Universities must focus on online assets to ensure financial sustainability, says report

A new report by Jisc, Emerge Education and HackerU pens a range of tech-driven revenue diversification strategies to help mend the financial damage exacerbated by COVID-19

Edtech non-profit Jisc, along with Emerge Education and technical partner HackerU, yesterday (25 March) published a report advising universities on how to enhance revenue diversification by 2030 by maximising the use of technology.

With the number of UK universities facing a financial deficit almost quadrupling in the last five years – from 24 in 2015/16 to 119 in 2018/19 – experts believe financial sustainability is the biggest existential threat currently facing the higher education (HE) sector. The ongoing pandemic has considerably exacerbated the issue, with London Economics forecasting a shortfall of £2.6bn for UK universities this year.

To help HE providers navigate their way out of these challenging circumstances, the report lays out a range of tech-enabled revenue diversification strategies and advises institutions on how best to make them work.

“The pandemic has exposed the fundamental financial pressures in UK higher education,” said Keith Zimmerman, chief operating officer at the University of Bath. “Most providers run at tight margins and operate in highly regulated spaces. Revenue streams outside of on-campus degrees and research still make up less than 20% of the income generated in HE. This financial pressure undoubtedly poses a challenge – but there are also opportunities. From online teaching to remote assessment, from research partnerships to student mental health, universities responded to the global crisis with speed, agility and creativity.”

Zimmerman added that, to date, these shifts have predominantly been undertaken as a form of revenue protection, with institutions seeking new ways to reach the same students. “Now, we need to be bolder,” he said. “There are urgent demands for our expertise for the upskilling and reskilling of working professionals.”

The report suggests that increased focus on digital provision and offerings, instead of the traditional emphasis on physical assets, would be an innovative and effective way to diversify revenue. To achieve the necessary milestones by 2030, the report advises universities to ensure their revenue diversification strategies are:

  • Aligned to the institution’s core mission, focused on increasing the reach and impact of quality education delivery
  • Sustainable and long-term, capable of meeting the size of the challenge ahead
  • Highly scalable, harnessing the power of technology

Nic Newman, Emerge Education partner, commented on the findings: “Universities have now proven they can respond to crises and implement technology-enhanced changes at rapid speed. There has never been a more critical time to review the sources of revenue diversification in UK HE. This report shows that by using technology in the right way, there’s a real opportunity for the sector to diversify its income stream while continuing to provide students to continue receiving the world-class education they deserve.”

In other news: Location announced for next Scotland 5G Centre innovation hub


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