The journey to education’s digital transformation

Education: a global view

Higher education providers face balancing act in pursuit of digital maturity

The higher education industry continues to make progress on its digital transformation journey. But with cost reduction a growing priority, financial concerns could yet get in the way of its digital aspirations.

Higher education (HE) providers have started to adapt to emerging technologies, as their digital transformation journey continues.

Our study, The Journey to Government’s Digital Transformation, suggests they have taken positive steps towards digital maturity in areas such as strategy, user focus and culture.

However, with cost reduction now a key priority for HE finance directors, questions remain about how they will fund digital investments over the long term.


Our report broadly reviews the technological disruptions facing public sector organisations, while highlighting the 3 different stages of their route towards digital maturity.

Focusing on 14 domains, including HE, transport, defence and healthcare, it classes them as ‘early’, ‘developing’ or ‘maturing’, depending on how far they are into their digital journey.

After questioning 1,200 government officials from around the world, along with 140 government leaders and outside experts, it finds:

  • 13 percent are now at the digitally maturing stage globally, compared to 7% in the UK
  • Almost 70 percent feel their digital capabilities lag behind the private sector
  • Citizen demand is the top driver behind digital transformation globally, compared to cost and budget pressures in the UK

HE: digital strengths and weaknesses

Globally, the HE domain appears to be one of the public sector's stronger performers globally when it comes to digital transformation.

With strategy, leadership, workforce skills, user focus and culture identified as the 5 key factors shaping the digital transformation process, our report looks at how HE and the other 13 domains measure up.

HE providers notably achieved encouraging ratings across the strategy, user focus and culture categories. They gained above-average scores in the following areas:

  • A clear and coherent digital strategy
  • Leadership’s understanding of digital trends
  • Customer/citizen demand as a driver of digital transformation
  • Objective of strategy to improve customer experience/engagement and transparency
  • Co-creation of digital services
  • Willingness to experiment and adopt an agile, ‘fail-fast, fail-quickly’ approach to risk
  • Digital fostering an innovative and collaborative culture

Along with HE, domains which performed strongly within the user focus category included education and ICT. We believe this trend can be explained by the nature of their work. In delivering knowledge services to the public, these domains need to react quickly to evolving customer demands. Digital technology has become one of many areas where they must now maintain a strong focus on user needs.

On the flipside, leadership and workforce skills proved less positive categories for the HE domain. It scored below-average ratings with regards to:

  • Leadership’s skills to oversee a digital strategy
  • Investment in workforce skills
  • Workforce skills to execute a digital strategy

Once again, we feel the nature of the work delivered by HE providers has caused these trends, leading to relatively weak levels of digital maturity among their workers.

By employing specialists, HE providers often focus on professional judgment, subject matter knowledge and interpersonal skills at the expense of organisational, digital and transformation skills. This may explain why the HE domain - along with healthcare and social services - has been slower than other industries to invest in the digital skills of its staff.

Looking ahead

Despite the willingness of HE providers to engage with citizens and shape digital services in collaboration with them, financial challenges may overshadow their technological aspirations over the long term.

Our latest HE Finance Directors Survey suggests that cost reduction is a top priority as are technology and enhancing the student experience.

With high price tags often attached to digital innovations, successfully marrying their conflicting commitments to cost reduction and technology may be a difficult balancing act for HE providers to pull off.

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