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.

A few assumptions

Unbundling has often been used as a synonym for technology-driven disruption in a certain type of HE policy literature audibly advocating the market-like reform of higher education. Our position is more neutral, and we are open to the possibility that unbundling may take different forms. Nonetheless, it seemed appropriate to begin our inquiry by exploring the interface between digitisation, pricing and market expansion in the broader economy. In this regard, three important assumptions have informed our approach:

  • Unbundling did not emerge in higher education, but as a corporate neologism in the computing sector, with the pivotal event being IBM’s separation of software and services from hardware sales in 1969. Until this time, software was bundled with very expensive hardware at no additional cost. IBM soon realised that the rapid evolution of computing technology and the reduced engineering costs offered a change in direction, hence it started pricing software and services separately from its hardware. This led to dramatic market expansion and to the birth of the software industry.
  • Unbundling was indeed a disruptive phenomenon in the music and home entertainment industries. For many people, the disaggregation of TV and music from the traditional creation and distribution channels, and its reaggregation as on-demand digital ‘content’ represents a template for higher education. This, however, assumes that higher education and the entertainment industries operate according to similar market laws, which is not at all the case. Higher education systems (in most English speaking countries at least) can in fact be described, at best, as quasi-markets reliant on heavily subsidised tuition and public sources of research funding. Above all, the main assets of these HE quasi-markets are traditional forms of academic reputation and prestige, and these are still a monopoly of long-established institutions, which remain safe behind their walled gardens of academic elite designed to prevent competition from newcomers.
  • The unbundling of tertiary provision was first aired as a possibility in 1975, in an article published in the Duke Law Journal, and it was predicated on ‘improvements in communications technology’ which could enable the delivery of curricula no longer tied to ‘expensive facilities and programs of conventional universities’.

Our project aims to build on these basic assumptions about the technological and economic background of unbundling. We intend to enlarge the empirical scope of the current debate by treating unbundling as an object of sociological interest – one aspect of a complex system of factors that are affecting global higher education. Crucially, we are interested in mapping out the roles, the decision-making processes, the technologies, the strategies, the visions and the actual changes in educational provision.

Our empirical approach

In practical terms, we will draw on relevant artefacts as well as carry out interviews and data collection workshops with a range of individuals, from senior leaders to faculty members and students. Our aim is to examine agency, i.e. what actions are actually being taken, a well as perceptions and opinions. We will consider how decisions are made and how different actors are positioned in relation to such decisions, taking into account those who are traditionally included in defining strategies and priorities, and those who are not. We will also ask several questions about technologies, to consider their actual role versus their promised benefits.

Our approach is descriptive, but also informed by a desire to understand who is more likely to benefit and who might, on the other hand, see their standing and opportunity undermined. Therefore, the map that we intend to develop is not only likely to reflect unequal relationships between global north and south, but also the starkly stratified nature of higher education systems in both England and South Africa themselves.

On a conceptual level, we see the trends currently at work in global higher education as the result of negotiations, business strategies, technological innovation, forms of brokerage as well as active or passive resistance. Although we aim to study changes in higher education as they are, in a manner of speaking, ‘coming into existence’ through the performances and interactions of actors, we remain very much aware of the broader historical and social contexts within which these trends are located.

In particular, we are aware of how the debate about the social purpose of tertiary education is increasingly shaped by themes like marketisation, competition and by a frantic quest for new funding models that can sustain continued investments, in the face of a growing demand as well as economic and political uncertainties. This means that we will also strive to compare, where possible, how these changes are manifesting themselves in South Africa, with its apartheid past and its profoundly unequal present, and England, with its aspirations as a global higher education superpower, yet mired in an equally problematic tradition of enduring class divisions and very uneven social mobility. Although we are not in the position to carry out a fully-fledged comparison, we will pay attention to important nuances and differences between these two research contexts, by focusing on the local iterations (and contradictions) of the global discourses of educational transformation. Hence, the English emphasis on internationalisation, competition and growth may entail rather different forms of innovation than the ones we may (or indeed may not) find in South Africa. The challenges in this country also include dealing with the long shadows of colonialism and pressures for profound social transformation as well as addressing the heritage of a painful apartheid history in both society in general and within universities in particular.

Last but not least, our analytic focus is not only on the sociological nature of these phenomena, but their educational implications as well. Our empirical approach sets off from the analysis of broad economic trends and societal challenges, but the interest will rapidly shift to what arguably represents the core dimensions at stake: educational provision and the pedagogical implications. In particular, we will examine the entanglement of technology, teaching and learning, not only looking for evidence of alternative ways of delivering curricula, accrediting learning achievements, and using data to develop adaptive learning paths, but also considering the intended and unintended consequences for the main actors involved. Talking to teachers and students, we will find out how they understand, experience and anticipate the changes in provision.

Over the duration of the project , this blog will continue to be be an important channel which will document the key stages of our empirical process, whilst also providing a platform for informed discussion.