The Digital Transformation of Higher Education


New perspectives on Education's digital future 

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“Learning to use Instagram is very different from learning to study and research online”
While many students are proficient social media and mobile app users, first time students to higher education have been faced with a new frontier in their academic careers – remote learning. Enabling the sector to deliver this has been the job of CIO’s across the country, a herculean task for University and College IT staff.
Regardless of where universities were on their digital journey prior to recent months, the resultant shift to remote and hybrid learning has levelled the playing field across the higher education sector. It’s offered benefits to both students and staff, with more flexibility, accessibility and better management of classes with improved student engagement, but it’s also highlighted other challenges too; digital poverty and differences in digital capabilities.

Microsoft recently partnered with ucisa, the member led professional body for digital practitioners in education for a series of in-depth qualitative interviews with 14 CIOs and Heads of IT at Universities across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to capture their insights and perspectives on educations digital future as the sector navigates this seismic shift. The key findings are below:

  • IT staff enabled remote operations for just under 3 million students, lecturers, researchers, academic leaders, and support staff at a pace never witnessed previously across the UK
  • CIOs remain in broad agreement that higher education institutions set to be most successful in this new era are those who can harness the benefits of remote learning – combined with the best elements of being on campus
  • The newfound visibility and authority CIOs have enjoyed through their role in moving their institutions onto remote learning has meant any notion of them being simply a ‘delivery team’ is now null and void
  • CIOs are conscious of not wanting to accrue ‘technical debt’; having prioritised short-term solutions to address immediate needs, now they recognise further digitalisation must be driven strategically to ensure interoperability and security is built in


  • whilst there is work to be done to facilitate a blended approach that yields pedagogical, operational and financial results, CIO’s are best placed to support on long term digital strategy as the sector continues its transformation

With higher education contributing £95 billion in gross output for the UK economy it is vital to get right the digital solutions that can support a hybrid delivery model.

"This joint report highlights the key role CIOs and the teams they lead have played in enabling the Higher Education sectors recent response. As one Vice Chancellor put it – ‘our IT team has delivered four years’ worth of digital strategy in six weeks’. The perspectives in this report are vital for both suppliers and the industry to hear, as the facilitation of hybrid learning and the collaboration across institutions continues” - Deborah Green, CEO, ucisa

"At Microsoft, we view supporting and empowering these institutions as key to our mission of helping every individual and organisation on the planet achieve more. The insights here are a testament to the collaborative nature of higher education and a fascinating window into a sector in the midst of unprecedented changes.” - Mark Rowland, Senior Product Marketing Manager - SMB & Education at Microsoft UK

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hanks to the heroic efforts of University and College IT staff at every level, the almost herculean task of enabling remote working for just under 3 million students, lecturers, researchers, academic leaders and support staff was achieved at pace in March this year. - Deborah Green, CEO, ucisa