Emergence and role of private providers in the South African Higher Education landscape

In this blog post Sukaina Walji, part of the The Unbundled University: researching emerging models in an unequal landscape project team takes a preliminary look at the emergence and role(s) of private providers in the South African Higher Education landscape. (Our study also includes England and Higher Education providers but in this blog we focus only on South Africa)

The Unbundled University research project is examining what constitutes the ‘unbundled university’ and considers the intersection of marketisation, digital technologies and the notion of unbundling (defined as the increasing disaggregation of services and curricula provided by a Higher Education institution). As part of the examination of the forces that are enabling unbundling we are interesting in understanding the role and nature of ‘private providers’ as a way to understand the evolving nature of Higher Education provision in South Africa, and in particular what makes up the various components that are part of the ‘bundle of services’.  We acknowledge that ‘private providers’ is a very broad category, and in this project we wish to examine more closely the types of services and relationships that currently exist and are likely to emerge between public institutions and private providers.

This blog post shares some preliminary work by the team, and which has begun with a process of ‘mapping the terrain’. In terms of scope we consider ‘private provider’ falling into two broad categories:

  1. Private universities, which offer degrees and accredited qualifications to South African tertiary students. Their core product is then largely the same as a public HE institution: degrees for enrolled students.
  2. Entities, business and service providers that are privately owned and provide services to public (or private) HE institutions.

In this blog post and in our study we are predominantly concerned with understanding the second of these categories – the entities, businesses and service providers which seek to support, service and partner with universities. This is not to minimise the existence of and potential influence of private universities as part of the broader context, but for reasons of containing scope they do not form part of our study.

The context in South Africa

Our first policy brief in this project outlined the broad context of the changes and forces that are shaping changes in the South African Higher Education sector. Policy initiatives have encouraged many public institutions to consider online and blended learning to offer new programmes, and increasing numbers of students are studying through distance education programmes at predominantly residential institutions. This is enabled by the availability of ICTs which is allowing for more flexible forms of provision, sometimes known as mixed mode or blended learning which can offer tertiary education to a wider group of potential students. A number of South African universities are offering various types of provision online including paid-for short courses for certification, post-graduate diplomas, Master’s degrees and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). These types of provision are increasing year on year and are motivated by a range of factors including the potential for third stream income, reaching so-called non-traditional learners who require more flexibility, increasing capacity in the sector and reaching new geographical markets.

Moves towards more flexible forms of provision have also been catalysed by the emergence of student movements at South African universities under the banner of #feesmustfall  which have resulted in partial shutdowns where physical access to on-campus facilities was restricted. In a drive to keep on teaching and to complete the academic year, many educators turned to virtual modes of teaching which ranged from using simple communications technologies such as email and WhatsApp to keep classes going to more sophisticated modes such as live virtual classrooms or extensive use of a learning management system. As well as individual academics keeping their classes going through virtual modes, a number of institutions formally turned to online and blended modes to complete the academic year. While these strategies took place in a “crisis mode”, the medium term effects seem to have resulted in more interest in the potential of online and blended teaching and learning spaces.

Given these forces and developments, South African universities are grappling with how to resource and produce courses and programs in online modes, as our first set of interviews seem to indicate. The skills and resources needed to produce new educational opportunities require finding new resources to fund online education development including paying for instructional design, course production including video production, technical infrastructure, maintenance, student support and management. This range of skills and new needs mean that most traditional residential universities have to consider a number of options for resourcing online education provision. Whether this is done in house with developing new units and jobs or whether these services are bought in either through outsourcing or partnering with private providers is a key decision needing to be made by Higher Education leaders.

Types and nature of private providers

At the same time as universities have expressed interest and started projects to develop online courses, the notion or idea of education as a business opportunity has become increasingly of interest to investors, venture capitalists and entrepreneurs. This has been the case in the Global North for some time with many educational businesses servicing educational institutions and thus constituting a form of ‘marketization’ of education or a ‘global education industry’. Worldwide it is clear that education is seen as a potential market in which businesses can take an interest or stake in an educational endeavour and for which some return is expected. With increasing austerity worldwide and cuts to public funding to universities, institutions appear receptive to how new projects such as online learning provision might be achieved in the absence of inhouse funding for investment. Many of these businesses are referred to, as in this Inside Higher Ed article,  as online program management providers (OPM) while others use ‘edu-businesses’ or ‘enabler companies’ as a catch-all term. In the South African market, a number of private companies are currently providing a range of services to South African universities across a range and spectrum of services.

The diagram provides an overview of the types of activities an educational institution might engage in when developing an online education program. Any of these activities can potentially be provided by a private provider and at different entry points.






View larger diagram (link to a Google Slide)

While the entry points can be at any stage, if an institution is starting from scratch, it is likely to start with strategic planning and readiness assessment as the first stage. By way of illustration a brief explanation of each stage is given below with some possible examples:

Strategy and readiness: this is the first phase where the private provider helps an institution develop a strategy or strategies for what sort of online provision is required and ascertains the institution’s readiness. This may involve engaging with policy level and accreditation requirements for any new programs as well as analysing the technical and platform infrastructure. For example an institution might be interested in starting short courses in executive education and wants to consider the opportunities in the market as well as what it would take to start a short course program in executive education. Current learning platforms would be evaluated as well as a needs analysis of what potential new consumers might require.

Planning at program level: following on from strategy and readiness, this phase involves planning programs and products and includes ascertaining the specific business models and funding requirements for a new online education initiative and what models there are to partner with an external company. This also includes taking into account the marketing, admissions and accreditation needs of any particular programs. For example an institution might be interested in offering a number of postgraduate diplomas in online mode and needs to firm up the parameters and business model for any given program including how many students would need to be enrolled for the program to be viable, what the price point might be given the costs (that include marketing, admissions and administration support) as well as what level of funding is required for the initiative and what sources might be drawn on. This phase will also involve faculty buy-in and appointment of program convenors.

Design, production and delivery at course level: This phase comprises a series of pathways that consider the design of courses, production of materials, development of assessments and the course delivery process. Following launch, the phase also includes course support and maintenance.

The diagram shows not only the phases of a full scale online education development and production model from the point of view of an institution, but also shows at a level of granularity the types of services and tasks – effectively the components that make up the bundle. We are seeing that enabler companies and edu-businesses are coming in at different points to offer different services, and our preliminary analysis in the South African context shows two main types of companies:

Multi-service companies which offer a full range of services which an institution might pick and choose from. Effectively a multi-service education provider might offer an institution a complete service that includes developing an online education strategy or conceptualising products and then offering production,design, development and launch.. Examples globally include Cengage, 2U, Academic Partnerships, and multi-service online education provision is an area that some of the major MOOC platforms such as Coursera and FutureLearn are moving into as they evolve their business models. A local South African example is Getsmarter (which was recently purchased by 2U). While GetSmarter/2U and Academic Partnerships are actively operating in the South African Higher Education sector, many other companies are tentatively exploring the possibilities of the South African Higher Education market.

The other type of provider is one that offers a single-service such as exam proctoring or tutoring and can range from large scale organisations to small localised ones. Examples include ProctorU, PearsonVue and also includes providers of Learning Management Systems such as Blackboard or Canvas.

The role of private providers and their business models is evolving with differing views of their effectiveness and potential impact on quality of offerings, and also on their potential to impact on the purpose of higher education itself as in this example to enable more career ready graduates. One of the outcomes of this project is to assist senior leadership in universities including strategists, procurement officers and institutional planning departments to understand the nature of what private providers are offering in terms of business models, services, and what the implications and consequences of various models of an unbundled and rebundled partnership might be.

We welcome comments on the description of the online education bundle described here,  whether the categorisation of private providers resonates, and if there are other examples of business models or partnerships in the South African Higher Education sphere. The author welcomes feedback and can be contacted via email sukaina.walji@uct.ac.za or via Twitter @sukainaw.