While 2023 saw the return to ‘normal service’ at many of the country’s higher education institutions – international enrolments have rebounded, and in-person learning has regained popularity – the fall-out from the Covid-19 crisis continues to be felt.
Funding remains tight, on both the research and operational fronts. Leadership groups continue to grapple with competing priorities and are having to make hard decisions about where short and long-term investment is best directed.
So, how will universities spend their hard-won, IT dollars in 2024? These are some of the areas I expect to see them hone in on.
Enhancing the student experience
Like it or not, today’s universities operate on commercial lines. To fund teaching and research, they rely heavily on revenue from international students, and, to a lesser degree, the fees paid by local students. Competition for enrolments from both categories is fierce and it has intensified further, post-Covid-19. That’s forcing institutions to focus more heavily on the experience they offer students, both on campus and in the digital realm, in a bid to capture their ‘custom’.
Providing more personalised and ‘curated’ learning experiences can increase student engagement and retention and, for that reason, it’s likely to be a focus for leadership teams with an eye on the bottom line.
Developing the student journey
So is expanding the student journey, from a single engagement during youth to a whole of life interaction between individual and institution. In 2024, university has ceased to be a place one attends once, prior to embarking on a linear career. These days, more Australians are stepping from education to employment and back again, often several times, as they pivot between occupations and industries, in response to changing conditions and market demand.
Universities need to evolve apace, so they can cater for those lifelong learning needs. That calls for the development of ever more flexible learning opportunities – think micro and remote courses – and an investment in systems and processes that allow them to maintain connections with students and alumni through all life’s ages and stages.
Adopting and managing AI
Artificial intelligence (AI) has been squarely in the spotlight since the launch in late 2022 of Chat Generative Pre-Trained Transformer, aka ChatGPT. Across the country, organisations of all stripes and sizes are pondering the threats and opportunities it poses, to their operations and business models.
Universities included. All are attempting to determine how such technologies are best integrated – or excluded – from the teaching and learning environments, and it’s fair to say the debates are far from settled. What’s become immediately clear though, is the fact that policies around students’ use of AI will need to be supported by sophisticated plagiarism detection solutions.
On the administration front, meanwhile, generative AI-powered applications are likely to be deployed in more innocuous and productive ways. They include enhancing the student experience, by making it simpler to navigate campuses and curricula, and providing students with personalised push notifications.
Safeguarding systems and data
The risk of cyber-attack is real and rising, and the higher education sector is not exempt from these risks.
Some universities may be hamstrung by budgetary constraints – doing more with less has long been the mantra of thinly stretched ICT departments across the sector – but not responding accordingly, is no longer an option. Now is not the time to be reducing spend in the areas of cyber or resiliency. Instead, we need to rethink what is truly important and realign our outcomes. Striving for efficiency is as important as ever with these new disruptions.
Although the reputational damage in the event of an incident or attack is unlikely to be as severe as that faced by the likes of Medibank and Optus – Deakin and QUT’s 2022 attacks did not become front page fodder for weeks on end – protecting staff and student data and the intellectual property generated by research programs is paramount.
Reputational damage is absolutely a major and relevant risk. Optus is a perfect example; they lost a number of customers post the cyber breach, but since the recent network outage, Vodafone and Telstra have both seen significant uptake in new customers.
The question is, will students switch to other universities if they lose confidence. Or will we see research institutions double down on their selection parameters when considering who they partner with?
Hence, we can expect to see universities leveraging technologies such as AI and machine learning, in a bid to strengthen their cybersecurity posture and stay a step or two ahead of the ‘adversary’ over the upcoming year.
Enabling a stronger sector and better educational outcomes
In 2024, digital technologies will be integral to the higher education experience in Australia. Institutions that fail to implement ICT systems and solutions that service, support and safeguard students and staff may find their appeal diminished. Smart, strategic planning and investment are essential, and the stakes have never been higher.
How Atturra can help
Atturra provides capability across student administration and experience, operations, institutional digital transformation and more. Check out our education industry page and have a read about how Atturra helped Victoria University here. Reach out to our higher education industry lead, Amanda Healy for a discussion about how we can help your institution.
About the author
Amanda Healy is Atturra’s Higher Education Industry Lead. She is based in Melbourne and has over 15 years of experience in strategic planning and execution, sales & business development, quality assurance, and change management across the higher education, software sales and technology industries.