February 7, 2022

The great unbundling: diminishing or democratising higher education?

Back in 2011, academic eyebrows were raised when news of a ‘no-frills’ higher-education path in an offshoot of Coventry University emerged, offering degree-level qualifications for around half the price of traditional universities. Students at the Coventry University College (CUC) were promised modular study routes in a variety of professional programmes, with part-time, full-time, and accelerated options, as well as the opportunity to pay in instalments.


Naturally, there was a catch: university provision was limited to teaching and learning only, with students forgoing the usual university experiences in favour of cheaper, more flexible courses. CUC’s model proved itself to be highly profitable – just five years after launching, it recorded post-tax profits of almost £4m and in 2019 opened a new £33m campus – prompting a re-evaluation of its potential.


Fast forward to 2022 and universities and colleges everywhere are looking into strategies for assuring their long-term survival in a sector that’s experiencing existential challenges. There are two primary drivers for ‘unbundling’ traditional higher education provision: financial and pedagogical. Higher education institutions are hoping that moving away from the one-size-fits-all approach will not only realise the potential for greater personalisation (and, by extension, higher enrolments) but may create momentum for establishing fresh relevance and greater economic viability for the future.


Unpicking the higher education formula

Traditional degree programmes can be summarised as bundles of services that include academic tuition alongside other interwoven elements like research, healthcare, accommodation, food, sports, and social activities. But, which of these items are part of the core university experience – and which are subsidiary? Does each institution need its own discrete functions or could partnering and outsourcing some elements liberate universities to focus on what they value the most?


Dissecting bundled university packages isn’t limited to separating out the physical functions. Unbundling time – re-examining course duration and attendance – could also have significant implications for institutions, staff, and students, perhaps paving the way for an alternative, more flexible, exploration of the learning journey. Similarly, moving to unbundle content – flexibly deploying rich banks of knowledge and resources to suit the demands of the programme, teacher, and learner – may allow universities to match the content more precisely to the medium.


When carefully planned and executed, it’s thought that the disaggregation of higher ed provision could offer advantages to institutions and students alike, including:

  • Cost and efficiency savings from simplifying, centralising and standardising course design
  • More time for academic staff to focus on course delivery
  • Higher profitability or better value from removing elements that aren’t needed or wanted
  • Opportunities for students who would otherwise be excluded from traditional courses
  • Facilitating greater individual control of learners’ own journeys


However, there’s still much to consider, including how universities maintain their commitment to fairness and public good in the face of the disaggregation of services that many regard as essential.


What does unbundling mean for learners?

As university curricula have expanded from the traditional lecture-tutorial-seminar format into other, more flexible, delivery routes, so the boundaries between formal and informal models have already blurred.


Online learning has also accelerated the deconstruction of programme modules into their component parts, enabling universities to use a variety of platforms and providers for different elements – course design, delivery, support, and evaluation, for example. Students may benefit from this process of disaggregation, but it can complicate the learning experience and will require the use of effective EdTech by the university as well as students’ digital agility to navigate the system.


Unbundling teaching and learning resources will also add to the complexity of provision from a licensing point of view. Some organisations are experimenting with Netflix-style subscription access, while others are using open commons-style models, or a hybrid ‘freemium’ approach but there are still issues around fairness and equity that need to be settled.


The promotion of wider access speaks to the heart of the unbundled higher ed proposition: that the driver should be the creation of flexible pathways enabling more equitable access, portability and mobility than is available in the formal environment. If more students can take modules to suit their own schedule, budgeting for cost as they go and gathering credits towards valuable graduate and postgraduate qualifications that will elevate their professional advancement, it represents a genuine shift in opportunity for all.


To achieve this, universities need to ensure the development of an infrastructure that successfully underpins teaching and learning.


How will unbundling impact the quality of teaching and support?

On its own, widening access isn’t enough; raising students’ chances of success is also key. Working out how to ensure students everywhere enjoy a coherent experience while balancing a fragmented and dispersed academic body and juggling in-person and online attendance to synchronous and asynchronous sessions will pose a challenge to even the most forward-thinking universities.


Access without support can’t be seen as truly equitable. If little (or no) professional academic time is allocated to guiding individual learners, how can institutions trumpet increased fairness of access? Unbundling the university experience must be matched by investment in learning support to help successfully recruit and retain students as they embark on their own higher ed learning journey. Some support can be automated or outsourced but, again, thought should be given to levelling up: considering how appropriate and affordable support can be delivered to all, without disadvantaging more vulnerable students.


Obviously, considerations around social capital are also more pressing, given that online, hybrid and blended learning options can lack the peer interaction that’s a fundamental part of campus life. Universities will need to develop strategies for recreating or simulating these valuable physical networks in digitised environments.


Could unbundling unlock a more flexible future?

As twenty-first-century students become less concerned with enjoying a ‘dreaming spires’ experience and more intent on pursuing career-relevant courses, there’s a rising demand for broader, more relevant programmes that incorporate industry experience and an international perspective.


Concerns over degree specialisms, programme length and relevance are forcing universities to look at how current provision meets these shifting demands and how key changes in the type, content, and construction of higher ed programmes could alter universities for good.


‘Unbundling’ higher education isn’t a new phenomenon – as evidenced by the proliferation of the MOOC in the 2010s. What does mark this latest evolution out is its more fundamental challenge to the idea of university as a ‘place’, as the creation of complex virtual hubs enable people to study in a more connected way from every corner of the world.


Success will require intention. Unbundling taught courses and academic work will require a complete rethink of course design, delivery, and assessment, necessitating close collaboration with EdTech partners at every stage and careful consideration of how the broader enrichment activities that are so entrenched in the traditional university experience can be recreated off campus.


These deliberations, though essential, are, to some extent, moot. The shift away from traditional educational pathways only mirrors the existing transition towards lifelong learning. Rather than the youthful three-course meal of old, education will more likely become a personalised buffet to be consumed over decades. For students in the years ahead, the university experience may no longer hold sway solely as a campus-based rite of passage but also as something that happens equally commonly in the digital realm.


Forming a response to the challenges of unbundling will require careful consideration to ensure provision is enhanced rather than diminished, balancing digital demands with a continued commitment to the purpose and values at the heart of higher education. To embrace this evolution, universities must cement their position in the new landscape by focusing on providing high-quality teaching and learning, effectively underpinned by effective guidance and support, while continuing to defend equality of opportunity and acting as a force for good in the world.



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