Working in universities in the digital age

05 May 2024      Martin Higgs, AUDE Communications and Campaigns Manager

Digital transformation is something most, if not all, universities were working towards.  What has changed, as a result of a combination of the pandemic and responding to the expectations of the TikTok generation, is that this change will be delivered swiftly. This article is written by the Browne Jacobson team ahead of the UHR 2024 Conference.

Institutions need to ensure that their digital transformation strategies will deliver a superb digital student experience which is comparable to other leading digital platforms like Amazon and Netflix and are implemented in a way that ensures that they are embraced by both staff and students or face being left behind.

Recruiting digital natives

Andy Westwood Professor of Government Practice and Vice Dean for Social Responsibility at the University of Manchester highlighted productivity and growth as key themes in his plenary at the British Universities Finance Directors Group (BUFDG) Finance Festival 2024.

He underlined the significant financial pressures that universities would face in the coming years and it is clear digitalisation can and should play a major role in helping universities recruit the new generation of digital native students and help deliver on the productivity and growth agenda in what will be a challenging economic climate.

Universities have always been seen as one of the key players in creating greater opportunities in disadvantaged areas and the pressure on universities to deliver on this will be significant in the coming years. Universities will need to find new ways for students to access courses while optimising the use of their assets; business as usual will not be an option.

HR professionals know that delivering change on the scale required depends on people and winning hearts and minds. This is reinforced by EY in their report ‘How can people power your university’s digital transformation?’  HR professionals have a key role to play in the transformation to a digital university and need to be involved at the start as part of the project planning process.

What will the university’s estate look like?

One key aspect of any digitalisation strategy is how institutions go about redesigning their estates and in doing so how they ensure students and staff see the potential benefits before the project starts and feel the benefit once the project is implemented allowing staff more flexibility in the way that they work and ensuring students enjoy a wider choice in terms of how they engage with their courses.

Whilst for many going to university is as much about the experience of being at university as it is the course they study for others studying digitally may be the only or preferred option. The university estate needs to recognise both models and to consider how it creates flexible space which meets the expectation of students and staff alike.

The digital workplace

More flexible space will also need a flexible workforce willing to embrace change in how they work to facilitate the new way of delivering their courses and the changes in the estate. The key to achieving this is to ensure that those who will be affected (staff and students) do not feel that a solution has been imposed upon them but instead that they have been at the centre of the project. This will be particularly true for staff when it comes to changes to their working spaces and or the expectation that they will become proficient in delivering content for digital material so courses can be delivered on-line.    

One of the challenges is that there are likely to be different attitudes towards digitalisation including from different generations and reflecting differing roles within the university but senior academic leaders need to lead the change. Early consultation and engagement with the trade unions will be key as will selling the vision of what the digital workplace looks like.

Who owns online teaching materials?


An important, and often sensitive, area to check is ownership of online teaching materials. This is an important element because these may not be as much in control of universities as they would wish. If online teaching materials have been created by an academic (as opposed to a student) the law says copyright is owned by the university if created in course of their employment, but universities sometimes say in their policies that actually the academics can own the copyright in some such materials themselves and just grant the university a licence.  

As well as establishing the legal position early on, thought needs to be given to the practicalities and avoiding IP ownership disputes.

Flexible working

The strategy around flexible working will become ever more important. Will the current strategy and policies result in the right balance to deliver the changed delivery models? Will there be sufficient resource at the required times? Are there any issues in implementing reasonable adjustments for disabled staff? These are just a few of the many questions that need to be considered.

In summary, digital transformation is far more than just a standalone project or another buzzword, the principles cut across the entire university and beyond, yet it all starts with your staff, who are always at the heart of any change.

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