Digital innovation is likely to be a crucial differentiator between universities and other tertiary education providers if and when the Abbott Government passes legislation to remove the caps on student fees.
The legislation, which is expected to initially increase the price of university fees for popular degrees, also forces universities to compete on the same playing field as new market entrants.
The CIOs at several Australian universities feel this will drive the need to deliver digital experiences that help promote the institution to prospective students.
“Technology will play a key role in terms of delivering a delightful experience to a student and competing on that,” predicts William Confalonieri, chief digital officer at Deakin University.
Deakin has invested in a personalised online student portal that brings together synchronised calendars, alerts, emails, course timetabling and the posting of results, and Confalonieri has more planned in the future.
“I am focusing all my energies on putting forward initiatives that deliver our students a ‘wow’ experience across all channels,” he told iTnews. “I am trying to push the digital agenda to put my organisation at the front of the race in terms of differentiation.
Peter Nikoletatos, CIO at the University of New England, agrees that "digitalisation will be a key area of competitiveness for the future."
UNE is investing in the streamlining of admissions and automation of processes around applying for advanced standing to improve the experience of those enrolling in courses.
Several institutions have rolled out new wi-fi networks in recent months, including UNE and Flinders University, to ensure the on-campus experience lives up to student expectations. Deakin and UNE have further invested in both collaboration tools and video conferencing for the delivery of learning curriculum.
Elizabeth Wilson, CIO at Edith Cowan University, agrees that there will be heightened demand for delivery of digital services, but this won't necessarily be matched by frivolous spending on IT.
Uncapped fees will result in a generation of students more discerning about whether a degree offers value for money, she said.
"Most students have a clear understanding of the investment they are making in their future, and I imagine this will only increase in a fee deregulated environment. Some students may be more reluctant to pay for ‘bells and whistles’ rather than those elements that really do offer an excellent learning experience.
A new app or service will only help a university appear to be a better prospect if it is "part of a bigger picture that focuses on the student experience as a whole," she said, "not losing sight of the fact that our main purpose is to provide the best learning experience possible for students."
None of the three CIOs said they expect to be investing in an internal capability to build mobile and online apps - rather they will focus their efforts on integration such that they can, in the words of Confalonieri, "convert the digital cacophony students are faced with today into a digital symphony.”
Invariably many IT organisations will choose to become integrators and orchestrators of services and apps rather than building their own solutions from scratch, he said.
“It’s the only sustainable position,” he said. “The level of innovation required by the market can only be satisfied with an approach like that. The focus should shift from being a technology enabler to delivering a premium digital experience.”
"Yes, new online and mobile apps will be needed, but whether the University needs to ‘build’ them is a different question," Wilson agreed.
"I see internal IT departments becoming more of a broker for delivery of end-to-end business services. In a very uncertain world, the ability to be flexible, agile and sustainable are going to be key business drivers. That is not always as easy to achieve when we build our own."
William Confalonieri will discuss the ‘big picture thinking’ technology leaders require when he delivers a keynote speech at the CIO Strategy Summit in Sydney on August 20-21.