The COVID-19 pandemic has forced higher education institutions to change quickly, and potentially for good. It has shown that colleges and universities can do what was previously unimaginable—enable an entirely remote academic and administrative environment and do it within a matter of weeks. The unyielding constraints of a global health crisis have forced institutions to fight against inertia, move quickly, and rethink both what is needed and what is possible—behavior higher education isn’t exactly known for.
In contrast to other crises that have disrupted higher education operations in recent years—hurricanes, earthquakes, fires, and more—it is unlikely that COVID-19 will recede into the background and that institutional operations will simply return to normal. The situation is ongoing, and it is not yet clear what the next 12 to 18 months will bring for institutions. Institutions will largely not be in control of their own destinies—the virus and other external forces will ultimately decide.
Even if the COVID-19 threat were to end quickly, it may have already served as an accelerant for trends currently underway or that higher education will face in the coming years. Declining enrollment trends driven by demographic shifts are likely to be exacerbated in the near term, with restrictions on international travel, parent and student concerns over campus safety, and job losses impacting a family’s ability to pay for college. Existing financial pressures on institutions will mount, further compounded by decreased revenue and increased costs associated with COVID-19 remediation. The rise of new and potentially disruptive technologies, changes in student expectations, and the evolution of workforce needs may also be accelerated as a result of COVID-19.
What happens next is anyone’s guess, but one thing seems clear: Whether you call it a “new normal” or the “next normal,” we are on our way to a future that will be different than what we expected even six months ago. The pressures on higher education are enormous right now, but one thing COVID-19 has shown us is that there is real value in constraints—they force us to think and act differently than we have in the past, without the time or luxury to rationalize away the possible.
While it won’t be easy, those institutions that can embrace rather than succumb to these constraints will not only survive into the future, they will help determine what the “new normal” will become. Higher education leaders should take a three-pronged, strategic approach to start building the future now: Cut costs where possible, explore different operating models, and prioritize innovation work.
Colleges and universities are facing serious financial challenges and will need to make tough decisions to save money. Institutional and IT leaders must decide how to best manage with less—less funding, less staff, less of everything than they had before. Although it can be tempting to try to “do more with less,” having fewer resources creates the opportunity to rethink your IT operations and spending, to identify ways to accomplish the same things differently or simply to do less overall.
While budget cutting will be necessary for long-term sustainability, it is not the only activity institutions must undertake. For we know, it is virtually impossible for organizations to cut their way to sustainability and success.
Alongside finding ways to live with less, now is the time to explore alternate models for delivering services, both within IT and across the university. Without constraints, it can be easy to revert to business as usual. Heightened pressures may provide a renewed sense of urgency and reduce the barriers to considering outsourcing, shared services, automation, and other service-delivery models that reduce costs, create efficiencies, and improve the user experience.
One of the most necessary—and most difficult—things to do in a crisis is to focus on innovation. In many cases, it can feel like a luxury that institutions don’t have—allocating time, money, and people on activities when the outcome is uncertain and unknown. Few colleges and universities have focused innovation efforts to begin with, even during the best of times. During challenging times, it may not seem like there are resources to spare for an innovation initiative.
Unlike the previous two strategies, however, innovation is key for institutions to become masters of their own destiny. While cost-cutting measures are necessary, and while alternate models can help institutions do things differently than before, both address the current state. Innovation looks toward the future and sets the stage for the new normal that is to come.
In the coming months, Tambellini will provide research and resources for IT leaders to consider as they work to shape their new normal, with practical steps for cutting costs and a look at some of the emerging technologies that can help foster innovation, among other things. Stay tuned!
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