University challenge: Providing value for students in a digital age

The modern university must adapt to these pressures and align themselves with traditional business imperatives such as value, market share and brand reputation.

Recent changes in Government policy and market dynamics mean that the level of visible competition between universities is much more apparent than ever before. These historically individual organisations are now having to embrace commercial reality and adapt to new pressures in order to compete.

Firstly, the increase of tuition fees means that, more than ever, students are now ‘consumers’ with very real purchasing power. Secondly, universities have to be self-funding and are diversifying as they search for ways to increase revenue and cut costs. Thirdly, ‘challenger universities’ are growing in number and popularity, some specialising in professional qualifications, others with a broader scope run by global enterprises such as Google or Microsoft.

The modern university must adapt to these pressures and align themselves with traditional business imperatives such as value, market share and brand reputation.

However, this cannot come at the expense of the usual academic indicators such as university league tables, student/researcher intake, student experience and growth of research and industry collaboration.

Underpinning all of this is a growing need to deliver value to both students and researchers. In order to achieve this, there is an ever-increasing demand for IT services that enable student connectivity and innovation. These include:

  • Campus Wi-Fi – this along with an open bring-your-own-device policy is now expected by students
  • Internet of Things – the ability to safely, securely connect multiple device types to the university network
  • Cyber security - protecting against DDoS and malware attacks
  • Automation – portal access to services and resources
  • Scalability – the ability to meet growing content demand
  • Collaboration – the capability to engage effectively with research organisations and companies around the world
  • Teaching and learning – for example, issuing tablets to students for interaction in lectures and learning via online labs and video
  • Protecting data - Doing all the above while securing the university’s (and their investment partners’) research data

Value

As non-profit organisations, universities have a particular way of identifying the value they deliver to stakeholders based on quality of service. In short, this is the student experience of learning, living and being in a strong position to quickly gain employment, and it is not easily quantifiable. 

As such, it’s less about generating profit and more about providing ‘value’. Digital transformation is the force driving permanent change in the relationship between universities and their students and staff. The Internet and the widespread use of mobile devices mean that students expect the same high service levels on campus as they would anywhere else - and they will rate a university accordingly.

In addition, with research contributing up to 25% of total revenue for some major universities, ensuring the university has a strong, clear proposition that offers researchers the best opportunities to fulfil their ambitions is essential.

One of the dilemmas universities face is striking a balance between supporting students and supporting researchers. They need to support researchers because of the revenue they can deliver, but if they ignore students their core purpose as a place of learning starts to be undermined. In the context of these pressures, self-funding means that increasing revenue and reducing costs are critical for a university to be sustainable. This is where technology, in particular the network, plays a major role. With the growth in data traffic being unstoppable, universities have no choice but to modernise their network infrastructure to meet the demands of their customers.

Market share

With growing international competition, every university has to take continuous action to protect its position in the market place and, in doing so, try to build its ‘share of voice’ in a crowded environment.

To protect market share it is vital to attract more students and researchers and ensure they have a good experience so they don’t want to leave. To grow market share, a university has to increase the perceived value of its offering to potential students and researchers.

Digitalization has driven a shift in behaviour, with expectations rising and changing more frequently. The wide variety of methods of obtaining digital access and information enables students to find out what they want to know more quickly and more independently than ever before. In this age of digital transformation, efficiency and self-services are key to loyalty and this means making it easy for students to access online facilities that help them in their studies and research. They expect the university to facilitate, and if the experience is poor then this can quickly be manifested into negative publicity on social media.

A leading campaigner arguing against the predominance of the traditional lecture is Professor Carl Wieman, winner of the Nobel Prize for physics. He realised that talking at students and expecting them to absorb knowledge was not helping them to learn. He replaced traditional lectures with “active learning”, where he sets out a problem at the beginning of a lecture, divides students into small groups who can use mobile devices to access information, and walks between them to listen to and facilitate their discussions. Academic results are up and student feedback is positive.

Once again, these trends - the university’s online presence, changes in teaching methods – steer us back to the importance of ensuring the network has the capability to support each university’s teaching and research ambitions whilst securely managing growing network data traffic.

Brand reputation

Universities are discovering that, just like any organisation or business, building and maintaining positive brand reputation is vital to its future success. Consequently, student and staff satisfaction and loyalty are top priorities for universities simply because they communicate a positive experience. By the same token, poor experiences will be communicated rapidly via social media and generate negative publicity that will impact the brand.

For the modern university, protecting the brand means defending confidential information - student and staff personal data, as well as research IP - all of which has a market value. The reality is that every organisations’ online security can be vulnerable and may be breached at some point. It is therefore vital to put in place the right technology, processes and training to mitigate the impact as soon as the threat appears.

Solutions

Universities are having to improve their use of technology in order to meet user expectations, cut costs and give themselves a platform for future growth in a highly competitive market. There are several key areas to be considered:

  • Flexibility - a flexible model with configurable end-user specific services that can be tailored to their individual requirements, for example increased bandwidth for medical imaging transfer.
  • Availability - improving scalability and performance to remove congestion and provide innovative services on demand.
  • Analytics - monitoring day-to-day online usage by students and researchers aids security and identifies opportunities to improve service.
  • Confidence - students and researchers must be reassured that their data is as secure as possible.
  • Compliance - meeting industry, country and international compliance standards demonstrates commitment to security.
  • Innovation - the ability to offer new services in short timescales, with flexible payment and delivery across multiple device types.
  • Simplification – introducing automated customer self-service portals enables students and researchers to find the information they need as easily and quickly as possible.

Andy Butcher, UK Education Sales Specialist at Axians
Image Credit: James F Clay / Flickr

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Andy Butcher is the Axians Sales Manager responsible for the UK Research and Education market, focusing on helping universities deliver carrier-grade network services and business efficiency to students and stakeholders.