Czerniewicz, L: Mogliacci, R; Walji, S; Cliff, A; Swinnerton, B  & Morris, N  (2021) ‘Academics Teaching and Learning at the Nexus: Unbundling, Marketisation and Digitisation in Higher Education’ Teaching in Higher Education 1-15. DOI: 10.1080/13562517.2021.1876019

This paper explores how academics navigate the Higher Education (HE) landscape being reshaped by the convergence of unbundling, marketisation and digitisation processes. Social Realism distinguishes three layers of social reality (in this case higher education): the empirical, the actual and the real. The empirical layer is presented by the academics and their teaching; the actual are the institutional processes of teaching, learning, assessment, mode of provision (online, blended); the real are the power and regulatory mechanisms that shape the first two and affect academics’ agency. Two dimensions of academics’ experiences and perceptions are presented. The structural dimension reflects academics’ perceptions of the emergent organisation of the education environment including the changing narratives around digitisation, marketisation and unbundling in the context of digital inequalities. The professional dimension aspects play out at the actor level with respect to work-related issues, particularly their own. This dimension is portrayed in academics’ concerns about ownership and control.


Czerniewicz L, Mogliacci R, Walji S, Swartz R, Ivancheva M, Swinnerton BJ, Morris NP. 2020. Negotiating the ‘New Normal’: University Leaders and Marketisation. South African Journal of Higher Education.

This article explores how leaders, key decision-makers in research-intensive public universities perceive marketisation in the sector in relation to public-private arrangements in teaching and learning provision. The focus is on the nature of relationships between public universities and those private companies engaged in the co-creation, delivery and support of educational provision. It draws on 16 interviews with decision makers – senior leaders and managers in higher education at six research-intensive universities in South Africa and England. Questions raised in this article are: How do senior decision makers perceive the entry of private players into public higher education? What are their experiences of working in partnership with private companies? What effect do they think the relationship is having on the status of the public university? How do they talk about the market actors? We observe that university leaders in both study countries, despite their different positions in the global field of higher education, and the hybrid moral economy around processes of marketisation all use language borrowed from the business sector to justify or reject marketisation. This indicates an unprecedented level of normalisation of this rhetoric in a public sector otherwise sensitive to language use posing serious questions about the nature of public universities in this marketised era.


Morris NP, Ivancheva M, Coop T, Mogliacci R, Swinnerton B. 2020. Negotiating growth of online education in higher education. International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education.

Universities are facing growing internal and external pressures to generate income, educate a widening continuum of learners, and make effective use of digital technologies. One response has been growth of online education, catalysed by Massive Open Online Courses, availability of digital devices and technologies, and notions of borderless global education. In growing online education, learning and teaching provision has become increasingly disaggregated, and universities are partnering with a range of private companies to reach new learners, and commercialise educational provision. In this paper, we explore the competing drivers which impact decision making within English universities and their strategies to grow online education provision, through interviews with senior managers, and interrogation of their views through the lens of a range of internal, external and organisational drivers. We show that pressures facing universities may be alleviated by growth of online education provision, but that negotiating an appropriate route to realise this ambition involves attempts to resolve these underlying tensions deriving from competing drivers. We use a modified form of the PEST model to demonstrate the complexities, inter-dependencies and processes associated with these drivers when negotiating delivery of unbundled online education through use of private company services, or in partnership with private companies.


Ivancheva M, Swartz R, Morris NP, Walji S, Swinnerton BJ, Coop T, Czerniewicz L. 2020. Conflicting Logics of Online Higher Education. British Journal of Sociology of Education

The advent of massive open online courses and online degrees offered via digital platforms has occurred in a climate of austerity. Public universities worldwide face challenges to expand their educational reach, while competing in international rankings, raising fees and generating third-stream income. Online forms of unbundled provision offering smaller flexible low-cost curricular units have promised to disrupt this system. Yet do these forms challenge existing hierarchies in higher education and the market logic that puts pressure on universities and public institutions at large in the neoliberal era? Based on fieldwork in South Africa, this article explores the perceptions of senior managers of public universities and of online programme management companies. Analysing their considerations around unbundled provision, we discuss two conflicting logics of higher education that actors in structurally different positions and in historically divergent institutions use to justify their involvement in public–private partnerships: the logic of capital and the logic of social relevance.


Cliff, A., Walji, S., Mogliacci, R.J., Morris, N. & Ivancheva, M. 2020. Unbundling and higher education curriculum: a Cultural -Historical Activity Theory view of process. Teaching in Higher Education.

The focus of this paper is on the contestations and dilemmas emergent in higher education curriculum in a context of increasing processes of unbundling, digitisation and marketisation. The paper explores the notion of contestation through the theoretical lens of Cultural-Historical Activity Theory. It points to illustrative examples of this contestation from empirical data drawn from stakeholder research in South African higher education. The paper grapples with understandings of the concept of curriculum and argues how these have been shaped by – and are shaping – emergent meanings of curriculum in an unbundling context. The argument is that these emergent meanings are a function of different explicit and tacit understandings of curriculum and what higher education offers to students. These understandings are deepened or modified by processes of unbundling. Empirical data from the research study shows these understandings to be forming against the backdrop of powerful cultural and agentic forces and players.

Swartz, R., Ivancheva, M., Czerniewicz, L. & Morris, N. (2018). Between a rock and a hard place: dilemmas regarding the purpose of public universities in South Africa. Higher Education.

This paper examines the idea of ‘core business’ in contemporary South African public universities. South Africa’s public higher education system has global ambitions, but is also highly internally stratified. Drawing on new data from interviews with higher education leaders and government policymakers across a number of South African institutions, we show that while the rhetoric of ‘core business’ of the university has been adopted by higher education leaders, the question of what constitutes the purpose of the university, in South Africa and arguably beyond, is subject to ongoing debate and negotiation. The multiplicity of conflicting but coexisting narratives about what universities should do in South African society—producing excellent research, preparing a labour force, or addressing societal inequalities—exposes a persisting tension surrounding the purpose of a public university. And while this tension has historical origins, we show that responses to addressing these various roles of the institution are not developed organically and in a neutral context. They emerge under conflicts over limited state funding and attendant and opportune market pressure put on public universities in times of crisis, that shape profoundly their framing and outcomes, and the future of the universities.


Swinnerton, B., Ivancheva, M., Coop, T., Perotta, C., Morris, N., Swartz, R., Czerniewicz, L., Cliff, A., & Walji, S. (2018). The Unbundled University: Researching emerging models in an unequal landscape. Preliminary findings from fieldwork in South Africa. In: Bajic, M., Dohn, N. B., de Laat, M., Jandric, P., & Rybery, T. (eds.) Proceedings of the 11th International Conference on Networked Learning 2018. pp. 218-226


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.


Briefing March 2019

This briefing explores some of the potential impacts of the unbundling project.

It explores the impact of the project:

Systematically map the emerging partnerships and innovations in educational technologies and public-private business models in South African and UK higher education sectors

Determine the factors influencing the unbundling and marketisation of higher education

Demonstrate the potential benefits and risks of unbundling and marketisation of higher education in the context of South Africa’s economic growth plans

The article is available to download at:


Briefing No.2 December 2017

This briefing is the second in a series of publications from the project team.

It explores partnerships between public universities and private companies which deliver unbundled online education, focusing on the division of labour between companies and universities, and the perceived benefits and drawbacks of partnerships to the delivery of online education. It draws on data from the first phase of our research project, which involved desk research and interviews with senior stakeholders leading Higher Education in South Africa.

Click this link to download the briefing. The Unbundled University. Briefing No. 2

We welcome any comments and feedback on this briefing.




Briefing No.1 March 2017

This  briefing is the first in a series of publications from the project team.

It sets out the scope of the research project and describes the South African and UK Higher Education context in which the research is located, providing insight into the different conditions in each country. It explores the key developments in Higher Education over previous decades in each context,  which have led to the crisis of the public university and the increasing commercialisation of the Higher Education sector. ‘Unbundling’ and ‘marketisation’, as they are understood by the project team, are considered and the role that technological innovation plays in these phenomena is discussed. The briefing also sets out the research questions for this project.

Click this link to download the  briefing. The Unbundled University. Briefing No. 1

We welcome any comments and feedback on this briefing.



Blog Posts

The struggle to save and remake public higher education – Laura Czerniewicz (April 2020) Blog post on University World News

Scaling up online education? More haste less speed – Neil Morris (April 2020) Blog post on Higher Education Policy Institute website

What we learnt from “going online” during university shutdowns in South Africa – Laura Czerniewicz (April 2020) Blog post on PhilonEdTech