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Time for ‘co-opetition’? Unleashing the benefits of technology in higher education

  • 12 March 2018
  • By Diana Beech

At the end of February, HEPI collaborated with PwC to host a roundtable dinner in Birmingham on the impact of technology on higher education. Stian Westlake, Policy Adviser to the Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation gave the opening address.

The event was attended by senior leaders from across the region and was the second in a series of three HEPI/PwC roundtables focusing on the key strategic challenges facing higher education institutions in the long term.

The first roundtable took place in November 2017 in Leeds (an account of which can be found here) and the third and final roundtable will take place in May 2018 in London. 

The latest edition of PwC’s HE Matters explores in detail how technology will impact higher education, how it is delivered and what the business models are that underpin it. At our Birmingham dinner, guests discussed these questions and more, focusing in the main on the fundamental changes taking place in the way universities work, driven by technology, software and artificial intelligence.

Often referred to as the ‘4th Industrial Revolution’, the development of technology is both feared as a disrupter in the sector, yet also revered as an enabler – both of teaching and learning, as well as information management and data collection. By now, most tech-platforms supporting higher education are well-matured and mainstream. Yet, problems can arise if the processes and the people underpinning them have been slow to catch up.

Although there is already a lot of innovation taking place in the sector, with many, often newer, universities leading on new forms of tech-enabled teaching and analytics, there is concern that some academics are still resisting disruption from technology and are fearful of the pedagogic change it entails. Part of the problem may well be due to the way new technology is packaged in universities – as ‘information management’ systems – which could discourage some academics from engaging with it. The tendency to view technology as a piece of ‘equipment’ and not as a versatile business support tool could also be preventing academics from adapting it to suit their needs.

Non-academic staff, too, can be guilty of technology-avoidance (indeed we all can), helping to create a culture in universities of not wanting to change things. Sometimes it can seem easier to devise a temporary, local ‘workaround’ for a problem rather than developing an overarching strategy for positive change. Implementing new institutional approaches to technology is also not without risk. Sometimes we can spend ages in universities trying to fix institutional processes and forget what it was we were trying to deliver in the first place.

Admittedly, not all technology tools are as fit for purpose as they could be. For example, software to support some of the most complex tasks universities have to do, such as timetabling and scheduling, is not yet a mature offering by most service providers, although they are continuously developing it. We nevertheless have to acknowledge that even the most state-of-the-art data system is only ever going to be as good as the data that is put in to it, and for that reason we are reliant on robust processes and committed people to drive the frontiers of technology forwards.

Bringing the personal touch back into technology is of utmost importance, especially in terms of preventing staff and students from becoming isolated by new systems and developments. This is of particular concern in an age when increasing attention is being paid to mental health and creating ‘positive’ university spaces. We should, therefore, be working out ways to bring students together in our institutions, not leaving them alone in their individual rooms playing with new technologies and devices.

Questions also need to be asked about the impact of technology on mature students and whether they are even on the radar when it comes to implementing new technologies in higher education. The current public narrative keeps focusing on how keeping up with technology is important for enhancing students’ employability and earnings potential. Yet, anecdotal evidence shows mature students are less concerned about these issues and more concerned about enhancing their contribution to society after they graduate.

This is increasingly true of the student body as a whole, even though graduate earnings remain one of the key ranking criteria for universities in the UK. In a world where technology is visibly disrupting jobs and may be reducing the number of high-paying ones, now is the time to be looking at different metrics to demonstrate how our universities and colleges are preparing students to make meaningful contributions to the world around us.

In their function of serving the public good, universities need to ensure students are being developed as ‘whole’ people to contribute positively to society. In today’s age of technological change, this means merging the physical, digital and biological worlds to prepare students for a world that we cannot yet conceptualise. The fundamentals of what universities do is transform lives, so it is in this generation that we need to work out how to employ technology for good, as well as make sure it is not being used for bad.

For the higher education sector as a whole, this means thinking constructively and creatively about how to integrate technology into existing operational frameworks, or indeed – as is already the case in some newer universities – building their infrastructure around the new hi-tech environment in which we live.

The advantages of technology for higher education are widely accepted: technology gives institutions the ability to be much more agile; it enhances collaborative learning and helps institutions to maximise opportunities, especially around transnational education (TNE); and it also enhances the student experience by allowing students to adapt to new learning environments and be much more creative. Just as it allows universities to become truly global institutions, technology also allows students to be truly global in their learning.

However, the success of technology in higher education does not just depend on the technology alone, but on our ability to conceive of a problem and make things happen. The UK is blessed to have a higher education sector that is big enough to enable institutions to work together, yet is still not so big that it risks becoming fragmented. This is where the concept of co-operation meets competition, and the unique climate of ‘co-opetition’ the UK higher education system provides could really help to enable technology to effect positive change across the sector.

While technology can help push the boundaries of knowledge forwards in new digital and tech-based disciplines, it can also enhance the broad-based education that universities have been delivering for centuries. The onus is now on us as a sector to systematically address the barriers that are preventing universities from adopting strategies that are genuinely fit for the new digital age.

To drive us forwards, universities need to remember they are ultimately well-positioned to contribute to a world where intangible assets (such as research and development, creative design and educational training) now represent a greater percentage of GDP than tangible assets. With their propensity for bringing together ideas and being particularly good at public administration, universities are at the heart of this new ‘knowledge economy’. Technology, if mastered effectively, should support them to be even better in their missions and help them to make a significant contribution to society.

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