Why university leaders need to know their digital

Liam Earney headshot
Liam Earney

We are seeing different approaches to tackling digital transformation, and it’s inspiring to read such a vast array of examples from around the sector in our latest report.

A leadership meeting in a conference room.

Making technology seamless 

Our new report, Digital strategies in UK higher education: making digital mainstream, finds that more universities consider technology as ubiquitous and fundamental. Many organisations are intertwining digital strategies within overall institutional strategies, so technology is no longer a bolt-on, but an integral part of university life.  

This approach can enhance and improve existing systems, solve age-old problems and create new and impactful avenues not yet explored, better meeting the needs of students and staff. 

There’s certainly an appetite among universities to make meaningful change: some are even noting that, now digital is so vital to higher education, if you still need to write a digital strategy you should make it your last.

Of course, each university is on an individual path towards digital transformation. Some have made huge shifts, and some small steps.  

As metamorphosis goes, it is by no means a straightforward process. There is something to be learned from how each organisation is tackling the challenge (considering that every university has its own specific needs and culture). 

Leaders leading the way 

Digital is an investment that can take on some of the sector’s biggest challenges, from improving flexible teaching and learning, to boosting organisational efficiency, and offering greater resilience during disruption.

So, what do senior leaders need to do to truly harness these benefits? The answer? Lead by example. 

Successful digital change doesn’t just focus on technology: it’s about people, changes to cultures and working practices. Staff need to be given the time to improve their digital skills and the space and support to do so, which is easier said than done. 

Ideally, change needs to come from the top, with a digitally confident executive leadership and governing board modelling behaviours.  

Supporting staff to upskill 

Many universities have appointed a board member with digital expertise. For example, the University of Leeds is paving the way when it comes to leadership driving the shift to digital. 

In 2020, Professor Simone Buitendijk became vice-chancellor, bringing with her an impressive ten years of experience in digital education. Since then, the creation of a digital education service at Leeds has proved pivotal to the digital journey of the university.  

Once a small team, the service is now a critical function with more than 100 staff who support academic staff to assist Leeds’ digital transformation. 

The University of Wales Trinity Saint David (UWTSD) has adopted another approach. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it became clear that staff needed support with their digital skills and confidence to use remote teaching technology and they produced a strategy that focussed on people, not technology.  

UWTSD created a framework that set out a clear approach for blended learning and a digital skills website for staff and students. This helped them evaluate their digital capabilities, showing them what they could do to further develop their skills. 

Many have found that by putting skills development at the heart of a digital strategy, it becomes clear that digital skills are a shared organisational priority. A ‘we’re all in this together’ attitude has proven to go a long way for many universities when taking the first steps to becoming digitally capable organisations. 

A framework to help with digital strategies 

To help higher education on its journey towards digital transformation, we are working on a digital transformation framework. It will support HE leaders and organisations to create strategic visions for digital transformation, helping to devise actionable plans.  

There will be a focus on people and practices — not just processes and technology – along with advice on culture, capacity, investment, infrastructure, and digital skills.

We have worked closely with sector bodies and members to inform the framework, ensuring it will prove valuable in supporting the development of digital strategies and transformation across the sector. 

One day, I hope a culture of digital will be embedded into all strategies, seamlessly integrated within all plans so it is at the heart of everything; from research to teaching and learning, capital and expenditure, international objectives, and sustainability. 

Until then, it is heartening to learn from and applaud the examples of digital being used to elevate the sector, and exciting to think of where the next few years will take us. 

Find out more 

About the author

Liam Earney headshot
Liam Earney
Managing director HE and research, and executive director of digital resources

I am managing director of higher education and research at Jisc and lead HE member engagement through and with Jisc’s account management team.

I am accountable for our HE and research strategies and their implementation. This includes engaging with senior sector stakeholders and, internally, working closely with Jisc’s product directorates to ensure we meet sector needs. 

Alongside my role as managing director I am responsible for Jisc’s digital content and software negotiations, its provision of discovery services and its work in open research. My particular interest in the development of partnerships and collaborations at Jisc has seen me work with tertiary education, funders, cultural bodies, international organisations and the health sector to improve access to knowledge and information to support education and research.