The Coronavirus is having a huge impact on higher and further education, as well as economies and lives across the globe. The education landscape changed, virtually overnight, when on 23rd March 2020, the UK followed many other countries into ‘lockdown’ in an attempt to slow the rate of infection of Covid-19.
Enforced ‘working from home’ and ‘learning from home’ orders meant that universities and colleges across the UK shut their doors, not knowing when they might be able to welcome students back again.
As I write, a ‘new normal’ is emerging as we move through the summer holiday period. However, with school and college leaver examinations cancelled, two-metre social distancing still in place, and the threat of a ‘second-wave’ of the virus in October 2020, HE and FE institutions are in unchartered waters.
Here at Tribal, we’ve been speaking to UK universities and colleges to gain insights into their institutions’ current business needs and how they are transforming their digital operations to meet challenges head on and exceed expectations in the current climate.
To read these interviews in their entirety you can download our newly launched ‘CIO Guide’ - but here are the three clear messages that rang loud and clear throughout these interviews:
- Cloud technologies that facilitate recruitment, retention and student engagement have never been more vital to operations.
- Without cloud-enabled systems, business continuity, virtual teaching and remote learning through this period would have been near impossible, and
- Covid-19 has highlighted pressure points for institutions and helped IT teams prioritise next steps on their digital transformation.
Cloud technologies that facilitate recruitment and retention
Even prior to the outbreak – retention was high on the agenda for HE and FE providers. Gartner reports that a decline in retention is driving the need for a more personalised, engaging student experience to maintain enrolment. This is backed by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) which reports the numbers of students dropping out of university has been increasing steadily over the last 7-10 years, with the current average dropout rate at over 7%. By 2021, more than 30% of institutions will be forced to execute on a personalisation strategy to engage students and maintain enrolment.
It’s why many HE and FE institutions are now implementing CRM solutions, to address their recruitment, retention and engagement challenges.
In his interview, Gareth McAleese, Head of Enterprise Applications and Data and Chair of ucisa (the member-led professional body for digital practitioners within education), highlighted the strategic importance of cloud-based CRM solutions in building better student relationships in HE and FE education:
“Marketing, recruitment, and retention is critical at the moment, and particularly now in light of the additional pressures of Covid-19.
First and foremost [Microsoft Dynamics 365], gives our applicants and students a great experience with the ability to self-serve; it ensures that they can find and access sensitive support when they need it via single sign-on to an easy to use portal. Of course we needed to develop processes to wrap around the technology, but we’re now able to deliver services that students never have to wait for. Student wellbeing is high on our agenda, and on our students’.”
Cloud-enabled business continuity and security
Business continuity, particularly in the current climate, is a red-hot topic, and it’s driving universities and colleges to migrate more services to the cloud, faster. In an interview with Peter Ashton, CIO at Liverpool John Moores University, he shared how vital cloud services have proved in the recent months:
“Without our cloud and mobile first strategy, we wouldn’t have moved away from our on premise Exchange solution, and we’d have really struggled to operate in the current climate. Cloud gives us business continuity and flexibility at nearly the same levels of efficiency as our on premise versions of these solutions.”
The outbreak of Covid-19 is also changing user behaviour and adoption of new ways of working at an unprecedented rate, according to Peter Dewhurst, CIO at Blackpool and The Fylde:
“Following our implementation of Office 365, adoption of Teams was quite slow as we had other well-used communications tools in place, however, we’ve seen rapid change and Teams usage ramping up since the lockdown due to Covid-19.”
One of the other business continuity advantages of cloud solutions is that the provider that writes the software is also responsible for maintaining and supporting the solution. Head of Digital Applications and Portfolios at Kingston University, Tiger Wang, explained during his interview why maintaining ‘peak operations’ by using the latest versions is increasingly important as universities and colleges become the target of threat actors:
“Capacity, security and business continuity are also concerns, particularly with the increasing number of attacks on university networks and on premise infrastructure. High frequency service and phishing attacks have trebled recently. Cloud is better protected when its enforced by policy and automated process.”
Highlighting IT pressure points
Speaking to CIO of Durham University, John Hemingway, at the beginning of the outbreak, he summarised the urgency of the situation and the impact it has had on Information Service providers in HE and FE settings:
“We’re in a fortunate position here at Durham University in that our technology ecosystem already enables remote working and ensures business continuity. My team is currently working on eight mini-projects to ensure productivity can be maintained and services are uninterrupted during this period. However, Covid-19 has done a lot to highlight our two biggest pressure points – our on premise finance system (Oracle), and our Student Information System (SIS), which is currently only accessible via VPN.
We were due to deploy these services to the cloud within the next 8 months, along with our VLE – but due to remote-working pressures, we’re now looking at how we can bring this forward.”
If you’re considering moving your recruitment, retention and engagement solutions to the cloud, download the guide today for more insights and top tips.