Constructing a Sustainable Model for Higher Education: Part 1 – Disaggregation of Teaching

By Brian Mulligan

[Note: In his series, Constructing a Sustainable Model for Higher Education, Brian will explore and propose a process and apply it to generate a viable model. In this first part, he begins with an analysis of the major elements or factors that define teaching and asks readers to participate in the discussion that’s attached to this article. In part 2, he plans to discuss criteria for disaggregating teaching functions into different institutions; in part 3, a green-field design of disaggregated higher education; and in part 4, the inhibitors, or economic and sociological barriers, to moving from here to there. – Editor]

You can learn virtually anything online. So why go to college? It does seem that more and more people are asking that question, the most famous (or infamous) recently being Peter Thiel in his description of a higher education bubble. There are, of course, plenty who disagree, particularly those with “skin in the game.” So who is right? Is higher education too expensive? Does it represent a good Return On Investment for students and the country? Is it sustainable in the long run?

To paraphrase Yogi Berra, making predictions is difficult, especially about the future. That has not stopped the many, including myself, who are making predictions on the future of higher education. A particularly dramatic example of such predictions is on the site. Amara’s Law states “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.” So it may be some time before we see these predictions coming true, but when they do, they may well be as dramatic as some have predicted.

So, is higher education, as it currently exists, sustainable in the long run? How would we go about answering that question? Those of us of an analytical bent would probably look at this as a design problem. We might define what we are trying to achieve, list all the tools and techniques available to us, and then try to come up with the best solution. To be honest, we’d probably start again from scratch. In a truly competitive world, anyone who did this would win “customers” from the less efficient and this model would win out very quickly. But higher education is much messier than this. The objectives we are trying to achieve are not fully clear and seem to be the subject of much debate. Competition is hindered by bureaucracy, regulations, and cartels. The “product” is complex, and even if you offer the best value, you can’t be sure the customer will recognise it. It may even be unclear who your customer is. The student? The employer? Or even the government, who in most countries picks up the tab for a very significant part of the cost?

Now, having stated that higher education is complex, it is my opinion that it is still worthwhile taking the first approach of designing a system from scratch, if even only to see how much different it would be from the existing system and also to specifically identify the barriers that keep us from moving towards such a system. Taking such an analytical approach seems to be in line with those who speak of the “disaggregation” of education (the separation of current activities into different organisations). At this point I am not suggesting that disaggregation will occur, but it is useful to split up the problem along these lines.

Let’s get started with a first-shot list at the main activities higher education is currently involved in. I am presuming that these line up with the main objectives of higher education. In my institution we do have three major categories of activities: research, teaching and external engagement. External engagement is a mix of many activities, including business incubation, which also overlaps with teaching and research. For the purpose of this analysis I will exclude this. The links between research and teaching is a debate in itself, and one I’d like to get into at some point, but for the moment, for the purpose of simplification, I will leave it out and concentrate simply on teaching.

Let’s divide teaching as follows:

  • Curriculum design
  • Accreditation
  • Information sourcing/creation
  • Information Delivery
  • Learning process design
  • Learning supervision and support
  • Assessment (and awarding of credentials)

I’d now like to open this up to the floor. Is this an adequate break-down of the teaching operations of higher education? Is this approach to solving the problem useful? At this point I have not planned where this series will go (other than to suggest that the current model is unsustainable and in the longer term will change radically) so I need your help to both clarify my analysis and my communication. I’m looking forward to the discussion.

3 Responses

  1. […] By Brian Mulligan [Note: In his series, Constructing a Sustainable Model for Higher Education, Brian will explore and propose a process and apply it to generate a viable model. In this first part, …  […]

  2. […] Educational Technology and Change Journal … Choosing Web 2.0 Tools for Teaching and Learning … Learning and Teaching in the 21st Century: The Potential for Social Media Such as Facebook …..  […]

  3. I have published three articles on the unbundling of higher education (the first in 1975; most are available through an internet search):

    “The Unbundling of Higher Education,” 1975 Duke Law Journal 53.

    “The Dismantling of Higher Education,” published in two parts in 29 Improving College and University Teaching 55 (1981) and 29 Improving College and University Teaching 115 (1981)

    “The Restructuring of Legal Education Along Functional Lines,” 17 Journal of Contemporary Legal Issues 331 (2008)(discusses legal education, but applies to higher education generally); abstract below



    Currently, law schools tie together five quite distinct services in one package, offered to a limited number of students. These five functions are: (1) impartation of knowledge, (2)counseling/placement, (3) credentialing (awarding grades and degrees), (4) coercion, and (5) club membership. Students do not have the opportunity to pay for just the services they want, or to buy each of the five services from different providers.

    This article proposes an “unbundled” system in which the five services presently performed by law schools would be rendered by many different kinds of organizations, each specializing in only one function or an aspect of one function. Unbundling of legal education along functional lines would substantially increase student options and dramatically increase competition and innovation by service providers. This offers the hope of making available more individualized and better instruction and giving students remarkable freedom of choice as to courses, schedules, work-pace, instructional media, place of residence, and site of learning. Most importantly, this improved education would be available on an “open admissions” basis at much lower cost to many more individuals throughout the nation, or even the world.

    In order to explain how to restructure the existing law school system, this article will discuss the five educational services presently performed by law schools, the disadvantages of tying these services together, a hypothetical unbundled world of legal education, the advantages of the unbundled system, answers to some possible objections to the system, and some recent developments in the use of technology and distance learning in law schools.

    The main theme of this article is the advantage of unbundling. A more modest sub-theme is the benefit of use of technology and distance learning.

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