Upcoming Events

ICDE 2017

International Council for Open and Distance Education

World Conference on Online Learning. Teaching in a Digital Age – Re-Thinking Teaching & Learning

16-19 October 2017, Toronto, Canada

‘Marketisation and Public Higher Education in South Africa’

Laura Czerniewicz

Czerniewicz, L; Swartz, R; Walji, S et al.

This paper reports on how marketisation in South African higher education is understood and expressed. Based on 26 interviews conducted at 6 public universities in South Africa, as well as at government bodies, the paper shows that there are multiple different views of the role of the market in higher education in South Africa. It explores the ways in which key stakeholders discuss profit-making at publically funded institutions in the context of austerity and fees protests in South Africa. Interviews focused on the changing nature of higher education in South Africa, focusing particularly on the process of ‘unbundling’ and the role of private education providers within the public higher education system. Private providers in this context are defined as private companies who provide teaching and learning platforms, products, support and so on to public institutions. Following Ball and Youdell (2008) the paper is particularly interested in ‘exogenous privatisation’, where public higher education is opened to private sector involvement in teaching and learning activities. The paper extends our understanding of the relationships between universities and private providers, indicating how these changes are reflected in the narratives surrounding ‘business models’ in higher education. It therefore contributes an empirical case study to the conference theme of ‘re-designed Institutional Business Models’.  The interview data has been analysed using Nvivo software, using codes derived from our research questions and the interview data. This analysis is supplemented by desk research on higher education in South Africa. This paper forms part of a broader study entitled ‘The Unbundled University: Researching emerging models in an unequal landscape’ which examines new forms of provision in public higher education institutions at the interface of unbundling, marketisation and digital technologies.

While many interviewees expressed discomfort at the idea of profit making in higher education, and particularly around the implications of private companies’ involvement for the academic project, they maintained that these relationships often benefited the university, both financially and through creating an awareness of the university brand. Participants emphasised the importance of the role of decision-makers at the university level negotiating the terms of engagement with private partners. This is what Mamdani (2007) refers to as the ‘soft version’ of privatisation in higher education, where the priorities of privatisation are set by the public institution.  By contrast, some interviewees also reflected on the ways in which higher education does not function as a ‘true’ market due to the constraints of state funding and regulation. As Marginson (2013) has argued higher education does not function as a capitalist market because of the limitations associated government regulation, particularly around fees, the limitations placed on profit-making activities at universities, and the production of knowledge for the ‘public good’. In some cases, interviewees argued that state intervention constrained innovation through limiting the role of private providers in public universities.

The paper concludes by reflecting on the implications of these emerging business models in higher education for teaching and learning activities. Overall, the data suggest that partnerships between public universities and private providers cannot be seen in binary terms as either harmful or helpful – or in the words of a participant as ‘risks or opportunities’- to the public institution. Rather the full range of possible relationships between these groups needs to be conceptualised in order for the engagements between parties to be better defined and regulated in order to best serve the needs of student learning.

Keywords: South Africa, private providers, marketisation, business models, profit-making


Ball, S and Youdell, D (2008) Hidden Privatisation in Public Education (Education International Report, Institute of Education, London).

Mamdani, M. (2007). Scholars in the Marketplace. The Dilemmas of Neo-Liberal Reform at Makerere University, 1989-2005. (Dakar: Coderisa; Second ed, 2009, HSRC Press).

Marginson, S. (2013). The impossibility of capitalist markets in higher education. Journal of Education Policy, 28(3), 353-370.



Higher Education Learning & Teaching Association of South Africa

21-24 November 2017, Durban, South Africa

Pre-conference workshop 21st November

 ‘Unbundling Higher Education: Exploring Models in an Unequal Landscape’

 Laura Czerniewicz and Neil Morris 

This workshop falls under two sub-themes of the conference. Firstly, the workshop’s focus on the relationship between public higher education and alternative providers calls for an engagement with the idea of the ‘greater purpose’ of higher education. In particular, we are interested in critically examining the policies and governance structures in place in the higher education sector that impact on the relationships between ‘public’ and ‘private’ in higher education. Secondly, the workshop relates to issues of access and parity of participation.

Workshop description: The workshop offers an opportunity for engaged discussion for those interested in the changing nature of higher education, and in particular in new models of teaching and learning provision, the role of digital technologies and the effect of marketisation on teaching and learning in the sector. Interspersed with inputs from the facilitators, the workshop will be designed for maximum participation. The discussion will explore the ways in which digital technologies used in teaching and learning do, or will in future, impact on access to higher education in South Africa. MOOCs and online degrees could offer increased access to higher education. In particular there will be a focus on what these new modes of provision might mean for access in an unequal society

This workshop will provide attendees an opportunity to explore current critical issues with their peers as well as to benefit from the expertise of the facilitators. The workshop forms part of the Unbundling Higher Education Project.

Duration: 1.5 hours

Keywords: Unbundling, marketisation, digital technologies, teaching and learning, inequality