Who is ‘best in class’ for HE digital transformation?

The best in class for the digital transformation of higher education take a holistic approach, covering everything from student recruitment to enhancing the value of the student experience and improving outcomes and employability, according to market research for the International Finance Corporation (IFC), part of the World Bank Group.

But they are the exception, with an international survey of 17,000 students finding that 70% of these higher education students worldwide were in institutions “not digitally mature” and some universities were “digitally distraught” when the COVID-19 shutdowns began.

The research was carried out for the IFC by LEK Consulting, a specialist education practice with international clients. The aim was to support the “higher education ecosystem” by sharing best practice and learning from the challenges of digital transformation in tertiary education, particularly in emerging markets and from the perspective of students directly impacted by the COVID-19 crisis.

Holistic approach

Ashwin Assomull, the consultancy’s senior partner, told University World News: “We found some brilliant institutions which really embraced digital learning, but what made the top performers stand out was their holistic approach to digital transformation rather than simply focusing on excellent online teaching.

“They typically added value and enhanced the traditional learning experience while improving the operational efficiency of the higher education institution and they also optimised performance in student recruitment using a mix of technology and call centres to improve the student experience and reduce costs.

“They improved outcomes by implementing blended learning with elements of interactivity and personalisation and involved the academic teams in creating content and they didn’t forget life services and used online job portals and career counselling to improve employment metrics.”

Assomull told University World News that higher education had been slower to embrace technology than healthcare and consumer businesses, but their survey showed market leaders spread across the global higher education sector.

“When people look for best practice, they tend to look at the US and Europe, but we found pockets of best practice in some of the emerging markets of Brazil, Mexico, India and South Africa and among private organisations rather than better known public universities,” he said.

Best in class

According the LEK survey, the leading higher education performers for digital transformation were Anima Educacao and the Afya Education Group, both in Brazil.

Next “best in class” were Manipal Academy of Higher Education in India, the Lottus Education group in Mexico, Minerva education in the USA and the Honoris group based in South Africa.

All but Afya, which is the largest medical focused group of institutes in Brazil, are multi-disciplinary institutions. Only Minerva uses a completely online mode of learning. The rest use a blended approach to learning.

Thijs van Vugt, director of analytics and consulting at the European-based international study choice platform Studyportals, told University World News that he wasn’t surprised by the findings.

Private providers have to work harder

“Private providers in less obvious places often have to work harder to try and distinguish themselves and don’t suffer from complacency, which you see quite a bit in what is still a very conservative and conventional sector,” Van Vugt said.

He revealed that Studyportals is about to launch its own study to find the most “digitally mature” universities, explaining: “We will be looking for higher education institutions whose strategies are data-driven, who have a digitally integrated marketing and recruitment strategy across online and offline channels, and where all information systems – customer relations management (CRM), student records, alumni and the like, are fully integrated and mined and analysed continuously.”

Van Vugt told University World News: “Businesses do not digitalise their operations for the sake of it; they do it to work more efficiently and to achieve scalable growth.

“Universities are no different. To prosper in a post-COVID environment, they have to seize digital opportunities.”

Training is imperative

While the Studyportals survey will be marketing and data collection focused, Van Vugt said: “Just having the latest digital equipment and software is not enough. Training is imperative, both for academic and administrative staff.”

This was also highlighted in the LEK survey, which included interviews with 35 private and public sector higher education leaders in North America, Latin America, China, Australia and India as well as responses from 17,000 students undertaking a range of programmes, from fully online to full-time in-person and also including part-time and distance learners. Most students were based in emerging markets, but it also included those studying in China and the US.

Sudeep Laad, managing director and partner at LEK Consulting based in Singapore, told University World News that their survey clearly showed that students also needed training and that universities need to pay much greater attention to student engagement during digital transformation.

Institutions highlighted in the LEK survey for best practice ensured that digitalisation was used for blended learning rather than remote learning and ensured “adequate human interaction”.

They also made sure academics were involved in content creation and that tracking and feedback mechanisms were in place for “personalised learning”.

The best institutions used digital technology across the whole student life journey, from investing in social media and creating student profiles for targeted marketing in student recruitment to providing easy access to digital student services and providing job portals “with advanced analytics for career selection” and alumni support for employability services.

Least satisfied with careers support

Students surveyed were most satisfied with online services for student recruitment, student life services and assessment and exams and least satisfied with careers support, said Laad.

“Teacher training and student engagement are the biggest imperatives or barriers to going forward,” he said.

But despite students wanting “greater interconnectivity”, most survey respondents hoped to see “some proportion of online learning going forward”, with most suggesting between 25% to 50% online learning would be about right when the pandemic restrictions end.

Luis Lopez, chief executive officer of Honoris United Universities, which teaches 45,000 students spread across Africa, said they were using Zoom and Teams before the pandemic struck and students and staff were “transitioned” to working and studying from home.

“But Zoom to create a classroom doesn’t work very well and you’ve got to put your students first,” he said, adding: “Don’t think of the 45,000 students you have; think of that one student.”

Lopez said there are plenty of cost-effective platforms to help, but the key is “providing the right level of training as well as the technology” and ensuring that your faculty and staff embark on the journey to digital transformation together.

Negative impact on mental health

The importance on supporting staff – and students – during the digital transformation of higher education was also highlighted in a digital teaching survey conducted by Times Higher Education, which found that the initial move to online teaching during the pandemic had a negative effect on the mental health of over half of the 520 self-selecting respondents.

A majority of those surveyed – 334 – were from the United Kingdom, but a total of 46 countries were represented.

Only a fifth believe their students value remote education as much as face-to-face and only 42% said their managers had shown “consideration for their domestic and personal situation during lockdown”.

Casual staff felt particularly abandoned, as they were not paid to undertake training in various new digital tools, whereas permanent staff could attend training in their normal working hours.

There was also “an assumption that all students are very tech-savvy”, with one business and management lecturer in Australia saying: “This is not the case and some need more support than others. I believe students were largely left to their own means to figure things out as they went along.”

Nic Mitchell is a freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European higher education. He runs De la Cour Communications and blogs at