The Unbundled University: Researching emerging models in an unequal landscape. Preliminary findings from fieldwork in South Africa
Networked Learning Conference, Zagreb, Croatia 14-16th May 2018.
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.

Click this link to access the paper NLC 2018 paper


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


Association of Learning Technologists (ALT) Conference 5-7 September 2017, Liverpool, UK

Poster presentation by Alan Cliff and Rebecca Swartz. Click the poster to see an enlarged version.

 Reflections from AltC:  Unbundling, rebundling and the ‘new normal’ for higher education

In this blog post Rebecca Swartz, part of the The Unbundled University: researching emerging models in an unequal landscape team, relates her impressions of the AltC conference, where she and Alan Cliff presented on the project.

Alan Cliff and I recently had the opportunity to attend  AltC, held at the University of Liverpool from 5-7 September 2017. The theme of the conference, ‘Beyond islands of innovation – how Learning Technology became the new norm(al)’, provoked interesting discussion about the nature of technological change in higher education today, and urged participants to consider the language of ‘disruption’ in higher education discourse. The conference attracted university-based researchers and learning technologists, as well as representatives from the private sector. One of the most interesting parts of the conference was talking to private providers in the Exhibition Hall. This gave Alan and I a sense of the plethora of educational technologies on offer to institutions in the UK, as well as drawing our attention to the changing nature of higher education provision in that context.

Particularly relevant to our project was the keynote address given by Bonnie Stewart, educator and researcher at the University of Prince Edward Island. Bonnie’s work is concerned with digital identity and knowledge, and she has published on MOOCs, academic twitter and open learning. Her keynote, (you can view it here), which kicked off the conference on 5 September, challenged participants to question norms in education. She drew attention to the way in which educational norms, or even disruptions, can serve to legitimate pre-existing power structures. She referred to the process of ‘unbundling’, saying that while learning technologies might cause disruptions in higher education, this might not be able to preserve institutions in the face of funding pressures and rising student numbers. She argued that open models could entrench existing power relations, but could also break down barriers to create greater access across the sector.  This was captured in this infographic depicting her talk. She was ultimately concerned not with the process of ‘unbundling’ of higher education, but rather with the ways in which ‘re-bundling’ might occur. The talk reminded us that we should be cognisant of the ways that new forms of provision might in fact use pre-existing models, language and structures to function. Thus, what might seem ‘new’ might not change the dynamics between students and lecturers, enhance accessibility or even alter student learning.

The conference also provided an opportunity for us to present some preliminary observations from our data. We gave a five-minute lightning talk which gave us the (challenging) opportunity to distil our project’s focus down to its most important points. We also presented a poster that used quotations from our data to illustrate emerging themes from the project’s 30+ South African interviews conducted to date.  The four themes we focused on were:  catalysts for change provision, perceptions of partnerships, reasons for engaging in partnerships, and the level of uncertainty regarding new forms of provision in a rapidly changing higher education context. Although we are in the early stages of analysis, these themes – of change, uncertainty and adaptation – seemed to dovetail well with Bonnie Stewart’s talk, as they draw attention to the difficulties associated with engaging in ‘new’ forms of provision in the context of educational inequality. As we enter the next phase of data collection, it will serve us well to remember to question the ways in which decisions are made regarding changes in provision, and whose interests these changes protect, serve or overlook.

We welcome comments and feedback on this poster and blog.