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Rethinking the University in a Student-Centric World (Part 1 of Two-Part Series)


To meet the educational needs of today’s tech-savvy generation, universities need to up their game with data-driven insights and strategic digital partnerships.

Given the heightened debate about the funding and delivery of higher education — and next-generation student demand for more digital student experience — universities must seriously reconsider their institutional missions. Part one of this two-part series explores the possible shapes and forms of the emerging student-centric university. Part two examines the navigation path to a successful future, informed by a report that we commissioned with UK-based market researcher Ovum.

Out with the Old, in with the New

The incoming cohort of Gen Z students constantly and seamlessly blend physical and digital interactions (“phigital”) across their personal, educational and occupational streams. They have low tolerance for what they perceive to be an inappropriate mix of modes or interactions that compromise their ability to multi-stream.

That’s a problem for traditional universities because they are largely teacher-centric and curriculum-based. Some forward-thinking universities are now pivoting to a student-centric approach, which encompasses enhanced student choice and a transformed learning experience. But student-centricity goes well beyond having a strong student focus. It fundamentally redefines the “contract” with the student, transcending the institution’s promise to deliver a high-quality course experience and related services to a personalized, individual learning experience that’s closely aligned with the student’s goals. 

To transform both the way it interacts with students and the way it delivers educational services, the university must be reimagined and realigned. Since many schools rely on decades-old legacy systems, they are often constrained by the potential high cost and operational disruption of replacing aging technology.  Moreover, since institutional missions, delivery models, and sizes vary, there is no single way for universities to re-architect their operations, and no single plan of action that universities can adopt. Given this, we offer four archetypes of what a future university can and should be. 

How Digital-Native Students Differ

Digital-native students entering universities today expect and demand the same kind of personalized digital experience that they receive in their consumer technologies. For example, if students are accustomed to the ease of interaction with consumer smart assistants (e.g., traffic delays from Siri, re-ordering school supplies from Alexa), then they will want similar features from campus-branded applications. A voice-activated, artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled virtual assistant, for instance, can help them purchase course materials or tell them how many parking spots are available at the lot closest to their classroom.

While this is an existential shift from the traditional, face-to-face university experience, a “phigital” experience offers students the convenience and personalization they want. At the same time, universities get greater opportunities to understand and enhance the student’s experience and improve operational efficiencies. 

Moreover, the commonality between consumer and educational experience goes beyond technology. Students today think of themselves as “buying” access to a university experience — paying fees, tuition and course materials — and want to feel like active, rather than passive, participants in a unique journey at a university that fully understands and meets their needs and desires.

A student’s success, in other words, is not determined solely by his or her classroom experience but by the use of personalized educational tools and conveyance of skills needed to gain employment and successfully navigate life post-graduation. Therefore, all relevant data and interaction history must be made available to the student and appropriate staff member to continuously track student progress and ensure successful completion of the educational journey. The good news for many institutions is that data is already a top priority. In fact, Ovum’s 2018 ICT Enterprise Insights survey found that 58% of universities rank both customer relationship management (CRM) and analytics among their top three projects.

Graduating with an Education and Outcomes

The focus on linking learning with professional outcomes will undeniably shape curriculum at leading universities, as new students increasingly demand that schools enable them to graduate in the most time-efficient fashion with the degree or credential that leads directly to their chosen career. 

And as institutions receive greater and more timely insight into the most in-demand courses and skills, their hiring decisions, timetabling and course content decisions may change (e.g., pacing offerings against immediate market demand, splitting and recombining traditional offerings, or changing the mix of online/on-campus opportunities). 

Therefore, the forward-thinking university must take an approach that transcends historical university structures, where data is siloed and interactions and insights are limited across functional boundaries. A focus on student centricity will take institutions away from an instructor-centric or course-centric model to one where the needs of the largest and most important group of constituents, who desire a personalized and consumer-like experience, is foregrounded. To enhance student success, a smarter campus will be needed, enabled by emerging digital technologies and smarter systems. Together, the changes to course structure, pedagogy, student and employer expectations will necessitate a change to both the culture and technology of higher education that will likely take shape as follows. 

Four Future University Archetypes

Some U.S, universities face declining enrollments that are pushing them to consider closing or consolidating with other institutions. 

For world-leading universities and courses, reputation can be expected to provide some insulation from changing market demand. For mid- and small-range players, however, the competitive landscape will likely be fierce. According to our research, the path forward could entail four likely scenarios. 

Figure 1

Society builder: a broad-based mega-institution.

Think “all things to all people.” This is the existing large-university model, which is popular with those looking for a career-launching, well-rounded education. A traditional cohort experience remains a key focus, despite extensive use of online learning and collaboration. However, lock-step, large-group delivery is no longer the norm, as the realities of earn-while-you-learn has shifted from business hours and mass face-to-face delivery of core content. The predominance of flipped classrooms and other new teaching methods have compounded this trend, leaving large lecture halls vacant for a substantial proportion of the week and pushing to the limit the utilization of smaller formal and informal learning spaces.

Education supermarket: an unbundled mega-institution.

The need for continuously updated job skills and a pragmatic view of the value of qualifications has resulted in course unbundling: a concept enthusiastically embraced by students, who are seeking to build their education portfolio with the specific skills they need today and tomorrow. The fragmentation of individual learning journeys has intensified the trend away from lock-step learning; face-to-face delivery of base information has largely disappeared as flipped classrooms have become the norm, particularly for house-brand products, and the emphasis in human interactions is on applying, rather than simply understanding course material. Here, prerequisites will no longer be the predominant factor in accessing more advanced units of study. While still present, they are one factor in a broader calculation of how likely the student is to successfully complete the unit of study, significantly reducing subject lock-in at later stages of a course. 

Category killer: an unbundled niche player.

Think singular excellence. By focusing on a specific industry marketplace, specialized universities can craft unique educational experiences, precisely tailored to individual’s needs within a limited vocational scope. This reverses the age-old movement of single-purpose colleges that were absorbed into larger institutions. This institution’s success is based on its ability to pinpoint and deliver the exact learning experience needed to advance each student’s next career step, and through high employer satisfaction with work-ready graduates.

Elite experience: a broad-based niche player.

This is “the best” for “the best.” Ivy League. Here, it is the clientele, rather than the curriculum, that is the focal point for this university archetype. Relationships and reputations are built for life as students interact with others destined for greatness, and teachers who have already achieved it. While this type of university is perhaps more recalcitrant to change, thanks to reputations founded upon centuries of established excellence, they too must consider the impact of globalization and changing student demographics. An excellent curriculum and modern teaching methods parallel the cohort experience, as elite millennials are no less wedded to their personal technology, and no more patient with poor delivery than others in their generation. While there will be some vocational focus to the curriculum, the emphasis will be on developing student fitness to lead as they pursue career-driven outcomes. 

Whichever the archetypes, or combinations of them, a university chooses, the market is clearly moving toward student-centricity. Many institutions are embracing one platform that consolidates all aspects of the university’s relationship with the student, such as an institution-wide “customer relationship management” (CRM) system. Achieving student centricity will take more than just implementing a CRM system, however. It will require both technology and data to improve relationships and interactions across the campus. In part two of this special report, will examine how to achieve both.

For more details on the future of higher education, please read “Reimagining the University in a Student-Centric World,” visit our Education Practice, or contact us.

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