johnholmwoodInternet delivered higher education is described by some in revolutionary terms, providing access to education for poor people or remote populations. In practice, though, the ‘unbundling’ of activities is advocated in order better to subject them to marketisation. John Holmwood argues that consultants advocating for the ‘unbundling’ of universities care not about widening inequality or providing students with employment opportunities, but rather with exploiting the potentially profitable ventures that may arise in the future.

Together with Universities UK and IPPR, Pearson Education have launched what David Kernohan calls an ‘advertorial’ for for-profit higher education. The ‘report’, An Avalanche is Coming, is written by Sir Michael Barber, Katelyn Donnelly and Saad Rizvi all part of Pearson Education. It sets out the ‘disruption’ and ‘unbundling’ of the functions of universities that will be brought about by the globalisation of higher education and new technologies for the delivery of content. It sets these changes in the context of a depressed global economy where the aspirations of higher education are difficult to afford in the face of spiralling costs.

Sir Michael is an ‘expert’ in the field of what he calls  ‘deliverology’ – an inelegant managerial neologism  for the dark arts of ‘unbundling’ –  having previously worked for McKinsey. His move to Pearson followed directly from his role on the Browne Review. The representation of changes taking place as deriving from external forces, then, is somewhat disingenuous. The changes are based on policies for which he has been lobbying strongly. The report is also disingenuous in representing a crisis in the global economy brought about by ‘irrational exuberance’. After all, the exuberant management advice of McKinsey has been credited with undermining Enron. This was an event that prefigured the financial bubble and its collapse, though we might better call it a consequence of reckless and unregulated greed than exuberance.

The report exudes the same ‘irrational exuberance’ applied to higher education and, in particular, to the revolutionary role of MOOCS in delivering content that can be unbundled from tutorial support and assessment, all of which can be provided separately – for example, by Pearson. At the same time, content is no longer monopolised by universities, and is increasingly accessible online, or, at least will be once open access policies are in place to enable re-use without limit on commercial purposes.

Open access and MOOCS are described in revolutionary terms as meeting the social objectives of providing access to education for poor people or remote populations in countries with less developed educational infrastructure. In practice, though, the ‘unbundling’ of activities is advocated in order better to subject them to marketisation and to make publicly provided services available to for-profit delivery.

Sir Michael and colleagues also gloss over – with just a passing mention of the high drop-out rates of US for-profit colleges – the damning US senate report, the Harkin Report, which identified the ‘sub-prime’ education it offers for sale, primarily to students from low income and disadvantaged backgrounds. Sir Michael and his colleagues mention the ‘spiralling costs’ of higher education, and the potential of ‘unbundling’ activities as a means of reducing them, but the for-profit universities spend more of their revenues on marketing and profit distribution than they do on instruction – in 2009, according to the Harkin Report, 22.4 percent of all revenue was spent on marketing, advertising, recruiting and admissions staffing, 19.4 percent on profit distributions and just 17.7 percent on instruction, according to the report.

Others, such as Bob Meister, have argued that the wider problem of spiralling costs (of which the for profits are a part) derives from the very financialisation of higher education activities that Barber and his colleagues advocate. Indeed, as John Seddon has demonstrated, ‘deliverology’ undermines the very services it is purports to improve and not just in for-profit higher education.

One aspect of  the ‘unbundling’ of university activities that Sir Michael and his colleagues recommend – alongside the separation of lecture content from tutorial support, and the curriculum from those who teach it –  is the separation of teaching and research. The latter they suggest should be concentrated on a few elite universities. In part, this is a cost-reducing measure – teaching-only universities will be cheaper. But it is also offered alongside a claim that much research takes place outside universities in private companies and Think Tanks. Yet most of the evidence is of the reduction of R and D budgets by private companies, which is precisely one of the reasons why the Government is advocating open access to provide private companies (and SMEs, in particular) access to university research. Moreover, while Sir Michael and his colleagues make much of the value of the ‘bundled’ university to its local community, they are silent on the fact that these benefits will be lost once activities are ‘unbundled’.

They suggest that the traditional university will be undermined and be replaced by a number of different models: the elite university; the mass university; the niche university; the local university; and the lifelong learning mechanism. In truth, it is really two models they are advocating; one, the traditional, ‘bundled’ university, now an elite university, with the rest ‘unbundled’, subject to severe competition and takeover, wholly or in part, by for-profit providers, or drawn into public-private partnerships with them.

It is also worth noting that the period in which these neo-liberal nostrums have formed government policy is also one that, according to the latest United Nations Development Report has seen the UK become one of the most unequal countries in the world, with an increasingly polarised job market, increasing polarisation of income, and serious poverty for around 30 percent of our young people which seriously constrains their opportunities and expectations, if not their aspirations.

Sir Michael and his colleagues make no reference to broader issues of inequality, but they do believe that the graduate premium may be under pressure. They are interested in this as an opportunity for profit seeking private providers. They have no solution for jobs, except personal entrepreneurship – ‘Student, employ thyself!’

This is a context in which higher education qualifications become a ‘hedge’ against uncertainty, where students are prepared to accept high levels of debt for fear of something worse, but there are profits to be made from anxiety. However, not all jobs will lose their graduate premium and those who attend the remaining, ‘bundled’ universities will have their prospects enhanced, just by virtue of the creation of their education as a positional good aligned with other aspects of elite status (such as private secondary education at similarly high fee-paying institutions). Indeed the mask slips when Sir Michael and his colleagues refer to, “the matchmaking function of universities, particularly for the elite”. By also offering courses on MOOCS, though, “their reach could extend far beyond the small global elite of students they educate.”

Thus is public higher education reduced to dining off the crumbs from high table! We might curtsy and doff our caps, but best, perhaps, just to bundle these charlatans off the scene and claim back higher education for democracy and public life.

This was originally posted on the Campaign for the Public University website. 

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the British Politics and Policy blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting.

About the author

John Holmwood is Professor of Sociology at the University of Nottingham and President of the British Sociological Association. He is a co-founder of the Campaign for the Public University.