Cara Skikne

Digital maturity, the next test for universities after Covid-19



Why Covid-19 was a digital moment of truth for universities 

The pandemic confronted universities with the urgency and inevitability of digital transformation. The immediate challenge was to take teaching online, and many universities passed this test with flying colours.

Naturally, there were problems. Most had to do with how you deliver a consistent online experience for students — inside the virtual classroom but also outside it. The disruption to the day-to-day business functioning of universities exposed inefficiencies caused by poorly integrated systems and departments. And how do you plan for the future when the world has turned upside down? The Black Swan event of Covid-19 made predictions based on previous enrolment figures particularly unstable.

The lockdown experience told universities what they knew already: that digital transformation is a priority, requiring a clear and university-wide strategy.

To plan such a strategy, you need to know where you are starting from. To help universities identify the gaps in the digitalisation of their workflows and processes, Studyportals has developed a Digital Maturity Roadmap for three main business areas: Strategy & Planning, University Marketing, and Student Administration. We identify five stages of digital maturity from Initial to Conceptual, Defined, Integrated, and finally, Transformed.

In universities at the early stages of digitalisation, planning, marketing, and student administration are usually separate, even siloed, business functions, but that separation becomes increasingly meaningless as the digital landscape matures. In a Transformed environment, systems, processes and workflows synergise, working seamlessly together with the single goal of optimising the student experience in the most cost-effective way.

That experience starts well before the student enrols or arrives (if only virtually) at the university of his or her choice. How they make that choice is largely down to marketing.


The business of marketing

If you don’t know what you’re getting right, how can you grow to the next level?

One of the goals of digital transformation of a university hoping to appeal to international students is to professionalise and automate its Marketing and Recruitment.

If your website is little more than a digital facsimile of the university prospectus, you are at the Initial phase of your digital journey. And how will students find your site? A step up in digital maturity is to join the programme listings on online education search platforms like Studyportals’ Bachelorsportal and Mastersportal. Digital promotions via listings, banners or email campaigns (which we can help orchestrate) will raise the profile of your programmes. By segmenting your target audience (Conceptual) you make your interactions with (prospective) students more relevant, especially if you extend that conversation to social media.

As you progress in your journey towards digital maturity, recruitment numbers rise. A qualitative improvement that would boost enrolment even further is to systematically analyse your conversion rates and evaluate how well each digital channel is performing. This is where a lot of universities get stuck.

Studyportals helps them break the marketing logjam, and progress towards the Defined stage and beyond of their digital journey. The first step is often a tracking audit and the implementation of online analytics, allowing universities to optimise their websites for conversion (stage 4: Integrated).

This is one of the consultancy-type projects which Studyportals carried out for the Paris-based university Sciences-Po in 2017. One of the main recommendations that emerged was that they needed a Customer Relations Management (CRM) system to capture student leads. ‘They couldn’t follow up properly on student information requests,’ says Thijs van Vugt, director of Analytics and Consulting at Studyportals. ‘The University was spending a lot of money on marketing but couldn’t measure how successful that really was because it didn’t know which students came in through which channel. Besides, we also helped them with tracking on their website’ Our partnership helped the university considerably improve their leads nurture and management.

The CRM system is an aspect of Student Administration which in universities with a high degree of digital maturity is integrated with marketing channels and the tracking and conversion optimisations implemented for those channels.

By helping orchestrate these integrations, Studyportals gives universities a holistic view of each student across his or her entire ‘lifecycle’ which is a characteristic of digital maturity. Such an end-to-end view is important because the lead time from initial contact to the moment of conversion — that is to say, enrolment — can be longer than a year.

That trajectory towards enrolment has to be planned carefully and to be placed in the wider context of other student services such as accommodation, financing, pastoral care, and so on. Studyportals can really leverage what it knows about international students to help universities design and build the best online experience.

In 2020, Studyportals had 45 million visitors weighing their options across 165,000+ courses in 116 countries. This gives us access to a huge pool of up-to-date information about student needs, preferences and intentions. This data has the potential to be transformative for the Strategy and Planning of universities.


There are no crystal balls, only data.

Make the best decisions that you can, using real-time data

The reason universities stagnate in their journey towards digital maturity for Strategy and Planning is lack of relevant data. Data sources are incompletely integrated across university business functions, and the third-party data supporting the decision-making is lagging actual events. Identifying critical data and KPIs (Initial) and generating high-level reports to inform long-term decisions (stage 3: Defined) will not lead to optimal results if those data are old or confined mainly to the universities’ own enrolment figures.

Third-party data such as that compiled by HESA or UNESCO is helpful. The UK is almost unique in the completeness and detail of its academic data, but HESA and any other enrolment statistics tend to be a year or two out of date. This means that UK universities relying on HESA are devising course strategies for 2022 and beyond based on information from 2018.

And universities in the US, where the data is extremely fragmented, do not have access to anything remotely comparable with HESA.

Data provided by Studyportals is effective and actionable because it describes the real-time behaviour of a massive cohort of students across a comprehensive range of disciplines and sub-disciplines in almost every nation of the world.

The type and range of data that universities want Studyportals to curate typically depend on their level of digital maturity. Universities in the Initial or Conceptual stages often need institutional benchmarks to identify KPIs, or gain an understanding of the competitor landscape. As an adjunct and extension of such projects, Studyportals audits the portfolio of programmes and services offered by a university and/or analyses markets where that university is hoping to raise its profile.

A much more integrated and transformative approach is to interrogate Studyportals data to track student demand or answer specific questions. Such data is organised (and intuitively visualised) in so-called market insights dashboards.

For example, a faculty wants to grow its market presence in Central Africa. ‘We can really map the relevant data,’ says Van Vugt, ‘and show that students coming out of Uganda or Nigeria are mainly looking at these disciplines or sub-disciplines in these countries. We can correlate that data to other pertinent information such as tuition fees. This enables a university to calibrate its offering based on hard data, not anecdotal evidence — which isn’t evidence at all of course.’

A dashboard is especially insightful where it tells a counter-intuitive story.

‘Take India, a huge market for international universities,” says Van Vugt. “Most people in this market would say that Indian students are predominantly interested in Engineering and Technology, or STEM subjects generally. Overall, that’s very true, but it makes a huge difference whether you look at the data coming out of Chennai, Delhi or Mumbai. It turns out that demand from Mumbai and Delhi is significantly lower than demand from Chennai for Engineering and Technology. If you’re a university of technology hoping to make headway in the Indian market, that is massively important information.’

Universities planning departments do not rely blindly on these data; what matters to them is that the Studyportals dashboards quantify market trends that were previously observed anecdotally by the recruitment team and from other sources.

‘It’s not the Holy Grail, as no single data source is,’ says Van Vugt, ‘but our dashboards are a very powerful tool for universities to plan future programmes and capacity with real-time insight.’

In the end, successful digital transformation means putting the student first every step of the way, and you cannot do that without knowing as much about your (prospective) students as possible. The real-time data in the Studyportals dashboards is a crucial step towards achieving that; it allows universities to almost overhear the conversations students are having with their future: a future you want to help shape.


The Digital Maturity Roadmap

Studyportals was a runaway success when it launched because it met huge pent-up demand from students eager to research studying abroad in much the same way as they were already researching what jeans to buy, what room to rent, what bank account to open, and so on.

It turns out that in the process of informing millions of students about the opportunities open to them, Studyportals found out a lot about the students themselves. We offer this data to universities in many, often highly customised, forms but always with the same object: to better equip them to make insightful decisions.

Businesses do not digitalise their operations for the sake of it; they do it to work more efficiently and to achieve scalable growth. Universities are no different; to prosper in a post-Covid environment, they have to seize digital opportunities.

Our Digital Maturity Roadmap shows you where those opportunities lie for you.


Get in touch with us to see how to best help your institution develop a strong digital strategy

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