Unbundling Higher Education: An Academic Staff Development View

I write this blog in my dual capacity as both co-investigator on the Unbundling Higher Education research project and as departmental co-ordinator of academic staff development work in my local university. As such, my particular interest in this post is on pedagogy; in this instance on the inter-relationship between the process called unbundling and the pedagogical dynamic between academic staff and the students whom they teach. Our academic staff development project work and research at my university has consistently sought to understand the ways that lecturers and students engage pedagogically with each other; with disciplinary contexts; and with the wider tacit and explicit socio-cultural contexts called higher education. In so doing, we have located our focus in the micro, meso and macro educational and other systems that surround teaching and learning and the ways in which the players act in, on and with these systems. Unbundling is one such ‘system’ and it is crucial for an understanding of how teaching and learning works (and changes) that we see this system as both shaping and being shaped by the pedagogical system in this university. The systems and the players are making each other; they are co-constructed and have different and dynamic agency.

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The Unbundled University: our analytic focus

This project is about the ‘unbundling’ of higher education in South Africa and England. Unbundling refers to a range of organisational models, technologies, alternative forms of provision and new relationships between producers, users and gatekeepers of knowledge. These factors are gradually emerging (or, rather, they are claimed to emerge) because of social, economic, technological influences exercising a centrifugal force on higher education systems. Centrifugal means that the components of the traditional, costly university experience – provision, accreditation, student services, assessment, knowledge production and research, etc. – become disaggregated, possibly externally procured, reorganised, redefined through partnerships and alliances, reassembled as modular, affordable digital units, available ‘a la carte’, and so forth. However, the physics analogy of centrifugal forces should not give the mistaken impression of a natural trajectory of unstoppable change, whereby adaptation and compliance are the only options. In our project, we think that these dynamics are playing out differently in individual geopolitical contexts, that what looks like a benefit to English institutions may not be so positive for South African ones, and that there is a distinct and timely need to shape, perhaps even challenge, these trends along social justice and equity lines.

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Researching marketization and unbundling in Higher Education: perspectives from the literature

by Alan Cliff, Laura Czerniewicz, Neil Morris, Carlo Perrotta, Bronwen Swinnerton

The ethos underlying the “Unbundled University: Researching Emerging Models in an Unequal Landscape” project is towards seeking high quality educational provision which reduces inequality, enhances social mobility and improves graduates’ employment opportunities, through the pedagogically appropriate use of technology.  While the research team is pragmatic about the increasing influence of marketisation on higher education, and the opportunities this may provide for students, we are mindful of the destabilising and negative effects that marketisation can bring, be it from economic or social pressures.  We are aware, as Mansell (2013) observes, that there are two prevailing social imaginaries about digital technologies, with the prevailing dominant imaginary in today’s ‘information societies’ being market-led while alternative imaginaries are described as ‘open’ or commons-led. These different imaginaries provide problems ‘for stakeholders in deciding which policies and strategies, or mix of policies and strategies, is most likely to facilitate progress towards more just and equitable information societies’ (p.10). Through this research project, we will study unbundling in both imaginaries and interrogate the market-led approach as it is being enacted in higher education, with an awareness of the necessity for more equal societies in an era of disturbingly growing inequality (WEF 2013). That said, we intend to conduct this study using evidence before us, while at the same time building on previous research on the marketization of higher education.  For instance, we will draw on the following positions in the literature to guide our research.

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Unbundling “unbundling” in Higher Education in South Africa and England

To say that South African higher education is in crisis would hardly be an exaggeration.  At the end of the 2016 academic year, several of the country’s 26 universities completely shut down and others were writing exams either late or under particularly stressful conditions. The sector was rocked for the second year running by student protests broadly aligned under the call for free decolonised education. Both these terms are hotly contested- what does “decolonised” actually mean in practice, and what are the implications of “free”? Who pays in a country when only 22% of the population pays personal income tax? Should higher education be free for all or should it be free for those who can’t pay, while those who can pay should contribute? This question is especially burning in a country determined the most unequal in the world in 2016 by the World Economic Forum. Affordability in unequal societies is a critical matter elsewhere too –the UK, for example,  has recently allowed fees to be uncapped with unknown consequences, especially for equity in a place the most unequal in Europe and the 4th most unequal of OECD countries.

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Unbundling and Marketisation

In this first blog post, I want to briefly explore my interpretation of this project, and the terms ‘unbundling’ and ‘marketisation’ as they relate to digital technology. Higher Education is in a time of rapid change globally, partly due to marketization and digital technology, but also due to a number of other factors, outside the scope of this project. Whilst the focus of our project is on the impact of these factors on changes in the Higher Education system in South Africa, this project is relevant in many countries across the world, including the UK.

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