Universities and Unicorns: building digital assets in the higher education industry

Janja Komljenovic

Dr Janja Komljenovic, Director of the Centre for Higher Education Research and Evaluation at Lancaster, is leading a new project funded by an Economic and Social Research Council’s New Investigator grant, to put university staff and student digital data under the microscope from a financial perspective. 

Universities collect unprecedented amounts of digital data from their students and staff, and they partner with the increasing number of platform companies and connect to the global digital infrastructure. 

Amidst important debates about data privacy, less attention has been given to data monetisation, ownership, and value redistribution. In other words, little is known about how data value is captured in the higher education sector, and about the various ways that digital data is made profitable. 

These questions are at the heart of this new project, and working with Manchester Metropolitan University and York University in Canada, the £300,000 project will suggest ways in which digital data and digital innovations are being monetised, how, by whom, and why. 

While education technology can bring many benefits to students, staff and universities, positive outcomes are far from automatic.

The project will reflect on the ways value coming from digital data in the higher education sector is regulated in a socially just and sustainable ways. 

And the project results will support an essential discussion of potential regulation that is needed to govern the digitalising higher education industry, and a clear theoretical rationale for value construction in the digital economy. 

The project uses qualitative case studies of financial investors, technology companies and universities, deliberative focus groups with higher education stakeholders, public consultation, and quantitative methods of database analysis. 

Dr Komljenovic, said: “The number of education technology companies operating in the higher education sector is sharply rising, with many of them becoming or striving to become ‘unicorns’, i.e. valued at over $1 billion.

“While universities partner with these companies for digital support, they are also digitalising themselves. The key questions in such a complex digital ecosystem are who collects and owns digital traces left behind by university students and staff.

“We are very excited to start much-needed research on how various digital data collected from university students and staff are made valuable and profitable, and how this should be redistributed and regulated.”

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