COVID-19: Higher education’s Apollo 13 moment?
“Houston, we have a problem”
- It has never been more important to identify and deliver business capabilities that support your institution in more agile ways
- The higher education sector will surely become even more competitive and there will be a greater drive for institutions with reduced resources to deliver an attractive value proposition and improved experience to students
- To deliver a modern user environment, universities will firstly need to invest in an effective IT infrastructure
In April 1970, an oxygen tank exploded on the Apollo 13 spacecraft and NASA was faced with a situation that it had not prepared for. Working at pace, they had to resolve 1,001 issues to safely return three astronauts to earth.
In the subsequent retelling of events in the 1995 film starring Tom Hanks, there is a famous scene in which the CO2 levels in the module are critically high—and there is a realisation that the spacecraft’s spare air filters are the wrong shape: one is round the other is square. A group of staff were corralled into a room and given a box of objects available to the crew and told to set about resolving the problem ASAP.
Earlier this year, a similar scenario was playing out across the global higher education sector. A collection of business processes, IT applications, technology components and so on were metaphorically thrown onto the table with the instruction, ‘Make teaching and learning virtual’.
Like the NASA staffers in the Hanks film, higher education professionals across the world are overcoming this challenge through their commitment and excellence. However, it needs to be recognised that the short-term ‘tape and string’ resolution is not the long-term solution. As Educause notes, this is the difference between ‘emergency remote teaching’ and ‘online learning’, but of course this is only part of the story.
The return to Earth
Higher education, like all sectors, will emerge from the coronavirus (covid-19) crisis and students and staff will be able to return to physical campuses, but can we really expect everything to be the same as before? If nothing else, let’s consider the potential operating environment and what the possible scenarios may include:
- The UK will be in a financial black hole and savings will need to be made. There will be no appetite to reduce funding to the key services that got us through the crisis, such as the National Health Service, the care sector, etc., so other areas will need to bear the brunt.
- Bloomberg is reporting that China is using the current situation to promote their own university offerings to prospective students. This is an example of what many see as, at the very least, a short-term issue in overall international student recruitment.
- Students may realise that distance learning is a real option—fewer expenses, studying at a time convenient for them whilst continuing to work, and so on may seem more appealing.
- Linked to the previous point, former higher education digital disruptors are now part of the ‘norm’ and will be seen as less of a risk to prospective students.
- Businesses sponsors will have less funds to spend on training and development.
Institutions in other parts of the world may also be facing changes in funding, financial struggles and similar scenarios to those highlighted above, but ultimately we’re all in the same boat and will need to address similar challenges and questions as we move forward.
Moreover, against this background the higher education sector will surely become even more competitive. Overall, there will be a greater drive for universities to balance how to deliver an attractive value proposition and experience to students with reduced resources. But how?
Re-assessing the new world
During the 2003 SARS outbreak in East Asia, retail habits changed forever. Confined to their homes (similar to the current scenario), consumers, for the first time, went online en masse, and Alibaba seized the opportunity to grow into the ‘Amazon of the East’. In 2019, the Boston Consulting Group published research indicating that during the last four economic downturns—including the one caused by SARS—14 percent of businesses on average actually grew, whilst 44 percent shrank.
The common key to growth was grasping the new experiences consumers had tried and accepted and would expect as the new standard going forward. Unsurprisingly, these were mostly delivered in an enhanced digital environment.
Universities need to quickly evaluate the relevance of current priorities against understanding customer expectations post COVID-19. Those institutions that meet this need the most effectively will potentially prosper—or at least survive.
Prior to COVID-19, the process to deliver real digital transformation in universities has often been slow and poorly focused. The appeal of the ‘shiny’ wizardry elements of digital delivery, e.g. flashy user portals, Alexa integration, etc., has, in my experience, misdirected resources and created an environment built on unstable and unsustainable IT infrastructure foundations.
Fortunately, with virtual learning environments (VLEs) and communication tools, like email and video conferencing (already mostly cloud-based), this has allowed universities to function, for a period, in terms of teaching and learning (T&L). However, T&L is the visible top of a huge bureaucratic-based ecosystem. Real issues will often occur during administrative heavy periods such as recruitment, admissions and registration, assessments, graduation, etc. Many universities will be, and are, paying the price for not resolving historical key issues which may include:
- Organic rather than structured operating model development
- Non-standardisation of process (driven by a silo mentality)
- Poor system integration
- Lack of data governance
These core business ‘backbone’ elements often don’t get mentioned in terms of digital transformation, it’s more artificial intelligence and Internet of Things, but they are critical to both allowing an organisation to change in a more agile way, while delivering effective administrative and customer experiences, including:
- Structured workflow
- Process automation (driven by standardisation and simplification)
- Real-time analytics
Getting these ‘backbone’ infrastructure elements established are at the heart of digitally native organisations like Amazon, Uber, etc.
More than ever before there is now a need to ensure the alignment of business and IT. In fact, we should probably call it ‘business and IT convergence’. The business model at the heart of universities has to become the digital business model, and to achieve this most universities will need to rethink their IT approach and dedicate the proper level of resourcing.
At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, higher education institutions were thrown into uncertain waters. They’ve had to react very quickly, gather resources and put all efforts into converting to online teaching—and in just a matter of weeks. Whether it is in the area of applications and admissions, tuition or teaching, COVID-19 is having a substantial impact on the way higher education operates. This will force many institutions to reimagine how the student experience and services are delivered.
Now is the time to understand that to deliver a modern user environment, universities will firstly need to invest in an effective IT ‘backbone’—especially at this moment when everything in higher education is reliant on technology and all those new state-of-the-art buildings stand empty.
Is it time to reassess your institution's priorities?
There will be tough decisions for universities to make in the months ahead and conflicting voices within the organisation, but if those conflicting voices are all allowed to win, as in the past, we will again end up with both ‘round and square filters’ waiting to trip us up down the line. (Following Apollo 13, NASA introduced a structure to ensure that all areas of the organisation aligned and, where possible, standardised).
This approach sits at the heart of Ellucian’s digital transformation framework. We are working with universities to ensure that there is full alignment between strategic goals and business delivery, identifying where duplication, redundancy and legacy exists and looking to eradicate where applicable.
So, as the post COVID-19 operational environment forces many institutions to re-evaluate their position, it has never been more important to identify and deliver business capabilities that support your institution in more agile ways. In our latest webinar, Ellucian’s Digital Transformation team discusses key business focus points to support your institution and how the adoption of a digital transformation framework helps to underpin change.