“Higher education institutions already possess one of the most important resources that can be harnessed for success: Data”

Digital Transformation: How Intelligent Institutions Are Achieving Higher Education Goals

Reading Time: 5:20 minutes

By Jerry Sim, Industry Business Architect, Public Services, Southeast Asia, SAP

The advent of university rankings

University rankings date back to around 1900 (UNESCO). In England, a study titled Where We Get Our Best Men then examined the backgrounds of the most prominent and successful men – with special reference to where each studied. This resulted in a list of universities ranked by the number of distinguished alumni they nurtured.

Over the years, the practice expanded. In 2003 and 2004, the release of the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) and the Times Higher Education World University Rankings respectively took the sector by storm. Before long, the popular QS World University Rankings also emerged. Since then, this topic has been in the spotlight in higher education and mainstream media while also attracting some controversy about its merits.

Today, while not an end-all objective, university rankings play an important role in a higher education institution’s overall competitiveness and it’s fairly natural why. The proliferation of higher education institutions (including unconventional ones like MOOCs) has left students with no shortage of options, but along with that greater uncertainty over the quality of what’s on offer. Coupled with increased competitiveness, possessing a degree from a reputable university is almost a pre-requisite for securing success in the job market.

Rankings and implications in the digital age

This has important implications.

Today, we are no longer at the beginning of the digital era. Accustomed to seamless transactions, quick responses and convenient experiences offered by Big Techs such as Amazon and Google, consumers – also students, faculty, researchers, policymakers and funding decision-makers – have come to expect more. To attain academic and employer reputations as well as attract reputable faculty and quality students, universities need to demonstrate they can run effectively and deliver superior experiences.

While it is true across sectors, this call to transform has become more urgent in universities.

First, its main customers are students. These digital natives began their learning journeys in the digital world and now continue to live in it. They demand experiences at least on par with current digital experiences, if not better, from those that are supposed to help them build a foundation to thrive in this world.

Second, faculty and researchers in demand are arguably some of the most brilliant minds of today. To successfully woo them, exceptional experiences such as smarter collaborative environments – not merely salary norms – play an important part of the value proposition.

Third, as foundations and catalysts of knowledge, wisdom, innovation and discourse, higher education institutions are held as beacons of the world. Society expects of them a higher level of integrity, accountability and transparency. In that regard, how a university is run in the present digital age contributes to their branding. Branding in turn not only attracts top talent, it also offers greater confidence to grantors and other business partners, whose contributions help sustain the institution’s ambitions.

Harnessing data for success: Some areas to consider

These challenges may sound complex, but higher education institutions already possess one of the most important resources that can be harnessed for success: Data. And that’s what is setting intelligent higher education institutions apart from the rest.

Here are some areas to think about in harnessing data to achieve successful outcomes:

  1. Differentiate better with personalized experiences to win students. From the time a prospective student makes contact, universities are already collecting data. Student background, educational background, co-curricular activities; the list goes on. Throughout the student’s lifecycle, more data is collected about the student’s progress. Dormant, this data is merely a repository. In action, this data can translate into a holistic, 360-degree view of the student – to enable personalized student experiences that differentiates a top-notch university from the rest.
  2. Attract and motivate the best faculty. The faculty staff has the most significant influence on all aspects of the institution – research, branding, quality of education, etc. Faculty-student interactions can greatly impact students’ perception of their university experience, which in turn contributes to their success academically and socially. It is no wonder that a lot of emphasis is placed on attracting and retaining the best talent who can drive desired positive outcomes. Understanding staff challenges and preferences, formulating the best packages and benefits, providing opportunities for continuous growth and devising a tailored development plan through contextual insights of each employee. These are just examples of the potential for institutions.
  3. Enhance student success to preserve academic reputation. By harnessing intelligent technologies, universities can significantly influence student success. For example, machine learning and predictive analytics can work iteratively through mountains of data on students on who dropped subjects, transferred, or have issues in learning systems. This can uncover students whose performance may decline so that universities can intervene before it happens.
  4. Reimagine university processes to fuel growth and innovation. While universities are focused on their core mission of education, it needs to be supported through the efficient and effective running of the core supporting operations – budgeting, finance, procurement, expenses, etc. A considerable percentage of a university’s funding comes from grants and donations from governments and corporates. Hence expenditure transparency and proper governance are of paramount importance. Key stakeholders need the real-time and accurate insights into the state of business, with the agility to take required decisions and actions.
  5. Engage the workforce to drive your people towards common goals. A PwC report shows that data-driven decisions is the number one HR capability required to create a thriving future. And business leaders agree. In a data-driven university, talent is optimized. Recruitment and reward are equitable and unbiased – based on insights from big data and advanced analytics. Coaching opportunities are harnessed at the right moments to motivate talent. Skill gaps are predicted and filled from appropriate talent pools. Career paths are charted to fulfil ambitions while meeting organizational goals. As automation eliminates some work, digital tools help universities identify optimal redeployment areas – based on personalized preferences. Across campuses, higher education institutions create a unified culture that drives its people towards common goals.

Winning hearts and minds while staying competitive

These examples are but a few ways a university can tap on technologies to demonstrate its commitment to quality, innovation, integrity and transparency. This directly contributes to its competitiveness and reputation.

As the debate on whether universities should be ranked continues, one thing’s clear. Higher education institutions committed to innovating digitally will be higher up in those lists. But that’s not just it. These institutions will also win the hearts and minds of their students, faculty, and workforce. Plus, earn the respect of other university stakeholders. They’ll also fulfil their missions as catalysts of knowledge, wisdom, innovation and discourse. These, I believe, are outcomes worth fighting for.

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