How do you create a long-term strategy with so many ‘unknown unknowns’?

Last month, Jisc, Emerge Education, and Salesforce brought together dozens of UK vice-chancellors for virtual roundtable sessions to explore the long-run impact of Covid-19 on university digital strategy. When we asked them what they expected from 2030, 94% told us universities will be radically different or fairly different. Then, we asked how many of them had a formal strategy or vision for 2030. Only a third said they did.

A long-term outlook for digital strategy

Planning for the decade ahead is not easy. We don’t know what further crises to expect. Predicting the rapid development of consumer technology is something of a fool’s errand – after all, it has barely been ten years since the launch of the iPhone. Government policy shifts rapidly and unpredictably. For all that, there has never been a stronger need for a robust, long-term vision of the role of digital technology in higher education

The Covid-19 crisis has accelerated digital adoption across the global HE sector, leading to what may have been the world’s largest experiment in rapid digital transformation. As we wrote in an earlier blog post, there will be two major changes to the perception of technology in HE over the next decade. Firstly, universities now have real confidence in their ability to adopt digital ways of teaching and working. Secondly, and more importantly, a coherent approach to technology is increasingly seen as a source of resilience, not risk.

Take the example of a 2030 strategy. Those universities that had one also found it easier to deal with the crisis. The strategy became their roadmap for navigating the lockdown and preparing for the uncertainty of the next couple of academic years. They were able to accelerate changes that were already underway – introducing remote working, running collaborative challenge-based student projects, going through the shift to digital examinations, and so on. 

Challenge-based learning: How Falmouth University reimagined student engagement during lockdown.

Every vice-chancellor at our roundtables agreed that a long-term vision and strategy were needed. What will this look like? The diversity of the UK HE sector means there will not be a single correct response. Instead, the answer will depend on the unique mission, circumstances, and capabilities of each university. We can imagine a range of scenarios:

  • For some, face-to-face teaching will remain at the core of their proposition. They may focus on operational efficiencies, reinvesting cost savings into the student experience
  • Others may adopt a blended approach, moving lectures online but requiring physical presence for ‘high-value’ activities like seminars, tutorials, labs or fieldwork
  • Some will aim for a ‘mode-free’ approach that provides a parity of experience to online, on-campus, and commuter students and can shift between modes seamlessly
  • The Jisc Learning and Teaching Reimagined programme is also offering up visions of a ‘hyflex plus’ university that embraces online and accelerated learning; a hyperlocal university; and a university co-designed with employers.

Whichever vision is the right one for any particular university, its leadership will need to put in place a long-term strategy. So how can we help more of them develop one?

Tackling the ‘unknown unknowns’

The pandemic response has given senior leaders the confidence that their institutions can tackle the challenge of digital transformation. The next hurdle is the ‘unknown unknowns’ – a lack of knowledge and foresight around the barriers and benefits of the journey. To help address that gap, Universities UK, Jisc, and Emerge Education, together with technical partner Salesforce, are working on a long-term digital strategy framework. This work is led by David Maguire (Interim Vice-Chancellor, University of Dundee) and Graham Galbraith (Vice-Chancellor, University of Portsmouth), tying into Jisc’s sector-wide learning and teaching reimagined programme.

The framework will suggest examples of the questions that senior leaders can ask themselves and their teams to identify what they need to prioritize in their digital strategy. Some of these questions will be more urgent than others, and we’re looking at both the short- and long-term perspective.

Based on ongoing conversations with senior executives at forty institutions, we have identified recurring themes that will be central to a successful digital strategy: leadership, staff, business model, and infrastructure. The framework will include a checklist across each theme, examples of questions to ask, and case studies of universities that are addressing these questions in interesting ways.

Culture change for long-term success

Over the long-term, culture change will be the single most important factor of success for a digital strategy. Executive leadership teams will need to embrace and exemplify the cultural changes required: agility and openness to experimentation, understanding of the value and limits of technology, data fluency and basic digital competence. To make progress, ask:

  • Over the short-term: What digital expertise do we need to look for in hires to the senior executive team or new board members?
  • Over the long-term: What structure of the senior executive team is best to drive the delivery of the strategy and is there a need for dedicated roles with a focus on digital?

These same values will be required of university staff. Many of them already have the necessary skills and creativity but aren’t always empowered to apply them or recognized for it; others may lack the confidence, incentives, or support to adopt new practices. The change needs to be accepted across the entire institution, not just in pockets of excellence. To make  progress, ask:

  • Over the short-term: What proportion of staff currently use digital tools well, and how can we support them to share digital expertise with colleagues consistently?
  • Over the long-term: Is there a route to career progression through excellence in teaching, including the use of digital tools, and is it held in the same regard as research?

Staff capability and development is seen as a top priority by senior leaders today, with 70% of our roundtable attendees highlighting it as the greatest immediate need to address from a digital strategy perspective.

Changing student needs and market conditions

If culture change is an enabler, the outcome of a successful digital strategy is the change in service delivery. The emerging university business model will be driven by shifting market conditions – a combination of growing demand and growing competition – and the need to meet a different and more varied set of student expectations. To make progress, ask:

  • Over the short-term: What is the role of the campus play in the student experience and how can we approximate it (including a sense of community) in the context of digital delivery?
  • Over the long-term: How are student recruitment practices likely to change over the next decade and do we have the digital marketing capabilities to keep up with best practice?

Delivering on these goals will require an accurate assessment of the barriers presented by legacy IT and the investment required to overcome them. Universities face a unique infrastructure challenge in the need to balance a consistent baseline experience for staff and students against an IT environment that is much harder to control than in an enterprise setting. To make progress, ask:

  • Over the short-term: What internal processes would we need to change for new technology systems to work effectively?
  • Over the long-term: What is the ratio of investment in digital technology vs campus estates, and what should it be to achieve our 2030 vision?

Working with startups

To get their answers to these questions right, senior leaders will need to tap into fresh thinking and look for inspiration to their governing bodies, peers, staff, sector organisations, and external experts. Here, startup founders have an invaluable opportunity to help the sector see where digital solutions fit within university value chains.

In the context of long-term digital strategy, startups can be a valuable source of insight and best practice across a range of areas. It’s best to see today’s early-stage companies as ‘weak signals’ of the future: not all of them are successful, but collectively they represent a range of possible paths. In the meantime, startup founders can be a source of inspiration, check and challenge for university leaders. By questioning the status quo and giving universities tools to experiment with new approaches, startups can help reduce the uncertainty around ‘unknown unknowns’ and formulate the questions that will shape digital strategy.

Over the next weeks, as part of the learning and teaching reimagined programme, we will continue to explore these issues with senior leaders from across the sector. We hope that the framework, when published this autumn, will help the sector understand and, in time, fully realize the potential of digital technology to be more than simply the automation of existing in-person learning and teaching.

This blog is the second in a series of posts based on conversations with dozens of senior leaders from UK universities. You can find the first post, which includes the list of contributors, here.