Unbundling — the future for higher education?

Part two: designing systems to match job need

In part one of this article we defined the concept of unbundling and then asked whether it will become more prevalent in higher education. Here, we examine the extent to which it will happen, the ‘two-tier’ system that may emerge and ask, whose interests will unbundling best serve?

A blog at University Ventures, of which Ryan Craig is founding managing director, argues that eventually, bundling will only continue successfully for ‘elite institutions — where the degree has more value, the credentials greater credibility, and the return from the Admissions and Intangibles value propositions much more certain.’ These institutions — Ivy League universities in the US, for example, or Oxbridge and long-established redbrick universities in the UK — will have ‘sustained demand for the bundle in the long run.’

The timing of that long run is debatable, but we would argue it might be no more than about five to ten years from now. Elsewhere, ‘while accreditors might attempt to fight unbundling,’ University Ventures does not place too much faith on its chances, ‘given the focus on affordability, government support of unbundling in other industries’ [i.e., TV deregulation], ‘and greater federal scrutiny and pressure on accreditors.’

So — unbundling is arguably the next big seismic change in education. ‘At some point in the not-too-distant future it will be official: a two-tier system of higher education. The bundled elite and unbundled.’ University Ventures, slightly unfortunately, calls the unbundled the ‘huddled masses,’ pejorative and unfair, we would say. And although UV describes this scenario as ‘appalling,’ it also acknowledges that ‘it may prove to be the best outcome for students.’

The need to evolve

Why might unbundling be regarded as ‘appalling’? The question leads us to the flip-side of unbundling. It may prove to be the ‘best’ outcome for students. But if it means the overall pot of cash in higher education significantly reduces, that could cause problems. The ‘overall pool of money in higher education will dramatically reduce which is a bad thing for the sector,’ argues the UV article.

A further risk is the loss of holistic learning that the break-up of existing models might lead to. ‘Unless our competency testing approaches get a lot more sophisticated, they are unlikely to capture the holistic set of skills we expect our students to acquire in college,’ says Anant Agarwal, CEO of edEx, in a Huffington Post article.

However — dropping cautionary anchors will not stop the boat turning with the tide. According to Don Tapscott, CEO of the Tapscott Group, our current education model is not fit for purpose. A lifelong learning approach is the direction higher education providers should be looking in, rather than a ‘university then job for life’ model which is the default position most universities still offer, whether they would like to admit it or not. ‘Today,’ notes Tapscott drily, ‘we have the very best model of learning that 17th century technology can provide.’ His picture of contemporary education makes uncomfortable reading, but most universities will recognise some truth in his picture: ‘a teacher stands before a class of students and there’s an unspoken understanding that the instructor knows something and the students don’t. Teachers push their knowledge out to students. I like to say that the notes of their lectures go to the notes of a student, without going through the brains of either teacher or student. In education, we still have an Industrial Age model of scale and standardization — a one-size-fits-all mentality.’

What’s the way forward? On Tapscott’s reckoning, ‘by 2020, an estimated 63 percent of the projected 48 million job openings in the United States will require at least a college degree.’ We’ve written elsewhere about how, in the age of robots and increased automation, upskilling (in other words, education) is essential to avoid the prospect of large-scale unemployment. For Tapscott, ‘a physical campus will always be necessary so future workers can experience the kind of social learning that only happens face-to-face.’ (This, by the way, answers the holistic problem that Agarwal alerts us to). ‘But what we won’t see is the Industrial Age model of one teacher lecturing an auditorium filled with college freshmen on the basics of supply and demand or quantum mechanics. Teachers,’ Tapscott says, ‘will become much more than just transmitters of information. They will become curators of learning experiences; they will facilitate small group discussions and debates aimed at teaching critical thought, problem solving, collaboration and communication.’

At this point we could ask what the benefits of bundling are. Is it right to break the ship apart if it is still functioning, even though it might not be functioning as efficiently as we’d like? The advantages of bundling are meant to be ease and convenience; a package that means students can focus on their learning journey, rather than making choices about each stage of the process. (To revisit our music analogy, you don’t have to research the songs you want to download; you just buy the album and put it on in the background while you get on with something else.) There are intangibles, and of course, there’s prestige; which will never go away. But the question is — do students still want these advantages? Can they afford them? And do they really need them? Bundling does bring qualities worth having, but in today’s world of escalating fees, these qualities are becoming seen by students as elements to avoid paying for if they don’t have to. Unbundling offers great competitive advantages for higher education providers wanting to steal a march on their more classically established rivals. And those rivals need to watch them coming up in the rear mirror.

In part three of this article, published Monday, we will consider what an unbundled education system will look like — and consider how it might develop over the next five to ten years.

This article was first published at http://elu2016.wordpress.com/

Sources at the end of part three.