Higher Education: The digital challenge lying ahead

A few weeks ago, we attended the Higher Education Partnership Network in Leeds. Over two days we met with Vice Chancellors, Digital Directors and Chief Information Officers who each offered a unique take on the challenges faced by Higher Education Institutions (HEIs).

We wanted to get to grips with the digital experience landscape within HEIs and discover how universities were keeping up with a digitally connected student body. Ultimately, we wanted to establish how digital transformation can improve the lived experience of both students and staff, for good.

We heard first-hand about the challenges and opportunities HEI stakeholders are dealing with when designing and delivering digital experiences for their students. From our conversations it seems that the key challenges break down into three core areas: existing digital and organisational systems, understanding the lived student experience and finally, gathering and understanding the data.

Existing digital and organisational systems

  • Many HEIs are still not customer and user centred in their thinking about students. Whilst thinking of students as “customers” may be a leap too far, all HEIs could and should be more customer centred in the design of their student digital experience.
  • Registering students for IT and library systems is an essential step for all HEIs and presents a key digital opportunity to start wider onboarding whilst engaging students in University life.
  • Siloed teams are a barrier to providing a single coherent experience, especially without the support and drive of senior leadership.
  • Off the shelf platforms that may accelerate the offering of key functionality, combined with legacy systems, create challenges when it comes to designing a coherent and consistent user experience for students.

The lived student experience

  • The importance of a solid digital experience is exemplified in early HE touchpoints, such as enrolment and initial orientation. HEIs need to provide a branded, curated journey to reduce any expectation gaps and maximise enrolment. This would allow HEI’s to increase data capture at this early stage to provide a more personalised experience throughout the first year
  • Using in-depth research to better understand students can pay dividends when attracting students. That and other rich data isn’t being fully exploited to create a better student digital experience, or when it comes to assisting supporting students beyond digital.
  • Those who’ve embraced using students as content creators and co-creators of the digital experience are delivering great results.
  • Information vs Interaction – HEI’s need to understand how students want to engage with content, what the content needs to do and how it gets delivered.
  • Attracting international students remains essential for most HEI’s, however hybrid and remote learning means they need additional language support to be successful academically.
  • The student digital experience is a largely untapped vehicle to support wider digital transformation and efficiencies within HEI’s.
  • Legacy systems present a significant but often not insurmountable challenge, as is the case with many organisations beyond HE.
  • New requirements from the Office For Students will be focusing on the increasing importance of digital onboarding and beyond.

Understanding the data

  • HEIs need the data they have to work harder in order to create meaningful insights which drive real time physical interventions or contribute to relevant services that can help students.
  • Many IT Departments have adopted solid strategies for technology roadmaps across data interaction, but there is a lack of Experience Design vision relating to how it will combine as a single experience across a student’s lifecycle.
  • Understanding the financial data. Funding gaps mean that HEIs need to find new ways to streamline operational costs. The UK undergraduate market is a loss-making segment but it provides a clear and stable revenue stream.
  • Investment in attracting overseas students has increased but comes with some risks and with potentially undefined and volatile external forces.


Unsurprisingly, some students and professors breathed a collective sigh of relief when the lecture theatres open their doors again, however the return of face-to-face learning doesn’t diminish the urgency and focus on digital transformation. It’s important for senior representatives and stakeholders to not lose momentum and continue to drive digital solutions as the answer to a holistically improved student experience, as well as academic outcomes. Digital transformation could and should be the linchpin on which graduates hang their mortarboards, as well-designed solutions can support not just undergraduates, but also international students, post-graduate students and alumni. The goal for universities should be to design a digital companion for students and staff that unifies the lived experience of all, achieves organisational transformation, whilst enabling efficiencies previously excluded from the digital umbrella.

The route to meaningful digital transformation isn’t a top down vs. bottom-up debate. The right path to take is a combination of both, opting for an agile approach that quickly and confidently defines a strategy that considers the bigger transformational picture. Discovery processes to understand the user needs, alpha and beta development stages and live evaluation enables continuous iteration and improvement based on user feedback. HEIs are complex; with multiple layers, end users, and stakeholders all benefiting from a slice of the digital pie. Therefore digital transformation requires a layered, agile and strategic approach.

The digital university experience is here to stay, so it’s time for universities to put their best digital foot forward. The final thing we learnt at HEPN: it isn’t only us feeling positive about the future of digital transformation coming up over the horizon.

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