UCISA24: Thought Leadership - Chapter One

08 May 2024 - UCISA24: Thought Leadership - Chapter One


Digital Strategy in Financial Headwinds


This is a summary of the Digital Strategies roundtable session at UCISA24 in Edinburgh, from the group discussing the impact of current financial challenges on digital strategy.  My thanks to the participating delegates for their insight and engagement.

Financial pressures are buffeting swathes of the UK HE sector, created or exacerbated by a combination of cost inflation, fixed UK undergraduate fees and a seeming collapse in the international student market.In this environment, many of us in IT teams are grappling with how best to position and advance our digital strategies.Budgetary focus is narrowing to shorter time periods and increasingly fixated on cost saving rather than investment – strategy Kryptonite, in other words – but we all know that the challenging operating environment makes digital transformation more important, not less.How to we adapt?

The first thing we must do is revisit the core aims of our digital strategies, to ensure that they are clearly and unambiguously aligned with broader institutional goals. The importance of this cannot be overstated, as anything that is not demonstrably furthering the institution’s strategic ambitions risks being deprioritised as funding decisions become ever more selective.

Thankfully, the traditional perspective of IT departments as mere cost centres is evolving. Today, there is a broad recognition of their role as pivotal enablers of educational and operational excellence.  As the role of IT in higher education transitions from a supportive function to a strategic driver, the integration of digital strategies within the broader institutional framework is imperative.

However, many higher education institutions still grapple with creating robust business cases for their IT investments. The sector is often criticised for its soft approach towards financial justification. Institutions are now being compelled to adopt a more rigorous framework that not only underscores the tangible benefits of digital strategies but also emphasizes real efficiency savings supported by solid evidence.

This rigorous approach necessitates a closer collaboration between IT and Finance departments – developing digital strategies is now, more than ever, a team sport. Working with Finance colleagues to understand and communicate the dynamics of capital expenses (Capex) and operational expenses (Opex) is crucial. There’s a pressing need for financial acumen in IT strategy discussions to navigate long-term contracts and manage investments effectively. This is particularly pertinent when negotiating with suppliers – where a unified procurement and IT strategy can leverage better terms and realise significant savings – and building robust, credible business cases.

Moreover, the transient nature of financial planning in higher education—often constrained to 12-month cycles—poses a significant barrier to long-term digital transformation. IT leaders need to influence their institutions to adopt a strategic horizon that extends beyond immediate fiscal periods to harness the full potential of their digital initiatives. This entails a shift from short-term cost-saving measures, like reducing staff numbers, to investing in digital foundations that promise long-term efficiency and enhanced student success.

The measurement of student experiences remains elusive, yet it is a critical metric for the success of digital strategies. Universities need to develop clear methodologies to gauge the impact of digital technologies on learning outcomes and student satisfaction. Only through such measures can institutions justify the investments and demonstrate the added value to sceptical stakeholders.

Articulating business benefits is one thing – but credibility soon evaporates if those benefits are not delivered. Organisational change management, therefore, plays a pivotal role. Instead of being an afterthought, it should drive the implementation of digital initiatives. This approach ensures that digital strategies are not only about deploying new technologies but also about fostering a culture that embraces continuous improvement and adaptation and – crucially – visibly delivers against claimed benefits.

In conclusion, for higher education institutions navigating these challenging financial times, it is vital to rethink their digital strategies not just as a part of IT but as a cornerstone of institutional resilience and innovation. The key lies in strategic alignment, robust financial planning, and a culture that prioritises long-term benefits over short-term gains. By doing so, universities can ensure that their investments in digital technologies yield substantial returns, both educationally and financially.


Vipin Ahlawat

Director of IT Services

Loughborough University