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Enter the education bazaar


Digitisation and marketisation alters the institutional architecture of higher education.

The digital revolution in higher education has happened and how. When the massive open online courses (MOOCs) commenced some years ago, nobody had a hint about what to expect. With the proliferation of global institutions offering online courses and with millions of enthusiastic learners availing themselves of it, a sombre debate has been ignited about the future of higher education.

This shift happened concurrently with the rapid diminishing of state funding of education, mounting tuition fee and a swift altering of the student demographics.

How do we understand this change? Does this signify that the higher education sector is now going to function like a market with competitive private players? In the light of these developments, the questions are, “Can or should higher education ever be like a pure market? Is a pure market even a good idea?” These issues remain unanswered and are still up for debate.

In the sphere of higher education, the shift has been brought by a monetary impulse spearheaded by the commercial sector, but it also has a pedagogical thrust as the new structure stresses personalisation of education and employability. An assortment of colleges and universities are offering new forms of teaching and learning provision and in diverse parts of the degree path, in various dimensions and aspects. This creates a complicated environment in an educational sector that is already in a state of disequilibrium.

An illustration of this unbundling is a degree programme that offers client standalone modules accessible for credit on an online platform, to be learnt at the learners’ own tempo, in his or her preferred progression, on a pay-per-module model, with pedagogic content, tutoring and other shore-up being offered by the awarding university and private players. Educational institutions are attempting to innovate with novel academic credentialling constructs, from stackable certificates and interweaving of the conventional certificate, to MOOC-based programmes, experimentations with digital “badges” and IT boot camps that offer credits.

We are beginning to notice that many have indeed begun to recognise the higher education sector as a “bazaar”. The sector has assumed a product or commodity orientation and education institutions are attempting to repackage the product driven by the desires of a customer. Companies providing educational products are commonly referred to as edu-businesses, enabler companies and online programme management companies which distribute and develop new forms of educational provision.

There are also new-fangled education products. For instance, new market players offer distinct products and services such as advertising and admittance, e-assessment, or learning management systems. And all this is underpinned by a market model that involves profit plus typical buyer-seller relationships.

As digitisation of education facilitated by technology and the market enters the mature zone, new disruptive innovations in this sector are budding that are additionally modular or unbundled. The customer as an alternative prioritises the ability to tailor economically their needs by mixing and matching different pieces that fit together according to their precise standards. Add to this the entrepreneurial spirit of seeking gaps in the market, and you have a recipe for innovation. The widespread observation about online customised education is that it will signify “bricks for the rich and clicks for the poor”.

However, if we complain about online education as a mere pedagogic disruption rather than as an institutional one, we are missing the woods for the tree. The spectacular adoption of digitisation and marketisation is not just alteration in the substance of classes. It’s an alteration in the institutional architecture of higher education.

We all today concur that the educational sector is transforming from what it was “sought to be” decades ago. It will be fascinating to observe how much of marketisation, digitisation and commodification will become universal scenarios. It is indeed unsurprising that profitability will decide how unbundling and rebundling in higher education will play out. This is an evolving fluctuating and extremely contested terrain. There needs to be clear-headed negotiations and renegotiations.

Emergent models and innovations are being appropriated by competing discourses, agendas and agencies. As part of the problem, marketisation and digitisation will mostly harvest the private good at the cost of the public good. Therefore, the risks are numerous, alongside disintegration in higher education, leading to a disjointed learners understanding and monopolisation of the higher education sector by some big corporations.

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Printable version | Dec 6, 2019 1:50:27 AM |

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