Special Report
Edtech in Higher Education: Empirical Findings from the Project ‘Universities and Unicorns: Building Digital Assets in the Higher Education Industry’
Published April 2024

Higher education (HE) is by now thoroughly digitalised. Universities use a variety of digital products and services to support their operations. The educational technology (EdTech) industry has been expanding in the past decade, while investors have become important actors in the field. This report offers findings from the ESRC-funded research project ‘Universities and Unicorns: Building Digital Assets in the Higher Education Industry’ (UU), which investigated new forms of value in digitalised HE as the sector engages with EdTech providers. The project was especially interested in digital user data and data operations. We followed three groups of actors: universities, EdTech start-up companies, and investors in EdTech. Understanding EdTech relationally, and bringing these groups together, allowed us to gain particular insights into the digitalisation of HE and its political economy. We aimed to trace the flow of ideas, strategies, and actions between these actors and to understand how and why the EdTech industry is developing as it is. Key findings indicate that EdTech in HE is less advanced than presented by the industry and policy discourse, all actors struggle to make user data valuable and useful, digitalisation and datafication mean more work and higher costs for universities, and legacy software and Big Tech seem to dominate the sector rather than the EdTech industry. Moreover, EdTech aims and practices require more transparency, participants wish for more democratic data governance, and EdTech should support rather than challenge universities. There are synergies and fundamental discrepancies between the discourses and imaginaries of EdTech on the one hand, and realities and practices on the other hand. Universities, EdTech companies, and investors in EdTech also share some aims, while at the same time, there are substantial differences between their goals.