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How far can tech address the HE sector’s biggest challenges?: Reflections from a HEPI Roundtable with TechnologyOne

  • 26 June 2023
  • By Professor Anthony C Moss

I recently had the pleasure of attending one of HEPI’s roundtable dinners, in partnership with TechnologyOne, to discuss how far technology can address the higher education sector’s biggest challenges.

The roundtable led, as one might expect, to an initial discussion about what exactly are the higher education sector’s biggest challenges. Top of this rather intimidating list was the financial challenges faced by providers across the sector. Contrary to the recent announcement from the Office for Students that there are no widespread financial issues in the higher education sector, the reality on the ground – and shared around the table – is that providers are having to constantly respond to financial challenges. In effect, the sector may broadly be managing to stay financially solvent, but that is not the same as saying it is adequately funded.

Our students are facing significant financial difficulties themselves; this creates more barriers to them accessing and engaging with education, which in turn places greater demand on providers to do more to remove those barriers. This is happening while the unit of funding for higher education remains frozen, with no prospect of this changing in the next few years.

The students around the table did well to remind us that a related but distinct challenge for the sector is inequality of access and opportunity. They shared with us some of the lessons learned during Covid, such as the ways in which providers were able to pivot their delivery and assessment techniques towards more flexible models. With that being said, there was recognition that the changes driven by necessity in a global pandemic do not add up to a roadmap for the future of higher education. While some students appreciated being able to engage with lessons online, or access recorded content in their own time, others missed the opportunities to be on campus and have the in-person university experience.

What, then, of the promise of technology to help us meet our challenges – can it be used to make universities more cost-efficient, while also eliminating inequality and providing a diverse group of students with multiple ways of tailoring their own educational experience?

I can best illustrate what I learned in response to this challenge from our discussion with an example. During the discussions, I threw out my own provocation regarding online, proctored exams during the pandemic. This is an example of where I think technology has been used for its own sake, rather than delivering a meaningful step forward in educational practice. This led to another participant making a comment that has been ringing in my ears ever since: ‘Proctored exams are an excellent example of how we tend to digitise our problems rather than solving them.’

This statement neatly summed up much of the discussion we had about technology – software, hardware, platforms, and digital services of different kinds are not solutions in themselves. These things can all be used and adapted to support transformation, but what we need at the start is a clear vision of the transformation we are trying to achieve. What we need to avoid is the implementation of technologies which simply create a digital replica of ways of working which themselves would benefit from greater critical scrutiny.

For what it’s worth, I thought I would let technology have the final word – I asked it for an ‘inspirational closing statement’ from ChatGPT, after sharing this article:

By harnessing the power of technology with purpose, we can create an educational landscape that empowers students, addresses financial challenges, and promotes equality. It is up to us, as educators, administrators, and stakeholders in higher education, to champion this mindset and seek innovative solutions that go beyond digital replicas. Together, we can shape a future where technology serves as a catalyst for positive change and a means to unlock the full potential of higher education for all.

(Sorry, my anthropocentrism got the better of me – while I broadly agree with my silicon co-author, it is wrong about technology ‘as a catalyst for positive change’. The higher education sector faces significant challenges around how we operate and maintain financial stability, how we deliver a greater range of qualifications to meet the needs of a changing world, to a student body whose needs and expectations are diverse and ever-changing. Technology is not the catalyst for the changes we need; but used thoughtfully, it can be a crucial enabler.)

TechnologyOne’s global Software as a Service (SaaS) solution transforms business and makes life simpler for higher education institutions by providing powerful and deeply integrated enterprise software that is incredibly easy to use. Its student-centric, enterprise solution is the only dedicated software solution created specifically for the higher education sector. TechnologyOne’s growth in the sector follows a significant investment by the Australian founded company in its UK operations, having recently hosted its flagship Showcase event in London – and sponsored last week’s HEPI’s Annual Conference. The company has new state-of-the-art office space in central London for its 120+ strong team.

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