Adapt to digitisation, or become the Woolworths of higher education.

“You can divide universities into recruiter universities and selective universities – we already get ten to fifteen applications per place, so we don’t have to be at the forefront of any of this stuff (sic) to affect admissions. There is no real incentive internally to try new things, because there’s no need to.”

CollabcoLast year Collabco conducted some telephone research both in the UK as well as in the US to find out the impact digitisation is having on our ‘bricks and mortar’ universities. The above quote was a direct transcript of a comment from an academic at one of the UK’s Russell Group collegiate universities with regards to the process of digitisation. The upshot is that most of our very traditional universities don’t currently see a reason to have to change their thinking. If they are able to recruit fifteen students for every place they have available, why adapt?

If we compare our UK high street, there are many big names now missing, killed off by their inability or ignorance of how the online world would change the offline one. Could we ever have imagined a day where Goliaths like Woolworths, BHS, Oddbins or Blockbuster would be no more? Higher education should not kid itself that it is any different in this regard – perhaps one day Oxford or Cambridge may find that Google and Facebook are delivering degrees that appeal more to our always-on millennial generation. For centuries these universities have competed on a playing field of reputation, but now any wifi point has become a potential seat of learning and since our students have to pay for their university education – a price that is rising over time – they are demanding value for money. It’s not simply about admissions; it’s about meeting student expectations.

Many universities are beginning to wake up to a need to engage holistically with their students and lecturers via digital channels across the entire lifecycle of their student. What technology does is hook students in long before the admissions process begins and keep them connected to the institution long after they’ve left university. It also helps to reduce student attrition rates once they’ve been admitted to degrees by reducing the isolation that some students feel when studying independently and creating a social aspect to learning that the millennial generation expects in every other avenue of their lives. It also delivers greater levels of success in terms of seeing students through to the successful completion of their studies and provides real-time data that can predict early enough in their student career if they will succeed or fail. Data collected by monitoring a student’s digital footprint (when they log onto the university’s virtual learning environment and collaborate with peers online) delivers information upon which institutions can predict things, and where those predictions may be unfavourable are able to rectify them before they become a problem.

Employers also demand more than just a degree; they demand real-world skills that are delivered using real-world digital tools. Universities must remain relevant, delivering degrees that prepare learners for the world of work and deliver the softer skills in terms of meeting deadlines, managing workloads and collaborating with colleagues. Digital tools are commonly used in the workplace for doing all of the above.

So, can universities afford to ignore the digitisation of the campus? Not unless they want to become the Woolworths of higher education.