by staff on short-term or temporary contracts, and 71% of those teachers said they did not have enough paid time to give students the feedback they deserved, and 75% said they didn’t have enough time to stay on top of their subjects.ii
Although scaling student provision will require extra staffing, what’s clear is that using extra, short-term contract teaching staff alone won’t boost the student experience.
Cloud based software and digital technologies, like Wi-Fi, cameras and microphones have now reached a level of maturity which means their deployment is simpler, and more cost-effective than a new building. What they represent isn’t a ‘cheap’ option but an investment in the future — building systems that will help support students and HEI’s to achieve their goals, for the next decade and beyond.
Scaling capacity using non-digital costs more, is more complicated to plan and deliver, and leaves legacy costs through continued management or decommissioning. Digital is the only solution to these problems that scales more easily both ways without compromising educational quality or student experience.
Digital, therefore, can be one of the most cost-effective solutions to the demographic challenge of the million. It will scale up and down quickly and leaves fewer long-term legacy costs for HEIs. Using digital platforms and blended course delivery methods also allows more students to access education easily, with less travel, fewer costs and more flexibility.
Lockdowns enforced a digital-only model onto the entire education ecosystem, with little to no long-term strategic planning. By its very nature, the shift was fast and challenging and resulted in experiences of varying quality for students across HE.
An ONS study found 53% of students in UK HE stated they were dissatisfied with their learning experience during the pandemic.iii Coming out of the lockdowns, Jisc’s 2022 Digital experience insights student survey found that 45% of students wanted a blended learning experience and 13% a mainly online one.iv Digital course elements are going mainstream, and HEIs need to respond.
Post-pandemic, the sector is moving towards a better, more rounded approach to using digital technologies in education. Jisc’s recent curriculum and learning design report found that 78% of respondents from UK HEIs are investing in incorporating digital technologies into curricula.v
It's clear that universities are capitalising on the pandemic ‘jolt’ to the status quo, and many are reviewing their infrastructures and pedagogies to incorporate the hard-won lessons of the lockdowns. A holistic and strategically planned ‘blended’ approach is quite unlike the online-only conditions imposed by lockdowns. The Office for Students recent blended learning review focused not on a binary ‘digital or face-to-face’ dialogue but on making choices around format and delivery based on pedagogical need.vi
A blended learning approach doesn’t require a set ratio of digital to face-to-face learning — it is about using the right design, tools, modes and approaches to deliver the learning students need to succeed on the course and in their subsequent careers.
A challenge of this scale — incorporating and embedding digital technologies into the HE curriculum sector-wide — requires buy-in and strategic leadership from vice-chancellors and their senior teams.
Staff designing and adapting curricula need support and resources to review and implement progressive change for the good of the student’s learning journey. Each digital opportunity must be weighed against the needs of the subject and students.
Building a data infrastructure and data governance processes that support learning requires strategic planning, widespread coordination across the organisation, and an agile plan to review and develop data governance to support updated aims.
Facilitating students to engage with digital course elements requires not only online elements but physical infrastructure on-site, too: Wi-Fi on site, and areas that allow students to work uninterrupted away from lecture theatres are vital parts of facilitating greater numbers of students.
Digital inequality needs to be addressed by providing devices, facilitating network access, and providing accessibility features on learning platforms. Digital and data inequality have been around as long as the internet, but it took a pandemic to highlight how severe the divide can be. As the student cohort diversifies, the provision of the vital basics such as suitable devices, a reliable internet connection, a safe and private place to work — needs to be considered from the start of the student's journey.
Both staff and students need to be supported with regular reviews of their digital skills and targeted training. Jisc’s recent digital experience insights HE teacher survey found less than half of teaching staff are satisfied with the support they get for their digital skills, and only 6% are rewarded or recognised for work with digital technologies.
Students have high expectations of HE courses today — they expect them to use data to help them track their progress and succeed — this expectation extends to teaching staff: they need to understand the technology they are using to teach and be able to use it effectively.
We sit at a key moment in the digital transformation of HE — and the leaders in the sector can capitalise on it to improve student outcomes, increase efficiency, and respond to the challenges of climate change.
Chief Executive Officer, Jisc
I am the CEO of Jisc, the UK’s digital, data and technology agency focused on tertiary education, research and innovation. We are a not-for-profit organisation who believes that education and research improves lives and that technology improves education and research. I have worked in higher education for most of my career and held a variety of Board level leadership roles, most recently as executive director of corporate services at the University of Sheffield. Prior to Sheffield, I spent eight years at the University of York, as CIO and deputy COO. I was a member of UCAS council for 8 years, chair of Universities and College Information Systems Association (UCISA), and chair of the Russell Universities Group IT Directors (RUGIT). Recently, I was elected to the board of GÉANT, the umbrella organisation for 39 national research and education networks (NRENs) in Europe and I am a governor of York College my local FE provider.