A guest blog kindly contributed by Professor Graham Galbraith, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Portsmouth

With the Office for National Statistics soon to rule on the accounting treatment of student loans and speculation that fees for non-science subjects will be reduced, Ryan Craig’s 2015 book College Disrupted on the ‘great unbundling of higher education’ is highly relevant.

‘Unbundling’ is the disaggregation of different elements of a service and its discrete re-packaging and sale. As anyone flying with Ryanair will know, you buy a seat separately from any baggage allowance as well as any food and possibly, one day, access to the on-flight toilets. For those on smaller budgets or who only want some of the package, unbundling can be welcome.

Unbundling has profoundly changed many industries and will, Craig argues, change higher education. For Craig, universities do too many things that have no impact on student outcomes. He quotes Anant Agarwal, the CEO of edX, approvingly:

“Universities are responsible for admissions, research, facilities management, housing, healthcare, credentialing, food service, athletics facilities, career guidance and placement, and much more. Which of these items should be at the core of a university and add value to that experience?” (pp.99-100)

As Craig is US-based, it is no surprise that he is particularly critical of the amount some US universities spend on college sport which, at best, involves the overwhelming majority of students merely as observers.

But, obvious cases apart, which elements of the university student experience add value to their outcomes and which do not? Just as importantly, how should we understand ‘adding value’ in this context? It has to be about more than graduates’ salaries.

In a market, the consumer usually gets to decide which bits of a service they want and which bits they don’t. But universities need to resist the consumer-is-king model. Let me give two examples.

  1. Many students will not need the mental health support we provide. But there is absolutely no way I would price this separately and let some students opt-out.
  2. While all students need support developing their social capital, some will need it far more than others – and these are far more likely to be students from less advantaged backgrounds. Should we price these different kinds of support separately and let students opt out if they wish? I would be failing in my duty to my students if I did.

University is a complex good. It necessarily involves some re-distribution of resources from some students to others. Unbundling and letting students choose which bits of the university experience they want would short-change them.

Craig is probably correct that the unbundling of the university experience will come, and it may be the right thing for some students – particularly mature students who come to university for professional development reasons. But many other students – particularly those from less advantaged backgrounds – need the whole university experience even if it doesn’t always seem like this to them at the time.

However, how many universities actually explain this? How many universities possess – let alone publicise – a principled statement of why our whole offering is central to the long-term benefits of university?

If universities think unbundling will be bad for our students, we need to say so. If universities do not make this clear then, if pressures to unbundle build, we will look like we are against change simply because it is change. We will risk being caught wrong-footed (again) and look self-interested (again).

The recent rumours that the Augar Review will recommend differential fee caps illustrate the point well. If the importance of the whole university experience had already registered in politicians’ and policy-makers’ minds they would ask serious questions about differential fees.

Might science students reasonably expect all of their fee to go into services just for them? (Otherwise, why are they paying more?) Might a University of Portsmouth Engineer complain if the queue for some of the support we provide – such as our Maths Café drop-in sessions or appointments for a counsellor – were longer because we allowed students studying education or graphic design to use them? Should we charge students who would pay lower fees extra for some of the services we provide? In effect differential fees would be the centrally imposed unbundling of the student experience.

But unless universities get on the front foot and make this argument to students, parents, and government we will be less able to resist harmful change and less likely to provide all of the benefits that many of our students absolutely need.