What's the outlook for higher education?

By Peter Nikoletatos, Industry Director – Education, TechnologyOne

The last 18 months have been like no other in living memory. The academic year was thrown into chaos, bringing major disruption for higher education institutions. International students were unable to enter the country, while students already here faced lockdown. Many of them lost their ability to earn the means of paying their tuition fees.

With a massive loss of income from fee paying students, institutions were forced to reduce teaching and research staff—as well as administration and support staff, including IT. From my perspective, there are now three areas that institutions must pay attention to in the short- and medium-term in order to remain competitive and thrive in this ‘new outlook’.

Deliver a distributed model

Online and remote learning was an option most institutions offered, but in 2020 it became the sole way of delivering higher education. This will remain more or less true in 2021 and potentially well into the next few years; perhaps the classroom has now flipped.

Student experience has always been an important differentiator between institutions; in recent years that has included a consumer-quality interactive experience.  However, despite the huge amount of technology investment that has taken place in recent years, our Global Mobility Program study, found that 64% of UK students described their digital interaction with their place of study as ‘functional but uninspiring’.

Endless delivery of learning via web conferencing tools is not sustainable. It’s too easy for students to get bored, feel peripheral and simply disengage. This means institutions must prioritise investment in smarter ways to deliver a truly interactive and effective learning experience that keeps students engaged. That will call for increasing investment in remote technology that enables a distributed teaching and team participation model.

Manage student and staff wellbeing

The wellbeing of students and staff has always been a challenge in maximising retention and academic success. Early indications are that 2020 saw a meteoric rise in issues—and I believe we are yet to witness the full scale of the problem.

The morale of staff has also taken a blow, with some of the top performers taking redundancies to enter the private sector. Some remaining staff have lost research funding and working hours, while all staff have been under pressure to deliver services remotely, some for the first time.

Financial and emotional stress has become a significant factor throughout academic life—which means that institutions will need to redefine and model their approach to pastoral care.

Adapt to compete

Higher education has withstood many changes over time, and the current crisis will eventually pass. However, it's those institutions that invest wisely now that will prosper when the world as we knew it returns to a reset level of normality.


It is clear that higher education institutions will need to adapt their digital infrastructure – including the implementation of SaaS-based solutions – at the speed and scale needed to address the changing needs of the student population.

It is also crucial for universities to fully encompass student wellbeing and mental health when developing their digital infrastructures. They will need to address the wider problems caused by digital tools becoming the main form of student interaction, the unsuitability of distance learning for some, and the risks posed by increased online and social media activity.

The higher education institutions that achieve this will be the ones that appeal to the best students and academics, and prosper in the future.

Publish date

09 Apr 2021

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