Few in the higher education world would immediately think of Latin America, India or Africa when looking for the ‘best in class’ universities in handling the digital transformation, which turned even the most conservative institutions into online teaching organisations during the COVID-19 crisis.

Many might consider the usual suspects, such as the Open University in the United Kingdom or Georgia Tech in the United States, would be the front-runners for digital maturity.

But research carried out by LEK Consulting, a specialist education practice with worldwide clients, challenges the old assumption that you should look to the US or Europe for market leaders in tertiary education trends.

Survey of 17,000 students

The research included an international survey of 17,000 students, which had 70% of respondents saying they felt they were being taught in institutions “not digitally mature” when the coronavirus struck.

Some universities were even described as “digitally distraught” in the research findings, which was  produced by LEK for the International Finance Corporation (IFC), part of the World Bank Group.

Top performers use holistic approach

Ashwin Assomull, LEK’s senior partner

In an interview with me for University World News, LEK’s senior partner, Ashwin Assomull,  said while higher education had been slower to embrace technology than healthcare and consumer business, they found market leaders spread across the global higher education sector.

He said university rectors, presidents and vice-chancellors needed to understand it was not enough to simply embrace digital learning.

“What made top performers standout was their holistic approach to digital transformation –  rather than simply focusing on excellent online teaching,

He said the ‘best in class’ universities for digital transformation “typically added value and enhanced the traditional learning experience, while improving the operational efficiency of the higher education institution”.

They optimised performance in student recruitment, using a mix of technology and call centres, to improve the student experience and reduce costs and improved outcomes by implementing blended learning with elements of interactivity and personalisation. They also involved academic teams in creating content and they didn’t forget life services and used online job portals and career counselling to improve employment metrics.

“When people look for best practice, they tend to look at the US and Europe, but we found pockets of best practice in some of the emerging markets of Brazil, Mexico, India and South Africa and among private organisations rather than better known public universities”, he said.

Best in class

According the LEK survey, the leading higher education performers for digital transformation were Anima Educacao and the Afya Education Group, both in Brazil.

Next “best in class” were Manipal Academy of Higher Education in India, the Lottus Education Group in Mexico, Minerva Education in the USA and the Honoris Group based in South Africa.

All but Afya, which is the largest medical focused group of institutes in Brazil, are multi-disciplinary institutions. Only Minerva uses a completely online mode of learning. The rest use a blended approach to learning.

Thijs van Vugt, director of analytics and consulting at the European-based international study choice platform Studyportals, told University World News that he wasn’t surprised by the findings.

HE still a conservative sector

“Private providers in less obvious places often have to work harder to try and distinguish themselves and don’t suffer from complacency, which you see quite a bit in what is still a very conservative and conventional sector.”

Studyportals is about to launch its own study to find the most “digitally mature” universities who have a digitally integrated marketing and recruitment strategy across online and offline channels, and where all information systems – Customer Relations Management (CRM), student records, alumni and the like, are fully integrated and mined and analysed continuously,” said Thijs.

Training for staff and students

Last point about the key findings from the LEK research, which included interviews with 35 private and public sector higher education leaders in North America, Latin America, China, Australia and India as well as responses from 17,000 students, is the need for higher education to pay much greater attention to training – and not just for their staff, but also their students, during digital transformation.

It is not enough to simply invest in the latest digital equipment and software and hope that everyone can use it effectively.

  • This blog is an abridged version of my feature article published in University World News on 13 February, 2021, under the headline: Who is ‘best in class’ for HE digital transformation. 

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