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Open Access Unbundling education: Mapping the changing nature of Higher Education in South Africa - ESRC

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The nature of Higher Education is rapidly evolving in South Africa. Educational technologies, public-private partnerships and shifting employer expectations are resulting in rapid and unprecedented 'unbundling' and marketization of Higher Education. For example, over the past few years we have witnessed the appearance of many flexible online courses and qualifications, short courses and MOOCs, often delivered in partnerships between universities and private organisations. Unbundling refers to the process of disaggregating curricula into standalone units often available in flexible online modes, allowing universities to respond to the pressures of widening access, increasing student numbers, competition from alternative providers and technological change, by distributing provision across several individual, more cost-effective components. Marketization refers to the increasing presence of alternative (private) providers offering HE provision alongside universities, often through online means and at lower costs, and the emerging partnerships between universities and private providers to offer accredited learning at a wide range of levels. In particular, the South African higher education context seems poised to benefit from market-based innovations that may assist with the need to increase equality and access across the diverse sectors of South African society. Whilst these changes may offer opportunities for increased numbers of learners to access education and thus contribute to economic prosperity, there is very little empirical research about the process and impact of unbundling, or the marketization of Higher Education in Africa, or developed countries. In practice, we are observing the emergence of unspecified business models based on different flavours of 'unbundling', which in turn are leading to unclear relationships between universities and private partners or providers. For unbundled technology enhanced education or public-private partnerships to impact positively on sustainable economic growth in Africa, there is an urgent need for systematic research in this area, which is the topic of this timely and innovative proposal. Therefore, we ask the following overarching question: How are unbundling and marketization changing the nature of higher education provision in South Africa, and what impact will this have on widening access, educational achievement, employability and thus the potential for economic development? We will explore this research question through a focus on the process of 'educational market making'. We aim to examine marketization and unbundling in HE as the outcomes of negotiations and manoeuvres which have a 'constitutive' function. Our central assumption is that markets do not appear naturally, but are 'made' through increasingly networked interactions that involve individual decision-making, collective discourse, technical expertise and the deployment of key 'objects': educational technologies, data analysis techniques, and innovative business models. Our study will rely on primary evidence collected through interviews with 'experts', and on the analysis of available datasets, documents and other artefacts and, crucially, through systematic engagement with a wide range of stakeholders. The outcomes of this project will directly impact the future development of HE in South Africa, other African countries and in the UK, through providing evidence of the effectiveness of disaggregation of curricula and alternative providers offering HE on educational outcomes, access to HE and employability. The project will have direct impact through critically evaluating the on-going trends of 'unbundling' and marketization on South Africa's economic development. The research will provide evidence of the effectiveness of educational technology to support the emerging HE market, directly impacting the educational technology sector, technology suppliers and alternative HE providers.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: February 1, 2019

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