In February 2020 before the pandemic broke, KPMG International commissioned Forrester Consulting to survey universities in six jurisdictions for their self-reported investment in consumer-centric priorities, strategies and capabilities.1 Through this research 410 institutional leaders in higher education in the US, Canada, the UK, Germany, Australia and India were surveyed online. Participants were at departmental chair level or above, and 14 percent were either C level executives or presidents (and the equivalent).

Customer centricity becomes a priority

Eight out of 10 respondents reported that they were putting customer centricity front and center. Twenty-five percent of surveyed higher-education decision makers counted their customer-centric strategy among their institutions’ top priorities and 51 percent were making it a high priority.

Traditional organizational drivers are taking a back seat to more student-focused objectives. Customer-centric strategies are driven largely by objectives centering around the student, rather than by more traditional drivers, such as an increase in grant/donation funding and cost cutting.

Improving the student experience (42 percent), improving student trust in the organization (36 percent), and gaining in-depth student insights (35 percent) topped the list. These top drivers were largely consistent across all measured jurisdictions.

The majority of institutions considered their customer-centric capabilities average at best. Over half of those surveyed rated their institutions’ customer-centric capabilities as less mature (14 percent) or about average (42 percent), compared with similar higher-education institutions.

Few were going above and beyond in delivering on the student experience. Just four out of 10 reported that the experiences their institutions provide students consistently (9 percent) or even occasionally (28 percent) exceeded student expectations.

Security, technology and people/process hurdles were flagged as standing between institutions and the successful execution of customer-centric strategies. While higher-education institutions face numerous obstacles to success, their lack of qualified staff was the number one barrier to the successful execution of customer-centric strategies, cited by 33 percent of respondents.

Barrier number two, cited by 29 percent of respondents, was students who “arrive lacking key academic and/or personal skills.” It is, to put it mildly, unorthodox for a provider selecting its own customers to then say that some of them are the problem in executing a customer-centric strategy.

Institutions are also dealing with several other security and technology challenges, including concerns over data security and privacy (31 percent), difficulty sharing student data and analytics between channels, countries and locations (28 percent), and a lack of integrated communication channels (27 percent).

Report card: How universities scored against the eight capabilities of a connected enterprise

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In 2018, KPMG International commissioned Forrester Consulting to conduct a study on customer-centric strategy decisions across 17 industries2  which revealed that the most successful organizations invest in the following eight capabilities that span all attributes of the customer experience. The 2020 KPMG International/Forrester research3 focused on the higher education sector sought to gauge how universities were making out in these areas.

  1. Insight-driven strategies and actions: Sixty-nine percent of survey respondents indicated that they had sound data analytics strategy and governance processes, but just half had the analytics tools (49 percent) and data collection and enrichment practices (49 percent) to deliver timely and accurate insights toward decision making.
  2. Experience centricity by design: Most respondents indicated that their institutions could design student journeys (73 percent) and were co-designing learning pathways with students (69 percent), but some must better integrate their ecosystems for education, research and knowledge exchange, with just 60 percent reporting good or excellent execution in this area.
  3. Responsive operations and supply chain: Seventy-five percent or more said operational excellence was embedded in their institution and that service capabilities were agile, but fewer said that assets and liabilities were aligned with strategy (65 percent) or that their operational approach was driven by a clear view of demand (56 percent).
  4. Aligned and empowered workforce: Decision makers gave their institutions high marks for institutional design and governance (68 percent) as well as leadership and culture capabilities (67 percent). However, they more critically rated their workforce-strategy capabilities (59 percent) – the ability to optimize current capabilities, plan for future institution needs and develop career paths that manage and retain talent.
  5. Seamless interactions and commerce: Nearly three-quarters (72 percent) rated their intake and referral management capabilities favorably, but institutions could do more to develop a clear channel strategy that promotes seamless interactions and supports opti-channel access, with just 57 percent and 48 percent, respectively, rating their execution good or excellent.
  6. Integrated partner and alliance ecosystem: Most institutions reported having a clear understanding of when to enhance their internal capabilities with those offered by partners (68 percent), but 50 percent lacked integrated partner governance to effectively engage and manage partnerships, alliances and vendors to meet stakeholder needs.
  7. Innovative products and services: Most institutions were effective at understanding current and future needs (63 percent), but less-developed at outcome measurement (53 percent) and learning-planning capabilities (49 percent), meaning just half were continuously monitoring and improving the quality of learning offerings.
  8. Digitally enabled technology architecture: Sixty-seven percent said their digital strategy promoted a flexible, resilient and experience-centric operating model, but only about half built their capabilities on common digital platforms (54 percent) and even fewer had an enterprise architecture that they felt could support both current and future strategy objectives (43 percent).

The ability to execute on most capabilities leaves room for improvement. More than two-thirds described their ability to execute on objectives tied to both experience centricity and to responsive operations and supply chain as good or excellent. At least 50 percent cited good or excellent execution on objectives around aligned and empowered workforces (63 percent); seamless interactions and commerce (55 percent); insight-driven strategies and actions (52 percent); and an integrated partner and alliance ecosystem (52 percent). The weakest areas included innovative products and services (49 percent) and digitally enabled technology architecture (46 percent).

Near-term investments will focus on shoring up strong areas of execution and institutions planned to be significantly investing in some stronger areas (experience centricity) as well as some weaker areas (digitally enabled architecture). However, many were deprioritizing investments in less-developed areas (innovative products/services).

Long-term investment priorities were thought to remain relatively stable. Over the next two to three years, respondents indicated that their institutions would continue investing in areas of strength (experience centricity) but would not be boosting investment to improve weaker capabilities (innovative products/services, digitally enabled architecture).

Even though most university decision makers surveyed by Forrester Consulting indicated that “consumer centeredness” was a top or high priority, many institutions have designed their service delivery models, operational processes and technology solutions to meet the needs and preferences of funders and policy makers, rather than students. The results of this research on its own terms suggests that many institutions have a considerable distance to go in matching the best customer experience being delivered today in other industries, and it’s thought that even their responses might be inflated due to lack of awareness about what other industries are actually doing.



1 A commissioned study conducted by Forrester Consulting on behalf of KPMG, February 2020.

2 A commissioned study conducted by Forrester Consulting on behalf of KPMG, September 2018.

3 A commissioned study conducted by Forrester Consulting on behalf of KPMG, February 2020.