Stakeholders in an unbundling university: negotiations and contestations for provision of online education
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Poster presentation ALT conference, September 2019, Edinburgh

Stakeholders in an unbundling university: negotiations and contestations for provision of online education

Laura Czerniewicz, Rada Jancic Mogliacci, Sukaina Walji

The Unbundled University – Online Course on FutureLearn

The Unbundled University - Online Course on FutureLearn

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

Join our free online course with educators Prof Laura Czerniewicz, Prof Neil Morris, Dr Alan Cliff, Dr Bronwen Swinnerton and Sukaina Walji.

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ALT Annual Conference 2018Association for Learning Technology » Improving practice, promoting research, and influencing policy

11-13 September 2018, Manchester, UK

Critical perspectives on unbundling and rebundling higher education provision online [18-97]

Wednesday 12 September 2018, 11.30 am

Authors: Neil MorrisMariya IvanchevaBronwen SwinnertonTaryn Coop, and Laura Czerniewicz
Room: Theatre B
Theme: Critical perspectives in Learning Technology
Type: Research session – 30mins

In this session, we will present data from a University of Leeds ESRC Newton funded research grant conducted in collaboration with the University of Cape Town. We will contextualise the study in the existing literature around marketization, unbundling and digital technology, and give an overview of our research in South Africa. We will then focus on data collected from the UK higher education sector, through desk research and interviews with senior HE leaders. Our session will involve a presentation of our research data, including demonstration of novel interactive visualisations. Participants will be able to view these visualisations themselves during the session, and manipulate the data. We will pose several critical questions to the audience during the session, and invite responses digitally through a Padlet wall. At the end of the session, we will take questions from the audience about our research findings. The session strongly relates to the theme of critical perspectives of learning technology, as our research project is focussed on the benefits and challenges of the growth in unbundled online learning from universities, and the impact this is having on access, equality, flexibility, institutional mission and the changing nature of higher education.

Session content: evaluation and reflection

Our session will describe the findings from our extensive desk research to show which UK universities are creating short online courses (e.g. Massive Open Online Courses) and online degrees, which platforms they are using, and which private companies they are partnering with to create online degrees. During the session, we will demonstrate our novel interactive maps, which visualise these relationships and activities, against a number of factors, including global positioning, rankings etc. We will explore the detail beneath these maps through discussion of interviews with senior UK HE leaders, who reflect on the current state of unbundling in the UK HE sector, the role of digital technology to support campus-based and online learners and the impact of partnerships with private companies on the business models of UK universities. We will describe how our qualitative and quantitative data sets are collected, organised, analysed and critiqued as part of the presentation.


Bass, R., & Eynon, B. (2017) From unbundling to rebundling: Design principles for transforming institutions In the new digital ecosystem. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 49:2, 8-17

Hall, R & Smyth, K. (2016) Dismantling the curriculum in Higher Education. Open Library of Humanities, 2(1): e11, p1-28.

EC-TEL18 workshop


Tuesday 4th September 1.50-5:00PM, University of Leeds, Leeds, UK (9.58a, Worsley Building)

In this workshop, we will hear from academic researchers working in the area of marketization, unbundling and digital technology, in the context of the higher education sector. The workshop will focus on the benefits and challenges of the growth in unbundled online learning from universities, and the impact this is having on access, equality, flexibility, institutional mission and the changing nature of higher education.

The workshop will involve presentations of research data from a range of academic perspectives, including demonstrations of data for participants to explore, critically evaluate and discuss. We will pose several critical questions to the audience during the session, and invite responses digitally through a Padlet wall. At the end of the session, we will have a plenary discussion with all presenters and the audience.

Workshop programme

1:50pm – Welcome and introductions (Prof. Neil Morris, University of Leeds)
2:00pm – “The expanding data infrastructure of higher education: policy networks, performance measurement, and market-making” (Dr. Ben Williamson, University of Stirling)
2:30pm – “Modes of unbundling and their implications for social justice” (Dr. Tristan McCowan, University College London)
3:00pm – Q&A

3:15pm – Coffee break

3:45pm – “Mapping unbundling in the higher education terrain: South Africa and the UK.” (Dr. Bronwen Swinnerton, University of Leeds)
4:15pm – “Potentials and challenges of digital disruption in higher education to tackle inequalities in South Africa” (Dr. Mariya Ivancheva, University of Leeds)
4:45pm – Q&A
5:00pm – Finish

Leeds Digital Festival: The Impact of Digital on the Future of the University: A Panel Discussion with Employers

The event will commence with a short presentation from the project team about our ESRC-sponsored research project The Unbundled University and how UK Higher Education is changing and the role of digital technology in this. This presentation will describe the proliferation of ‘non-traditional’ courses and qualifications that UK universities now offer, using digital technology to offer online and blended learning provision.

This panel will include representatives from a number of private and public sector employers from the area and will engage employers and the larger audience, including members of the public, with some of the questions and topics we cover in our project.

In a round of short provocative questions from the panel chair, Professor Neil Morris, the panel presenters will share their views on, and experiences of, the changing nature of higher education as employers: how they perceive the changing higher education provision with the introduction of digital technologies and increasing online learning options; and how they anticipate that the new developments in higher education will impact on the level of education and skills of their future employee. After this initial round, the audience will be invited to engage in discussion with the panel and to share their own views and experiences of the questions posed by the chair.

Monday 23rd April 2018 3.30 pm – 5.00 pm

Room 1.08, Parkinson Building, University of Leeds, Woodhouse Lane, Leeds LS2 9JT

Networked Learning Conference

Zagreb, Croatia 14-16th May 2018

The Unbundled University: Researching emerging models in an unequal landscape. Preliminary findings from fieldwork in South Africa

Bronwen Swinnerton, Mariya Ivancheva, Taryn Coop, Carlo Perrotta, Neil P Morris, School of Education, University of Leeds, UK.

Rebecca Swartz, Laura Czerniewicz, Alan Cliff, Sukaina Walji, Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching, University of Cape Town, South Africa.


As Higher Education undergoes a massive expansion in demand globally, and experiences financial pressures exacerbated by the global financial crisis of 2008, the sector is evolving rapidly. Market pressures on the sector encourage the search for additional income and new forms of provision, and private providers are increasingly entering the sector. At the same time, the HE sector has seen the appearance of many flexible online courses and qualifications, delivered by new configurations of providers and partnerships, including by parties new to the sector, through a process of disaggregating educational provision into its component parts, or ‘unbundling’. Whilst these changes may offer opportunities for increased numbers of learners to access education and thus contribute to economic prosperity, there is very little empirical research about the nature, process and impact of this unbundling and rebundling of educational provision, as it is playing out in this rapidly reconfiguring space. This paper reports data on South African Higher Education from the research project ‘The Unbundled University: Researching emerging models in an unequal landscape’, a project which explores the terrain in both South Africa and the UK. South Africa is deemed the most unequal country in the world and its HE system is under pressure, demonstrated in part by rising fees, student protests and calls for decolonised education, whilst online education is viewed by some, including the South African Government, as a way to increase access. Using a new dataset systematically collected from the public domain, data visualisation is employed to bring a novel perspective to the educational provision being offered using digital technology (and the private companies partnering with universities in South Africa to provide it), to uncover patterns of activity and their relationship to existing patterns of inequality in the HE sector. Using mapping, or social cartography, this paper reveals patterns and relationships which are otherwise not so obvious. Significantly, the maps reveal relationships between universities and private companies which appear to reflect existing inequalities, insofar as private companies partner almost exclusively with historically advantaged, research intensive universities, with high international ranking and reputation. This paper argues that such partnerships do not disrupt an unequal terrain, but rather reflect and possibly reinforce the power asymmetries already at play.

Example of static map

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