An open letter to university Vice-Chancellors

Paul Boag

I have written the following letter to the senior leadership teams of UK Universities. If you work or study at a University I would encourage you to send them a link to this page.

If you are reading this it is because somebody in your institution has shared it with you. I write this not to scare-monger. Instead I write it to voice a concern among many professionals in higher education institutions.

I have had the privilege of working with over 30 higher education institutions here in the UK and abroad. I have worked with the web and other digital technologies for over 20 years and authored four books on the subject.

So trust me when I say the higher education sector faces a major crisis because of changes introduced by digital. The same kind of crisis that devastated music retailing. That closed the doors of major brand names such as Kodak, Woolworths and Blockbusters. The same kind of crisis that has shaken the newspaper sector to the core. As Professor Lawrence Summers of Harvard put it:

The solid classical buildings of great universities may look permanent but the storms of change now threaten them.

The crisis is difficult to solve but easy to articulate. Universities are under-estimating the importance of digital technologies.

By digital I am referring to the web, mobile, social media, elearning, and email marketing. This encompasses both external communication and internal operations. These are technologies that touch every part of your day to day operation.

Take a moment to consider what would happen if your University could no longer utilise these technologies. If your website went offline and you were unable to fix it. If Facebook, Google and Twitter banned you while letting your competition operate. If your intranet, elearning tools and email capabilities just stopped working. What would happen? How long could your University survive without digital? It wouldn’t make it through an academic year.

This is the definition of business critical. Without digital Universities would crumble.

You see digital as a luxury. For students it is a necessity.

Of course it didn’t use to be this way. But the world changed. Students changed. Today’s students don’t see digital as an optional extra. They see it as intrinsic to their every interaction with your University from selection to becoming an alumni.

They value digital and physical the same. They pay for Netflix when they don’t have enough money for food. They will spend money on the outfits for a character in a game, while buying their own clothes from a charity shop. They don’t share your priorities. They don’t see digital as a luxury. For them it is a necessity.

They don’t know why they pay thousands in tuition fees and yet get inferior tools to those they get for free from Google or Facebook.

Yet universities spend millions on physical resources. They are always building new halls or improving facilities. All while they are under investing in digital.

A small price to pay

Don’t get me wrong. Digital is not expensive. In fact it provides amazing cost savings. But when compared to its business importance, it is under resourced.

If just 10% of the money spent on physical infrastructure went to digital it would have an enormous impact. It would make large cost savings, provide a competitive advantage and meet students expectations. It would aid research collaboration, improve teaching and enhance reputation.

But I am not talking about IT tools. I am not talking about technology platforms or enterprise software. I am talking about an investment in skilled professionals. People who can build digital tools that meet the needs of students and the organisation.

Real leadership is required

It is not just about money. It is about leadership too. Most Universities have inadequate leadership for its digital direction. Managed by committees, decision making is far too slow for the fast moving world of technology. What is more few of those making decisions have any depth of insight into what students want or need from their digital platforms.

Too often this business critical function is in the hands of a few people buried in corporate comms or IT. An under-resourced team overseen by a committee who doesn’t understand the medium.

Other business critical functions sit at the top of the organisation. Departments such as comms, finance or alumni relations. Led by senior members of staff they have their own budgets and authority over their areas of responsibility. Why not digital? Why doesn’t digital have a seat at the top table when the university could not operate without it? Why is it treated as a side activity when students see it as central to their lives?

To operate in today’s digital world universities need to think like a Silicon Valley giant. It must shed its institutional dogma. Put digital at the heart of its operation and sweep aside generations of culture. It must make room for faster and more agile working processes. It needs to bring in leadership who understands digital best practice and empower the digital staff it has.

We are facing a crisis

Things must change before digital forces it. Forces it in the same way it has in so many other sectors with painful results.

If the sector fails to do this we will see massive disruption. Smaller more nimble institutions will begin to gain ground on Russell Group Universities. Or worse still an outside company with deep pockets will see the sector as ripe for innovation as Apple did with music retailing.

So what should you do? The answer is simple. Move digital up your agenda. Don’t ignore it because you don’t understand it. Don’t presume it is just a support function. Make sure you recognise it for what it is, a business critical part of your organisation.

For more resources about the use of digital in Higher Education visit my Digital Transformation in Higher Education page.