How Universities Can Drive Digital Transformation Change to Meet the Needs of the Tik Tok Student Generation

To better engage with the next generation of students, universities must embrace digital transformation and build an environment more appropriate for the digital native, argues Stuart Avery, CEO of Great State. Find out more in this guest article…

It’s well documented that today’s students are the connected generation, who’ve never known a world without smartphones and who don’t just consume the internet, they create it on a daily basis. They live their lives through social media and by interacting with digitally native brands.

It’s therefore not surprising that today’s cohort carry an expectation that high quality and personalised digital experiences will be reflected in their university lives too.

Whilst it would be hard to find a university that didn’t have an ambition to be more digital, for many they’re simply not set up to deliver high quality digital services and experiences at the pace required. Facing challenges that span everything from leadership and cultural change, through to legacy technology and even just being able to hire the right digital talent.

The result – an emerging digital experience gap between what students expect from their universities and what is being offered.

Our own research shows that 91% of students believe that a universities’ digital offering should be at least as strong as face-to-face lectures and life on the physical campus.

The reality is that when it comes to digital transformation in higher education, many institutions are playing catch up. As has been the case with many other digitally disrupted sectors, some will be left behind, the leaders will take advantage, and even digitally native, legacy free contenders may emerge.

With our research showing that the digital experience is a key factor in the university selection process, and students increasingly looking for value from their investment in their higher education, universities can no longer be complacent when it comes to digital transformation. Currently universities are in a ‘grace period’ of students tolerating an average digital experience. How long that allowance will last is unknown, especially as we get further away from the pandemic and as the sector leaders raise the bar for digital experience. Without a change in mindset, students’ expectations will outstrip universities’ ability to keep up.

Digital Leadership & Driving a Customer-Centred Agenda

For many of the institutions we meet with, leadership is either one of the greatest enablers to change or one of the largest barriers to it. The leadership required to drive not just a digital agenda, but also a service or customer-centred culture, are two challenges that go hand in hand.

The more progressive institutions have senior buy in. They have a senior leader who sets a clear ambition, ensures cross departmental co-operation, and drives pace.

In addition to the above is the need for a cultural change which treats students as customers or uses customer centred thinking throughout the design process. This is something which can sometimes prove controversial but is also misunderstood.

Whilst it would be right to say that students are paying customers and should therefore be treated as such. In reality, the relationship between students and universities is much more complex and far from simply transactional. However, creating a service-driven culture centred around end-user needs is what’s needed to meet the expectations of digitally native students.

The leaders in the sector have already adopted this thinking. They’ve been looking outside the sector for best practice and appointing senior talent from organisations such as consumer brands who are used to working at pace, thinking customer centrically, and for whom using data to optimise an outcome is second nature.

Alongside this, getting the right blend of external support and challenging procurement norms to deliver at pace is also needed. For many there is a need for enterprise wide thinking and some large technology change, often taking several years. However visible change to end users often can’t wait that long, so bringing in more agile partners who can bring new thinking and deliver quickly as part of blended in house/out of house teams is required, too.

The leaders in the sector have already adopted this thinking. They’ve been looking outside the sector for best practice and appointing senior talent from organisations such as consumer brands who are used to working at pace, thinking customer centrically, and for whom using data to optimise an outcome is second nature.

Stuart Avery,
Co-Founder & CEO, Great State

Stuart Avery headshot

Digital Services Need to Go Beyond Academic Learning

Universities know they need to offer digital learning, but many consider digitising services outside of learning as lower priority, especially now that face-to-face teaching has returned. However, students expect the digital experience to support them not just in their learning but in their whole student life including social, cultural, organisational, health and well-being services.

Our research shows that a whopping 90% of students believe a good digital experience can help them perform better academically, create a greater feeling of belonging (86%), and help maintain mental wellbeing (86%). With more students studying remotely or via a hybrid approach, there is a need for students to feel connected. Our research supports this with 86% of students believing that good digital experiences are a great way to build a strong student community.

It’s important to remember that digital shouldn’t be seen as a barrier to the provision of human services, particularly when it comes to wellbeing and mental health. Instead, it should enhance the physical experience, and intelligent use of data can do exactly that.

The digital experience need not and should not end at graduation. The transition to alumni can be just another stage in what should be a continuously evolving, personalised experience which starts at pre-application and continues evolving life-long.

Closing the Digital Experiences Gap

It’s true that many universities have a long way to go before they arrive at a digital state that meets the needs and expectations of the student body. It’s a journey that sooner or later, every university will need to embark on to stay not only competitive, but to ensure a quality experience for their student population. It’ll take time and investment, but it’s likely that the investment will continue to pay dividends for years to come. National Student Survey (NSS) scores are in decline and dropped off a cliff during the pandemic. Universities that are quick to develop high-quality digital experiences will not only see an improvement in their NSS scores but will also benefit from increased differentiation among prospective students.

What’s more, once the foundations of digital experiences are in place, the real opportunities are centred around making smarter use of data – enabling real-time, automated, personalised and intelligent communications. This data can also be used to help students with not only the academic side of student life, but also their wider university wellbeing. Any data gathered has uses beyond personalised communications, it can also be a trigger and a starting point for intelligent, offline conversation.


Stuart Avery
Co-Founder & CEO, Great State

Stuart Avery co-founded Great State in 1997 whilst still at university. Since then, he has worked within the agency across a variety of client challenges for a broad range of organisations, from the government to global brands. He has extensive experience in both consultancy and exec roles for clients and agencies alike. Stuart builds digital teams and process, creating future digital visions that deliver.

He has a passion for technology and digital experience, and is driven to create experiences that delight users and also deliver returns for the organisations investing in them.