Unbundling and Marketisation

In this first blog post, I want to briefly explore my interpretation of this project, and the terms ‘unbundling’ and ‘marketisation’ as they relate to digital technology. Higher Education is in a time of rapid change globally, partly due to marketization and digital technology, but also due to a number of other factors, outside the scope of this project. Whilst the focus of our project is on the impact of these factors on changes in the Higher Education system in South Africa, this project is relevant in many countries across the world, including the UK.

The term ‘unbundling’ has a number of meanings in the research literature and in practice. In practice, unbundling has manifested itself in different ways in different education cultures and contexts. In North America, unbundling is primarily perceived as credit accumulation, credit transfer and more recently micro-credentials (e.g. Nanodegrees from Udacity and MicroMasters from edX); as predicted by Selingo a few year ago (Selingo, 2013). In the UK, unbundling is currently viewed as the disaggregation of learning into smaller parts which offers, in theory at least, opportunities for HEIs to separate traditionally integrated components and reimagine new products and services (Yuan et al., 2013).

Our focus in this project is to look at unbundling through the lens of digital technology specifically, and to ask how prevalent unbundling is in South Africa and the England, and the impact this is having on higher education. The catalyst that inspired this proposal is the disruptive influence of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and the potential for unbundling that these offer, particularly as they evolve into accredited courses and involve organisations other than universities. One example of unbundling through digital technology is a credit-bearing MOOC (see examples on FutureLearn). Some of these MOOCs are university credit-bearing courses which offer the award of 10 UK undergraduate credits. This credit can be used towards a degree to be taken at any University which will accept it, or used to build a portfolio of awards from a range of universities and other accrediting bodies, in lieu of a degree. Whilst the opportunities this offers in terms of flexibility and access are clear, there are risks that it could lead to fragmentation of the curriculum, a disconnect with the holistic benefits offered by a university experience, concerns about quality if a wide range of providers are involved and inequality if university credit is a commodity only available to those that can afford to pay.

Our research questions will explore the impact unbundling is having on universities, employers, staff and students, and the impact it is having, or may have, on traditional campus-based degree offerings and equality of provision for students. We will be asking how these new market opportunities are being approached and configured by universities and private providers in South Africa and England where possible, with a particular focus on how they can support the development of the HE sector.

A number of organisations around the world are offering unbundled higher education through online platforms, including OERu. OERu have over thirty university partners from five continents, and offer fee paying credit-bearing courses to learners online; one of their goals is:

providing pathways for students to achieve credible credentials for approved courses based solely on open education resources (OER). OER means learning materials that have been released under an intellectual property license, permitting their free use or re-purposing by others” (OERu, 2016)

Marketization refers to the increasing presence of alternative (private) providers offering HE provision alongside universities, often through online means and at lower costs, and the emerging partnerships between universities and private providers to offer accredited learning at a wide range of levels from foundation, through undergraduate and postgraduates degrees to continuing professional development and corporate training. Clayton Christensen, the Harvard Business Professor termed the ‘father of disruption’ holds extreme views about the future of universities as a result of unbundling, marketization and digital technology:

“Some will survive. Most will evolve hybrid models, in which universities license some courses from an online provider like Coursera but then provide more-specialized courses in person. Hybrids are actually a principle regardless of industry. If you want to use a new technology in a mainstream existing market, it has to be a hybrid.” (Christensen 2013)

In the UK and elsewhere, partnerships between universities and private providers are increasing, and we will be investigating this trend through a critical lens.  The well established partnership between the University of Liverpool and Laureate is often cited in the literature.  Robertson & Komljenovic (2016) conceptualise such initiatives as ‘market-making’. They believe that the advent of MOOCs and the modularity brought about by digitisation are not only being construed as forms of educational improvement, but also as a result of economic necessity, because the groupings of the various components of educational provision promise hard-to-ignore efficiencies (Sharrock, 2015). These business models, based on different flavours of unbundling – some more mature and some at an early stage of development – are in turn leading to newly constituted relationships between institutions and private partners or providers; between different institutional entities; and between actors with various roles within the institutions.

Through our forthcoming research study we hope to explore the actual impact these changes are having on Higher Education institutions and their staff and students, and seek the views of universities, academics, students, employers, alternative providers and governments about the possible future of Higher Education provision in a digital age.

Neil Morris is Director of Digital Learning and Chair of Education Technology, Innovation and Change in the School of Education at the University of Leeds.  Here, he blogs as a researcher and the UK-based Principal Investigator of the ESRC, Newton and NRF funded project ‘The Unbundled University: Researching digital technology and emerging models in unequal landscapes’.