The Unbundled University, the Market and Digital Technology: an online course

How are unbundling, marketisation and digital technology changing Higher Education? Do you want to find out more about the unbundling project and its findings?

As part of the dissemination of our findings from this project the team from the University of Cape Town and the University of Leeds have developed a MOOC, a free online course on the FutureLearn platform. The two-week course will start on March 11th 2019.

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To find out more about this MOOC watch this introductory video.


Market forces and technology are changing the landscape of higher education. This course explores one of the key changes in the context of global inequality: the unbundling of higher education. You will learn about the concept of ‘unbundling’ and how the disaggregation of university degrees into component parts is affected by digital technology. You will explore the marketisation of higher education and investigate the implications of unbundling for not only the sector, but different stakeholder groups.

This course will be useful to a range of stakeholders and decision makers within higher education. You might be a university manager, a strategist or head of a teaching and learning unit. The course is also ideal for policy makers and analysts within governments, as the research has implications for education policy.

Join the educators Prof Laura Czerniewicz, Prof Neil Morris, A/Prof Alan Cliff, Dr Bronwen Swinnerton and Ms Sukaina Walji from the University of Cape Town and the University of Leeds to discuss the following topics, emerging from  our research findings:

  • The language of unbundling as it relates to higher education provision.
  • Digital technology as an enabler or driver of unbundling.
  • The role of the market in higher education.
  • Mapping the Higher Education Terrain: South Africa and England.
  • Unbundling in the higher education sector.
  • Implications of unbundling for stakeholders.
  • Issues and debates about unbundling and rebundling.

MOOCs and the potential for unbundled higher education provision

One of the catalysts that inspired this research project is the seemingly disruptive influence of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) on Higher Education provision and the potential for ‘unbundling’ that MOOCs offer. Globally there is an increasing demand for Higher Education, and MOOCs, which offer a form of flexible educational provision at scale, have been labelled as having the potential to transform Higher Education particularly as they evolve into different forms of provision such as being offered as accredited courses or  involving organisations other than universities. The New York Times declared 2012 as ‘The Year of the MOOC’ (1) and Anant Agarwal, president of the MOOC platform edX said ‘I like to call this the year of disruption and the year is not over yet’ (2). MOOCs were hyped as the means to reach those students who could not afford a traditional route to education, particularly Higher Education.

Evolution of the MOOC landscape

There are many reasons why Higher Education Institutions have become involved in developing and offering MOOCs: as a business opportunity to expand their market potential; to raise awareness of an institution’s research and teaching excellence and broaden the brand globally; to entice students through a free course to a more formal paying course; to widen access to those unable to pay or attend face to face; and for some, simply to not miss out on offering this new form of provision. As John Mitchell, the vice-provost at Stanford responsible for online learning stated: ‘I think everyone agrees there’s something very exciting going on here. So how do we as a university participate in that?’ (3)

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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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