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The ‘unbundling’ of the university experience – a shot across the bows

  • 12 November 2018
  • By Graham Galbraith

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.


  1. Johnny Rich says:

    An interesting and timely blog, but it’s worth considering how much unbundling already goes on in our HE system. Students at the Open University do not have the stereotypical full campus experience. Commuter students do not have the live-in experience for which the majority of other first-year students across the UK pay an additional premium to their uni or a private hall. Catering arrangements, access to sports facilities and even student entertainments could be seen as bundled or unbundled elements of the package.
    I am not saying we should unbundle further, but we should definitely do a better job (as Graham says too) in articulating the benefits of the whole package deal, how that package varies from place to place and how it’s important for the individual student to find the right package for them rather than assuming there is a single best package to which they or any other student should aspire.

  2. Gareth Williams says:

    This is a timely warning. Such unbundling is the inevitable consequence of treating higher education as a commercial service to individual students – and employers – rather than as providers of education. If the consumer knows best it is inevitable that s/he will only pay for what they see as immediately gratifying or useful for them personally. The most important function of education is transformational, to help students evolve their abilities and interests so that they emerge as different people. Unless universities can regain their confidence to do this there is little point in their existence. Public (ie private) schools know this, as do the parents who pay the fees. That is at least part of the secret of their continued success. University students are adults so it is a bit more complicated but unless universities know that the product they offer is worthwhile as a total package (brand if you like) their existence will be in jeopardy. One likely outcome in the long term is what happened to the public schools in the nineteenth century. Founded to provide opportunities for disadvantaged children several of them transformed themselves into schools providing a superior education for the wealthy Who were willing to pay for such a service.

  3. Professor Peter Lutzeier says:

    As a starting point: There is no such thing as ‘a student experience’. Even if a university tried to offer one experience, different students would still experience it differently. So the question of ‘unbundling’ what is actually quite complex, and whatever you want to offer some flexibility is needed.
    Where a successful university stands firm is its well articulated values, which are there for the good of students, staff and the wider communities.

  4. Rhian says:

    Private schools unbundle plenty: music, foreign trips, cookery lessons and even elocution.

  5. albert wright says:

    Gareth Williams states “The most important function of education is transformational, to help students evolve their abilities and interests so that they emerge as different people.”

    University should offer young people the chance to explore their abilities and interests but given the amount it all costs, we need to examine whether there is a general consensus about the purpose and a better understanding of the cross subsidies involved in an effort to better identify the return on investment by those who pay for it all.

  6. Mark Kehoe says:

    Interesting question! Do student fees pay solely for their course or should a student studying business make a contribution to the medical laboratories? I’m not sure about the reference to well-being. As a general statement certain cohorts are pretty self-sufficient (such as engineers) but others (undergraduate psychology students come to mind) need the additional support. Some University services are an insurance that all should fund such as well-being while others such as sports might be a case for unbundling.

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