Why universities will need to digitalise to survive

Universities, and the role they play in society, are under threat from the impact of the ongoing pandemic. While rarely a sector in financial crisis, university leaders in seven of the higher education systems in Europe now predict a fall in core national funding as a result of COVID-19, compounding the huge hits universities have taken on rental and commercial services and contractual research.

Fourteen national university sectors in Europe have also predicted a fall in income from international students, with travel restrictions limiting student mobility.

Estimates of losses to the United Kingdom university sector range from £3 billion (US4.2 billion) to £19 billion (US$26.7 billion) per year as a result of the coronavirus, while the picture is no less bleak across the pond. The University of Michigan alone anticipates losses of up to US$1 billion this year across its three campuses.

These financial challenges are a huge hit to university institutions. The higher education sector is one of the few that, before the pandemic, had not faced major digital transformation just to survive and has historically been slow to adapt. Now, however, universities must downsize their physical assets and look to where they can digitalise.

The costly upkeep of universities

Universities typically have costly brick and mortar estates they must maintain, alongside expenses such as their workers’ salaries and research funding, the upkeep of high-tech laboratories and the creation and maintenance of student campuses and accommodation. To streamline costs, universities need to adapt and digitalise across all departments.

This will necessitate investing in innovative technologies across artificial intelligence, cloud computing, the Internet of Things, blockchain and mobile.

Such a transition, however, will require significant change towards a culture of data-driven decision-making. This transition could provide not merely cost-cutting benefits to universities longer term but would help create higher education institutions that are more accessible and inclusive than ever before.

The financial benefits of a digital future

Cloud computing is a key area that universities must invest in; with such technology, universities can focus budgets longer term on teaching programmes and research activities while reducing on-site IT infrastructure costs and decreasing IT support requirements, without needing to consider IT infrastructure.

Flexible, scalable cloud computing services can be used to provide software, hardware and storage on demand and be easily deployed when required.

Learning content management systems are another area where universities can ease budget burdens. Such systems can automate university workflows, saving an estimated US$500,000 and 20,000 hours of work per year.

These platforms can provide instant self-service access to content, automate the comparison of book lists to catalogues, facilitate one-click purchases and build deep integrations and automated provisioning to learning management and library systems. Algorithms can also be used to optimise budgets.

Aside from these improvements, they also modernise and optimise the wider learning experience for students. They can be leveraged to track student learning via data analytics, better informing effective spending decisions for the universities themselves and ensuring students gain an improved learning experience.

BibliU, for example, works with 140 universities across the UK, Australia and the United States to modernise the procurement, distribution and experience of digital textbooks and learning materials, integrating with university libraries to empower universities to automate content workflows.

Meanwhile, universities across the world are turning to artificial intelligence (AI) to solve a number of challenges. A report on AI in higher education concludes that such technology could enable higher education services to become scalable at an unprecedented rate.

Already, AI is beginning to be used by universities to provide personalised instruction and targeted academic interventions – this means teaching staff can dedicate more time to providing meaningful engagement with learners. For example, Georgia State University’s chatbot Pounce is being used to facilitate students’ post-admissions enrolment, answering students’ questions successfully and alleviating the burden on staff.

AI applications are also being leveraged to move towards the provision of highly individualised experiences for students. An AI tool called Stellic, for example, can help planners more accurately determine demand for specific courses, which assists with building a better student experience and in building more accurate financial forecasting.

The Internet of Things is another example of where innovation can have significant benefits for the higher education sector. Infrastructure can be connected to the devices of researchers, students and professors so that university staff can better plan and use educational spaces.

For example, students could find out in advance if a study area is available or book a space in the library. Analytics can be built for parts of buildings to ensure space, savings and energy-reduction measures can be implemented.

Improving accessibility and inclusivity

Not only can digitisation cut costs for universities, but it can also drive improved accessibility and inclusivity within the higher education sector. Through using learning content management systems, universities can deliver digital textbooks and learning materials at no additional cost to students – a huge improvement which helps differently abled learners and makes university more accessible for people on lower incomes.

Other technologies are also helping to improve inclusivity in higher education; software that can convert musical scores into braille like Good Feel and augmented reality products like AIRA’s that provide assistance for blind or low vision students mean the university experience can be tailored to suit individual needs.

Learning content management systems featuring text-to-speech and speed-reader tools, as well as synchronised annotations, mean that students who learn differently will have the means to do so.

The wealth of new technologies available has the potential to transform the student experience, attracting students in greater numbers and boosting university finances. Not only that, but it is evident that many new technologies could vastly improve institutions’ budgets worldwide.

Looking ahead, it is evident that investment should be made now to safeguard the higher education sector and make it fit for a viable and successful future for all.

Dave Sherwood is CEO and co-founder at BibliU.