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Event overview: “Mapping unbundling in the HE terrain: South Africa and the UK”

By Joanna Stroud, on 14 November 2019

In this seminar, hosted by the UCL Knowledge Lab Learning Technologies Unit, Dr Bronwen Swinnerton presented outputs from the UnbundledHE project: “The Unbundled University: Researching emerging models in an unequal landscape”, a cross-institutional study conducted by the University of Cape Town and University of Leeds.

The project considers the intersection of marketisation, unbundling, and digital technology and its effects on educational inequalities in South Africa and the United Kingdom. The following blog post summarises some of the issues surrounding the concept of educational unbundling and the project’s report into the current state of unbundled provision in both countries.

Marketisation

Recent years have seen a growth in demand for HE internationally but this has occurred alongside global economic shocks, such as the 2007 recession. The economic downturn has seen greater pressure placed on universities to report on the impact of central government funding streams and a resurgence of debates surrounding education as a public versus private good. This debate has tended to foreground the benefits of higher education to private individuals and consequently prompted a shift towards funding by the individual, leading to increases in fees and application of exogenous market principles to the HE environment. Such pressures have led HEIs to look to generate third stream revenue and reach new or alternative markets to fill funding gaps.

Digital technology

Digital technology is now ubiquitous in everyday life and HE, with all universities making use of technology in teaching and learning to some extent. Alongside the need to reach new audiences many have also begun to engage with online education, which has seen dramatic growth since the introduction of MOOCs. These courses have been in great demand from non-traditional audiences, such as adult professionals, with platform providers and university partners now pivoting toward the use of short online courses to deliver CPD and widening access initiatives, enhance teaching quality, and promote ‘massification’ or scalable learning opportunities. It is agreed that while universities can undoubtedly reach more prospective learners with online education it is no longer a ‘second best’ or indeed cheaper delivery method.

Unbundling

Unbundling is explained by McCowan (2017) as being either ‘disaggregation’, where what was sold together is now sold separately, e.g. tracks from an album, or ‘no frills’, a basic version of a product, e.g. budget airlines. There now exists a definitive application to HE, with the project defining unbundling as a disaggregation of educational provision, e.g. degree programmes, into component parts, e.g. modules, for delivery by and to multiple stakeholders. This is often achieved using digital approaches, and is manifesting itself through alternative digital credentials, or microcredentials, often delivered via what were MOOC platforms.

Rationale for offering unbundled educational opportunities can be multifarious and their production and delivery at odds with existing or longstanding institutional processes. The approach is typically: 

  • Internal, whereby HEIs choose how and when to break apart existing provision and offer content to learners directly;
  • In collaboration with service or platform providers, in which an HEI procures services to support specific stages of the course lifecycle;
  • By working with online programme management companies (OPMs), frequently with full service or white-labelled delivery and revenue share arrangements.

The unbundling landscape in SA and the UK

Dr Swinnerton highlighted key findings from the project, including the outcomes of interviews with policy makers, HE leaders, edtech developers, and private company CEOs. Mapping information (delivered via kumu.io software) was drawn from publicly available data, such as university, private company, and online and distance education websites, press releases, and other media. 

Interactive mapping of the HE landscape in SA and the UK demonstrated HEIs, suppliers, and OPMs and the relationships between them across provision of unbundled online education. The maps could be filtered according to league table strata, and what was immediately apparent across both contexts was disparity in coverage, with partnership opportunities broadly unavailable to lower-ranked institutions. Private companies in this space, notably OPMs, chiefly target elite institutions with established brands to drive profit-making business models. This was particularly clear in SA, with historically disadvantaged universities having little to no opportunity to engage in the online education space with support from private sector organisations, and with the suggestion that this had the potential to propagate stark inequalities already inherent within the SA HE system. Similar issues were present in the UK context, but with acknowledgement that educational inequalities and the digital divide are not quite so strong outside the context of online delivery.

See also

Dr Bronwen J Swinnerton, Senior Research Fellow in Digital Education at the University of Leeds

McCowan, T. 2017. Higher education, unbundling, and the end of the university as we know it. Oxford Review of Education 43(6); pp.733-748.

Swinnerton, B , Ivancheva, M, Coop, T et al. (6 more authors). 2018. The Unbundled University: Researching emerging models in an unequal landscape. Preliminary findings from fieldwork in South Africa. In: Bajić, M, Dohn, NB, de Laat, M, Jandrić, P and Ryberg, T, (eds.) Proceedings of the 11th International Conference on Networked Learning 2018. Networked Learning 2018, 14-16 May 2018, Zagreb, Croatia; pp. 218-226.

Alternative presentation delivered by UCT’s Sukaina Walji at WCOL19 with an increased focus on OPM relationships. “Degrees of (un)ease: Emerging relationships between OPMs and University Stakeholders in an unbundling landscape”

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