A research field is emerging and gaining popularity

May 2021 - Adam Matthews

The idea of the university being ‘unbundled’ has been growing in higher education studies for a while.

In essence, unbundling as a concept is breaking up elements of a product for greater flexibility and choice. The package holiday is a good example, we may want the bundled experience of a package or we may want to unbundle flights, accommodation, transfers, excursions meals etc. The package holiday has been ‘disrupted’ by technology in that the internet and platforms such as Airbnb and Uber change our relationship with service providers. More broadly online bookings make it easier to go straight to the supplier. Both technology and sector growth and diversification are fuelling the unbundling of higher education.

The ‘unbundled university’ has many facets but here I will focus on two:  

  1. The breaking up of the constituent parts of a degree or other qualification – an example being Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and Microcredentials 
  2. The diversification of professional roles in higher education 

Modular Style Curriculums

Firstly, modular style curriculums are pretty much the norm now in higher education and by taking more or less modules (at postgraduate level more commonly) students can achieve certificates (60 credits), diplomas (120 credits) or full masters (180 credits). The microcredential is extending this into students taking stand-alone 10 or 20 credit modules which may or may not in the future be ‘bundled’ for a certificate, diploma or masters. 

The Academic Role

Secondly, the academic role is being ‘unbundled’ as far as there isn’t one teacher-researcher responsible for every aspect of the student experience. This has happened over the last 150 years but is increasing rapidly especially with the need to work together with multimedia, learning designers and other specialists. There are a multitude of roles within the university all working together which are ‘bundled’ together to make up the student experience. These are hugely diverse, from estates to admissions to IT. Another aspect of unbundling is partnering with external partners. This adds an extra perspective to unbundling. This can most commonly be seen in distance learning programmes whereby universities partner with technology and marketing specialists. At Birmingham we partner with Wiley Education Services. Other platforms such as FutureLearn extend the reach and complexity of unbundling. 

These two aspects of the unbundled university require huge amounts of collaboration across not only roles and departments within the university but also external partners such as Wiley Education Services and FutureLearn. Developing a new online course starts with market research and involves external and internal partners. Programmes are marketed, collaborating with University of Birmingham marketing but also external partners. Courses are developed with academics and learning designers from both inside and outside the University and multimedia produced alongside Creative Media. Students apply for the courses and admissions work with academics and the external partners. Then the course runs and School teams support and collaborate with partners and students. 

Seamless Student Experience

Educational Enterprise are the glue that brings all of this together to make unbundling look like it’s neatly bundled together into one seamless student experience. This wouldn’t be possible without a huge amount of collaboration as the degree and roles are unbundled and bundled much like a swan gliding along the water with lots of work going on under the surface. 


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