The unbundling of higher education: Breaking down the whole.

(cc) Flickr user: Mike Linksvayer

(cc) Flickr user: Mike Linksvayer

Posted by: Erika Beljaars-Harris, Educational Developer, College of Design and Social Context, RMIT University.

There’s another movement unfolding in the background of fee deregulation that we need to be aware of: the unbundling of higher education. As Professor Jim Barber (former Vice Chancellor, University of New England) explains, “The concept of ‘unbundled’ education refers to the emergent practice of allowing students to pay for those services, and only those services, that they actually require.” Similar thoughts are being raised in the UK, as this Times Higher Education article points to a report that recommends government funding follow the student and not the institution.

Think of it as the difference between a set menu (preselected courses served at a fixed time and price) compared to free choice from the menu and dishes from any other restaurant. In the higher education arena, this might mean choosing a course from a university, but not paying for the facilities and services offered. The facilities students may choose to not use include the cafeteria and other academic and support services. What’s being called a ‘pick-and-mix’ approach means that students pay for certain facilities on a fee-for-service basis. Which leads to student choosing which parts they want to use and therefore pay for. Choice has always been seen as something students value in a program of study (look at electives, streams, majors, study-abroad and cross-institutional studies for instance) but this movement might see multi-institution degrees become a path that more students select.

According to Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen, the unbundling of higher education is a form of ‘disruptive innovation‘. Christensen explains it as “a process by which a product or service takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of the market and then relentlessly moves upmarket, eventually displacing established competitors.”  An example of this already exists in the form of consumers (students) having the ability to receive credentials via RPL (Recognition of Prior Learning) through previous work experience or a MOOC. For universities, the unbundling of higher education is a form of disruptive innovation. It is enabling the consumer (student) with the ability to choose subjects and courses from a university that can be delivered on campus, online or both, without the added fees for services and facilities that they may not need nor use. As a consumer (student), this unbundling provides the ability to secure services the individual does want, and not pay for what they don’t want. This hopefully translates to cheaper, but just as, or more effective degrees and experiences selected from a wider pool of providers.

The movement towards unbundling has started. Georgia Institute of Technology is admitting students into a low-fee postgraduate degree. Students are taking courses from the University Without Walls, a university fully supported by the University of Massachusetts, that enables students to design their program of study.

The goals of unbundling of higher education are to increase the quality of lectures, enable more individualised instruction, offer an increase in choice to students and most importantly, provide it all at a lower cost. What it might mean for academics and universities is to take stock of what they deliver well online, in blended environments and on-campus: student expectations aren’t going to do anything except rise.

To be honest, I Iike this movement, I like the goals that this movement professes to be aligning towards. I will be watching those universities to see who gets it right (and wrong) in this evolution of higher education.

Share your thoughts on unbundling in the comments…

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