10 minute read 7 Nov 2023
Mature male professor explaining to students at table in University

Why human-centered transformation design is critical for universities

By Catherine Friday

EY Global Education Leader; EY Oceania Managing Partner, Government and Health Sciences

Improving how governments work and deliver services. Mustang owner. Keen horse rider. Average but enthusiastic skier.

10 minute read 7 Nov 2023

Purposefully putting human needs and expectations at the center of higher education digital transformation will improve university success.

Three questions to ask

  • Convince me, teach me, support me – how can university leaders meet student expectations and support their success?
  • Empower me, free me, enlighten me – how can digital technology help staff to create better content and seamless processes that improve student experience?
  • Equip me, connect me – how can researchers be better supported to conduct leading-edge research?

When embarking on digital transformation, universities often deploy strategies that serve the needs of the institution and its existing structures and processes. For many of the students and staff on the receiving end of such changes, the experience has been less than ideal. “Digital learning” is still often old content on a new platform, rather than being designed to enable optimal learning through personalized, digital self-access. On many campuses, staff and students still struggle daily with multiple systems to get simple administrative tasks done.

We contend that institutions would get a far better return on their digital investment by putting the needs of the people they serve at the center of technology efforts.

In a bid to understand what the people at the center of universities want from digital transformation, we undertook research with the people who experience it every day. Our latest study, conducted in collaboration with Times Higher Education (THE), includes more than 3,000 students and hundreds of teaching faculty and professional staff in eight geographies, and explores their wants and needs. 

  • Methodology

    In 2023, EY teams led a primary research project that set out to find practical ways for universities to put people at the center of their digital transformation efforts, by talking to the people at the heart of universities.

    In March and April 2023, EY teams collaborated with Times Higher Education (THE) to survey 3,030 undergraduate and post-graduate students across eight geographies: Australia/New Zealand, Canada, India, Japan, Saudi Arabia/United Arab Emirates, Singapore, UK/Ireland and the US.

    Participants were recruited from the millions who engage with the THE website and events. THE also conducted a series of online focus groups with 116 teaching faculty and 147 professional staff across the same countries. EY teams conducted in-depth interviews with leaders at 28 universities in these countries.

    Key demographics of the student survey

    Age breakdown: 19-21 years old - 53%, 22-24 years old - 27%, 18 or under - 10%, 25-29 years old - 8%

    State of study: 1st year under-graduate - 30%, 2nd/mid-year under-graduate - 34%, final year under-graduate - 24%, post-graduate - 11%, non-degree pathway - 1%

    Mode of study: full time (mostly in person) - 66%; full time (mostly remote) - 19%; part-time (mostly in person) - 9%; part-time (mostly remote) - 5%

The research clearly shows critical areas where digital transformation needs to deliver a better experience for students and staff. This article surfaces a few of the ideas from the study. Read the report to learn what each cohort had to say and see the full body of our research and recommendations for university leaders.

Is your university’s transformation centered on tech or people?

As universities seek to create a distinctive experience, our report looks at what students and staff want from digital.

Download the report

High angle view of male and female students sitting in cafeteria at University
(Chapter breaker)

Chapter 1

What do students expect from their universities?

Exceptional teaching, real-world career advantages, convenience and flexibility

Universities are underestimating student expectations

The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed what students want from universities. Their educational norms and situations have shifted. In our survey, 60% of students are managing work or caring commitments alongside their studies. Partly for this reason, campus-based students expect to access content and administrative processes online, in their own time.

Concerningly, one-third of students told us they feel neutral about or unhappy with their choice of university. This should raise alarm bells for university leaders who are tasked with delivering a positive experience for all their students. Not meeting expectations around improving career prospects or preparing students for the workplace are key drivers of overall unhappiness. 

How happy are you with your university choice?


of surveyed students feel neutral or unhappy

In order of priority, our research shows us that students are looking for their higher education institutions to deliver:

  1. High-quality teaching, including using digital technology
  2. Improved career prospects and workplace preparation
  3. Better support to achieve their learning goals

To meet these expectations, there are a number of actions that university leaders can take. We have looked at these through the eyes of the students that universities serve.

Teach me effectively and in a way that suits me

Quality of teaching is the most-cited reason for both happiness and unhappiness with a student’s choice of university, indicating that some universities are offering better teaching experiences than others. Students also give low satisfaction ratings to the “quality of online learning” — putting it at the bottom of all surveyed aspects of university life.  Although, the amount of online versus in-person teaching is of little concern.

What’s missing from the digital learning experience is engagement. Although students rate the availability, quality of production and accessibility of digital learning materials reasonably well, they give low ratings to its ability to engage, enable collaboration or check understanding.

This reflects the fact that many universities are still simply recording lectures and posting lecture notes and reading lists online.

Students asserted that if funds were available for technology-related investments, they would prefer this to be invested in training teachers to deliver digital learning more effectively (45%) and in better digital learning materials (41%), rather than in upgrading the technology.

Student preferences if funds were available for technology-related investments:


of students would like their universities to focus technology-related investments on training teachers to deliver digital learning more effectively


of students would like investment in developing better digital learning materials

Convince me your university can improve my career prospects

Not meeting expectations around improved career prospects and preparing students for the workplace are key drivers of overall unhappiness with university choice. To win student choice, universities must better understand what students expect from higher education (HE) and offer programs that directly support their career goals.

48% of students indicated that the main reason they chose their program was to qualify for a chosen career or improve their career prospects but a concerning 21% of final year undergraduates say their university experience does not meet their expectations regarding preparation for the workplace. 

The main reason I chose my program


of students chose their course to qualify for a chosen career or improve their career prospects

Creating programs that provide students with the skills they need for the future workplace will require critical thinking.

Support me to succeed academically and find connection

Our survey found that almost three-quarters (74%) of students rate support to achieve academic goals as very or extremely important. Lack of support was also a key reason for students’ unhappiness with their choice of university, especially among mid-level and final-year students. 

Importance of providing support to achieve my learning goals


of students say it’s very or extremely important that their university support them in achieving their learning goals

Students also need to find connections with each other. Campus location remains students’ third reason for choosing a university, suggesting the campus experience is not over. But its role may need to be reimagined.  Nearly two-thirds of students say the campus is where they prefer to access social events and networking. This is key to students’ wellbeing, sense of belonging and developing social skills in addition to reducing feelings of isolation in an increasingly online learning environment. 

  • Actions for university leaders

    Six actions are highlighted here with more explored in the report.

    • Replace mass in-person lectures with a flipped or hybrid-flexible (HyFlex) learning model supported by high-quality digital content.
    • Train faculty in digital pedagogy, including how to reinforce and check understanding and support productive and inclusive debate and discussion.
    • Use data and analytics to tailor content and teaching methods and facilitate personalized learning.
    • Review program portfolios through a career lens, adapting programs to meet student and workforce demands.
    • Provide personalized academic support – a coach or mentor to care about, inspire and guide students.
    • Enhance support through technology: give students learning progress trackers and use analytics on whole-of-student data, to identify red flags in engagement and performance, for example. 
A lecturer explaining mathematical calculations to her students
(Chapter breaker)

Chapter 2

What do university staff expect from digital transformation?

More time, better tools and quality data to help them deliver more value.

Universities misjudge the importance of the employee experience

While the student experience is fundamental to a successful digital transformation, university leaders must also pay attention to the staff (teaching faculty, researchers and administration) experience. The human experience includes all of the people involved in making a university work. To be successful, digital transformation needs to meet their needs and expectations, too.

Teaching faculty

Empower me to create quality digital content

Teaching faculty must be supported in carving out time to design and oversee the development of new curricula and learning materials that incorporate the best of digital and in-person learning modes. From our focus groups, we learned that many university teachers urgently need further training in blended teaching best practice. They need to understand how to both develop curricula and content for effective digital or blended learning and deliver teaching and learning support using the chosen modes.

Free me to focus on the important tasks

For teaching faculty, time is their most precious resource. Digital transformation should enable them to devote more time to their core missions of teaching and supporting students or leading research. Providing more asynchronous content will free them from needing to deliver in-person lectures, while using virtual meetings and online scheduling tools can help them provide one-on-one student support more efficiently. As a member of the UK/Ireland faculty focus group indicated: “We are trying to give back time to pedagogy and teaching by making things quicker. It is now easier to design timetables and organise assessments.”

We are trying to give back time to pedagogy and teaching by making things quicker. It is now easier to design timetables and organise assessments.
UK/Ireland faculty focus group

However, simply implementing new tools and processes will not automatically lead to meaningful time savings. Faculty in our focus groups said they were faced with a myriad of new systems and tools, which were unintuitive, difficult to use or duplicative.

Enlighten me so I can better support learning outcomes

The higher education sector is currently grappling with improving learning outcomes. With the move to new modes of teaching and learning, faculty need to easily assess the effectiveness of their teaching and continuously adjust based on what is working well and what isn’t.  As more systems move to digital, there’s increased potential to analyze the data and create meaningful insights around student interactions, their levels of engagement and their learning progress. By collating that information into progress dashboards, faculty can track learning progress at an individual, class or program level, as well as identify students who require more support or programs that need adjusting. 

  • Actions for university leaders

    Four actions are highlighted here with more explored in the report.

    • Allow faculty to provide more content asynchronously to free them from delivering in-person lectures.
    • Use tools to assess faculty skills gaps and develop effective training and upskilling in digital. Give them sufficient time and support to embed new ways of working.
    • Automate simple tasks and streamline common workflows to free up faculty time.
    • Apply analytics to whole of student data to enable educators to spot students at risk of failing, and tailor interventions accordingly.


Equip me to conduct leading-edge research

Universities have tended to under-invest in the digital transformation of research, as the focus shifted to teaching and learning. The investment needed is not just better equipment and computing power to support leading-edge research. There is also a real need to streamline and automate the significant level of administration surrounding research, to free up researchers’ time and help them be successful.

Processes ripe for digital transformation include grant applications and management, risk assessments, scheduling access to shared equipment, results disclosures, reviews, audits, publication and dissemination.

Connect me to other researchers

In many cases, research and innovation are not solo efforts but collaborative ones. The research community has a particular need to connect, share data and ideas, and work together to solve problems. The use of digital technologies for research is making collaboration within and across institutions much faster, more efficient and effective. This is greatly facilitating international research collaboration, widening the pool of potential research collaborators, which is particularly important in niche fields.

  • Actions for university leaders

    Two actions are highlighted here with more explored in the report.

    • Have end-to-end digital systems for the entire research lifecycle and across the whole institution.
    • Connect researchers with similar interests to enable innovation and improve research efficiency.


Show me the data I need and save me from busy work

Our focus groups with administrative staff revealed a cohort that feels increasingly overworked and overwhelmed, with many digital transition initiatives actually adding to workload pressures.

The most cited challenge for administrative staff is that the data they need to perform their jobs resides in disparate siloed systems and cannot readily be combined. As a result, universities end up with a patchwork of siloed systems with different access points, that are not integrated, cannot share data, and have a very different look and feel.

Digital processes generate a wealth of data that administrators are hungry to use to drive decisions, but insights cannot be generated when data resides in silos.

It’s about increasing the amount of time staff can spend making a difference to the students versus satisfying the system.
Paul LeBlanc
President, Southern New Hampshire University

In addition, many universities are looking at how to automate HR, finance and procurement processes across the institution. Automating routine student-facing tasks, such as processing applications can continue to relieve the burden on administrative staff. As Paul LeBlanc, President, Southern New Hampshire University puts it: “It’s about increasing the amount of time staff can spend making a difference to the students versus satisfying the system.”

  • Actions for university leaders

    Some actions highlighted from the report. See the report for additional insights.

    • Implement a unified data platform or join up existing systems to allow seamless data exchange.
    • Find ways to automate and reduce low-value, manual tasks, allowing administrative and professional staff to spend time on mission-critical activities. 
    • Use AI-powered chatbots to handle certain tasks, such as international student enquiries, applications, financial aid applications or onboarding new staff hires.

For universities to truly survive and thrive in a digital era, university leaders need to maximize the value of digital transformation, focus on designing services and processes around the needs of the people they serve — from students to administrative staff, and deliver a distinctive student offering and digital experience that sets them apart. This means aligning the value proposition with evolving student and workforce demands, having a clear understanding of the end-to-end student experience and how to make it more convenient, engaging and supportive, using technology. It also means designing services and systems that enable faculty and staff to spend more of their time supporting students to achieve their learning and career readiness goals. And of course, the technology must be matched with investment in upskilling faculty and staff to deliver an exceptional student experience.  


Successful digital transformation in higher education is predicated on putting the humans that they serve at the center of all transformation projects – from students to teaching faculty to administrative staff. By understanding their needs and expectations, university leaders can build strong strategies, invest in the right technologies, and strengthen their university’s student offering so they thrive in a digital era. 

About this article

By Catherine Friday

EY Global Education Leader; EY Oceania Managing Partner, Government and Health Sciences

Improving how governments work and deliver services. Mustang owner. Keen horse rider. Average but enthusiastic skier.