The Unbundled University: Researching Emerging Models in an Unequal Landscape

Part of the Research in Networked Learning book series (RINL)


As higher education (HE) undergoes a massive expansion in demand in most countries across the globe and experiences financial pressures, the sector is evolving rapidly. Market pressures encourage the search for additional income and new forms of provision, and online programme management (OPM) companies are increasingly entering the sector as they identify market opportunities. At the same time, the HE sector has seen the appearance of many flexible online courses and qualifications delivered by new configurations of providers and partnerships, through a process of ‘unbundling’. This chapter reports on the data on South African HE from the research project ‘The Unbundled University: Researching emerging models in an unequal landscape’. Using a new dataset, mapping or social cartography is employed to bring a novel perspective to uncover patterns of new provision and the partnerships between OPMs and institutions and their relationship to differentiation in the HE sector. Significantly, the maps reveal relationships between universities and OPMs which appear to reflect existing differentiation between institutions, insofar as OPMs presently partner almost exclusively with historically advantaged, traditional universities, with high international ranking and reputation. This chapter argues that such partnerships have the potential to reinforce the power asymmetries already at play.


Higher education South Africa Digital technology Marketisation Unbundling Online Programme Management Companies Inequality Data visualisation Social cartography 



This research project is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), UK, Grant No. ES/P002102/1, and the National Research Foundation (NRF), South Africa, Grant No. 105395.

We would like to acknowledge the input of Dr. Carlo Perrotta, who contributed to the conference paper on which this chapter is based.


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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of EducationUniversity of LeedsLeedsUK
  2. 2.University of LeedsLeedsUK
  3. 3.University of LiverpoolLiverpoolUK
  4. 4.University of Cape TownCape TownSouth Africa
  5. 5.University of the Free StateBloemfonteinSouth Africa

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