There is no doubt that the past twelve months has made everyone, regardless of sector, think on their feet and adapt to new ways of living and working. One sector that has shone throughout is Higher Education, switching their focus from centuries of face-to-face teaching to a completely digital provision within days, showing just how adaptable and resilient they are.
Daniel Barrass, Tribal’s Marketing Business Partner for HE sits down with Jon Baldwin, Managing Director for Higher Education at Jisc, to discuss the opportunities for future growth in HE as the world readies itself to go back to some sort of normality, as well as the importance of utilising your technology and having your systems and data in the cloud.
Daniel Barrass: What lessons has the Higher Education sector learnt in the last year?
Jon Baldwin: Higher Education has learnt that it can change, quickly. As we both know from our experience and practice, higher education has been (and still is) a fairly conservative sector and that conservatism coupled with the collegial nature of many universities has meant that change has been difficult to enact. There has been a pivot rom the February/March 2020 period of entirely face-to-face delivery to entirely online delivery. I think the sector has surprised itself and others. From February to June, learning continued - learners were supported, assessed and graduated, and it all went pretty well. What the quality of that provision is now the main point. They have proved they can change, but can they sustain it? Or is there going to be a collective sigh of relief whenever the pandemic ends and life trickles back to normal? If they are sustaining it, can they sustain it with the appropriate quality that ensures a blended version of higher education is the right model. They also learnt that the digital world isn’t as scary as once thought. The use of Zoom and Microsoft Teams has become normal to us, but not without a few hiccups!
The narrative in the press has been that face-to-face delivery is good and online is bad. Right now, the pressure on universities are rent strikes and the building movement for a reduction in fees because students are not receiving a face-to-face experience. For the funding regime for higher education (and the retention of the £9000 student fee) to hold, then the value of distance/online/blended learning needs to be demonstrated more clearly.
D: That is a great point. We often refer to ‘tuition fees’ but clearly it’s more than just the tuition, it’s more of an experience offered to students. With hindsight, if you were sat here a year ago, what advice would you have for a university leader?
J: I remember saying in an interview after the last Tribal HE Evening, that Higher Education needed to rediscover its relevance, there had been a lot of elitism in the press, discussion about over-paid Vice Chancellors taking and so on... I think this pandemic has helped them rediscover their relevance. The AstraZeneca and Oxford vaccines, the contribution universities around the world have made, the behavioural scientists who are interviewing across news channels; universities have rediscovered their relevance and the probing has fallen away. What I would be saying to leaders is, you cannot let that go.
I spoke to a Vice Chancellor back in June, at that point they were thinking about the new academic year and seeing out the old. This VC said to me, “I’ve given up, I’ve given up forcing the other academics to use the online tools; it’s not because they are bad teachers, it’s because they are good teachers and I want them on campus to teach the students face to face because I know that I’ve got to give our students the best experience I can when they are on campus, otherwise we will be hit with questions around value”. I completely understand this, but it’s not the right answer. The right answer is to build on the successes, accept not everyone is going to be a digital native, but not subscribe to the view that only on campus is best. They need to engage with their staff and student body, and they need to find creative and clever ways of offering the right choices to their students from now on.
For example, some research we did at Jisc as part of Learning & Teaching Reimagined, showed that students like this blended learning approach. It is convenient, they can access at a time of their choosing, it’s cheaper, there is no commute, there is a better work/life balance… The first year can see the value of this blended approach however the third year, who have had two years of partying alongside studying, feel differently. Some traditional universities will say that the campus experience is what we do, that’s how we exist and what makes us special. Other universities will pivot to mainly online delivery and then there will be plenty in the middle trying to blend both on-campus and remote delivery. But what do you do if a student says ‘ok, I really want to come to you, but I only want to come if I can do these modules from home, and these modules in person?’. How can a university resource that; where do you put the university choice points in the curriculum? I don’t know…
I was talking to another VC and he said what would be important is what the league table compilers use to demonstrate value; it should not be, but it will.
The other challenge is, the other ‘customer’ to a university is the government and right now, this relationship is strained to say the least. It is about student choice, it is about building personal learning journeys and so with the pressure from the student and the pressure from the government, the university gets caught in the middle. The question is how universities make the changes that are required? In Wales and Scotland, we are seeing a coming together of Higher Education and Further Education, but not so much in England.
D: What impact has the pandemic had on the technology strategy of universities? You have just articulated that it is not just a technology issue to be solved by tech savvy people but likewise you can’t just have academics that want to teach face to face - you need a real mixture of people.
J: Very interesting question. When we launched the Learning and Teaching Reimagined report in early November, it was chaired by the interim VC/Principal at University of Dundee and we had four Vice Chancellors present on what it felt like for them through and post lockdown. They were all so honest about digital leadership and that’s not something the average VC or university management team is used to exploring. They are used to building and creating student hubs, they are not used to thinking in a different way. I saw a huge opportunity for Jisc and I have put in place a small consultancy team to help universities get going with a digital strategy that offers an inclusive model. I was on a call recently with fifteen people at one of our universities about this very topic, they are quite far ahead in terms of thinking holistically about what it means for the institution. For me, the future of the pedagogical and support models of the university is being viewed differently and through a primarily digital lens and for a company like Tribal, it should offer all manner of opportunity. You’ve got the student management system in the majority of UK universities to support it, you’ve got a window into the experience students have through the Student Barometer, you’ve got some evidence of what it all costs through Financial Benchmarking, data and the use of it, is going to have its day I think.
I saw a huge opportunity for Jisc and I have put in place a small consultancy team to help universities get going with a digital strategy that offers an inclusive model. I was on a call recently with fifteen people at one of our universities about this very topic, they are quite far ahead in terms of thinking holistically about what it means for the institution. For me, the future of the pedagogical and support models of the university is being viewed differently and through a primarily digital lens and for a company like Tribal, it should offer all manner of opportunity. You’ve got the student management system in the majority of UK universities to support it, you’ve got a window into the experience students have through the Student Barometer, you’ve got some evidence of what it all costs through Financial Benchmarking, data and the use of it, is going to have its day I think.
D: Does it pave the way for Cloud? With an uncertain future, do we need to be more responsive and agile and open up about software as a service? Are there now more compelling reasons for a university to move to the cloud in terms of security and scalability?
J: For sure. I think for flexibility, ability to scale, and cost. When COVID pandemic started, I was in Australia. They were already becoming aware of the fiscal impact of Chinese students not coming to Australia and we watched and listened and tried to understand. I got back to the UK and it was clear that this was a global problem but this issue in the UK wasn’t fiscal at first, it was ‘how do we deliver to our existing students?’ as we were halfway through the academic year whereas Australia was at the beginning. It then switched. The idea that you can engage with a trusted partner that can run your systems for you in a managed service way has gained more traction. It’s understanding, who is that trusted partner?
D: That is true, and something Tribal’s Chief Technology Officer, Mike Cope talks about in his recent blog.
We talked a little bit about students before, it’s surprised everybody how well institutions got to grips with the change so fast, how well do you think universities have done in terms of keeping students up to date and making them feel included and valued?
J: I think it has been varied. I think in the large part, universities have done ok. The absence of negative headlines is a barometer of that. Obviously, there are places where things have not gone so well and have been all over the press. But by and large, I think students at the beginning were forgiving. They could see it was a crisis, they could see it was unexpected and they were very tolerant. Some universities have been a bit opportunistic and have seen it as a way of reducing reliance on some of the professional service practices and structures. One university said to me, “I am sick of this student experience mantra, what does it even mean? There isn’t a student experience, every students experience is different”. That is an interesting yet obvious comment.
This pandemic has made institutions think more about the individual, for example a mature student trying to be a parent and study and hold down a job, compared to a middle-class student that parties and wants to experience living away from home. How students get admitted is a live topic, UCAS is constantly reviewing and developing how it operates, the fact they came out early with their proposals before UUK did, the fact the minister waded in, there is some challenge for brands out there. I think the whole way students get admitted to university is going to be up for grabs and as a technology provider in that space, what Tribal have in SITS and the development capacity, I’d keep an eye on that.
D: Thank you Jon, so engaging and valuable listening to what you have got to say. I’m sure many people will agree with the points you have raised, and we wait with bated breath for what the coming year will bring.
Jon Baldwin is Managing Director Higher Education at Jisc. Jon’s role is to lead HE member engagement through and with the account management team. Jon is developing and coordinating Jisc’s HE strategy and its implementation. This includes engaging with senior sector stakeholders and, internally, working closely with product executive directors to ensure sector needs are met.