Universities are experiencing an unbundling revolution

According to Tom Friedman of the New York Times: “Big breakthroughs happen when what is suddenly possible meets what is desperately necessary.”

Just as technology altered the market for music and news, higher education appears to be next in line for the great unbundling. Now that education, assessment and degrees can be individuated, students can take individual courses from various providers and transfer credits to make more tailored degrees and experiences that fit their needs – and technology will certainly further this individuation.

Online content, classes, certificate and degree programmes have changed the way people think about what is possible in higher education. And online education has opened the door to both remedial and advanced education for more people than ever before.

Interestingly, this was predicted a while back, in a 1981 article, titled “The Dismantling of Higher Education”, by law professor William KS Wang in Improving College and University Teaching. In the article, Wang discusses five primary services performed by traditional universities – imparting information, counselling, credentialing, coercion and club membership – and how they are currently performed... and how they might be replaced.

Here is a brief synopsis of Wang’s idea about the five services currently performed by traditional colleges and universities and some examples of how they are being replaced now:
  • Imparting information: Universities in the 1980s exposed students to information through lectures, textbooks and the university library. These services could just as easily be performed by lecturers, tutoring firms, book publishers and other purveyors of instructional materials. Using non-tenure track faculty and other adjunct faculty has been a growing trend in higher education and current examples of firms playing in this arena include and textbook publisher Pearson.

  • Counselling: Universities advise students on course selection, majors, careers and personal matters – yet these services could be outsourced to non-university counselling centres. Current examples of this include Monster and a host of career exploration books.

  • Credentialing: Colleges grade student work and award degrees. Non-university credentialing agencies that assess work and award degrees (or other licences and certifications) could do this type of work. The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, which administers the CPA exam, is an example of a non-university-based licensing organisation.

  • Coercion: Schools exert pressure on students to perform well by making them take tests and giving failing grades when student work is not up to par. Non-university 'coercion firms' could also do this type of work. InsideTrack and Civitas Learning are companies that play in this space.

  • Club membership: Universities offer social and intellectual interaction with faculty and fellow students, as well as the exclusiveness of a high-end brand. However, clubs and other communities could perform these functions, offering prestige and social and intellectual interaction. Book clubs, The World Economic Forum, Mensa International and The Plato Society are organisations that cater to this space.
You can view a graphical version of the above here.

This article – which was written over three decades ago – anticipated some of what we’ve been seeing as we apply technology to the higher education market. Compared to the 1980s, the higher education market has evolved significantly to include digital content, learning platforms, new providers, massive open online courses or MOOCs, education apps, a growing market for certificates, a rethinking of how credit is awarded, etc.

What do you think will happen with technology and 'the great unbundling' of higher education? What parts of the market are most ripe for innovation? Which colleges, universities and companies are at the forefront of innovation and in which part of the university value chain?

Margaret Andrews is a seasoned academic leader with over 20 years of experience in higher education, executive development, business, and consulting. She has held leadership positions at MIT, Harvard University and Hult International Business School, and has a track record of creating and launching successful programmes and turning around underperforming programmes and units. She teaches a variety of leadership and strategy courses at Harvard University’s Division of Continuing Education, and is also president of Mind and Hand Associates, a boutique consulting firm serving a global higher education clientele. You can reach her at