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Can the pandemic bring a new dawn for flexible higher education?

  • 25 January 2021
  • By Luke Myer

This blog was kindly contributed by Luke Myer, Policy and Public Affairs Officer at the Quality Assurance Agency. It is based on a private roundtable discussion in December with senior sector stakeholders in England. You can find Luke on Twitter @luke_myer.

Last week, the Westminster Government’s long-awaited Skills white paper called for a

well-integrated and aligned higher education and further education system, with the flexibility that enables students to move between settings to suit their needs.

In short, it was a pledge to reinvigorate the almost forty-year-old debate over credit transfer and flexible learning.

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has intensified debates about how higher education should be accessed. As the scale of the COVID-induced economic crisis is revealed, with it comes a pressing need to reskill and retrain many workers, as well as to provide current students with transfer options. As economies shift, so too is the way in which people access their learning. The Westminster Government has made clear its interest in accelerating lifelong, flexible learning, including through the proposed lifelong loan entitlement due by 2025. Across Europe, too, ministers have acknowledged a need for ‘swift up-dating of knowledge, skills and competences’ in the decade to come.

The increasing number of flexible learning pathways in higher education, and the growing demand for alternative modes of delivery, present the sector and its students with a new set of questions. It is in this context that HEPI and QAA convened a virtual roundtable with sector experts and policymakers, to discuss the challenges and opportunities facing flexible learning. Their reflections form the basis of this piece.

The new alternative

Fundamentally, flexible higher education provision should not be seen as a replacement for traditional degree models, but an alternative. Choice and agency for students is important – both in terms of what they learn, and how they learn it. But building more options requires both the will and the ability of the higher education sector to adapt.

There is interest among both universities and colleges to work together and innovate in this area. Indeed, many providers already design module-level objectives, and the Open University is completely modular. It would be feasible to ‘unbundle’ programmes in order to develop more flexible pathways, relevant to national and local labour needs. The agility which the sector has already demonstrated in its response to the pandemic shows that when adaptation is needed, it can be done quickly and effectively. To build the new alternative, however, not all the changes required are at provider level. In England, there remain a number of barriers facing higher flexible learning.

Lifting the regulatory and funding barriers

Last week’s white paper acknowledged that the regulatory system needs to evolve to ‘support radically different, flexible arrangements’. One major challenge identified by our participants was England’s current regulatory metrics. The importance placed on data for continuation, retention, and completion creates a regulatory disincentive to provide short, flexible higher education programmes. The metrics cannot merely be tweaked to include shorter qualifications, because this may inadvertently funnel widening participation students away from longer qualifications without a choice. So, the metrics need to change.

A related challenge is regulation from professional bodies on maintaining the currency of knowledge for particular sectors. One solution here may be to differentiate durations on the portability of different qualifications, depending on their relevance.

Along with regulation, the funding model in England was identified as a barrier. There is typically no module-based funding under the Student Loans Company’s current model; this is compounded by other limitations including inflexibility in the use of the apprenticeship levy and Equivalent and Lower Qualification (ELQ) funding restrictions. There is a clear appetite for a new system of funding, underpinned by student support. Recent ComRes / Universities UK polling among adults in England indicated that two-thirds would be more likely to undertake university study if the government introduced module-based loans.

Further change is needed at a regulatory level than merely lifting barriers; there would also need to be a new system to track credit sector-wide. This may be resource-intensive, as previous schemes demonstrated, but the prospect of digital passports to track lifelong learning could help aid portability and manage the administrative challenge.

Partnerships and collaboration

Lifting the barriers at a national level would allow the sector to collaborate on making the system work. Perhaps the most prominent international example of flexibility in higher education is the credit transfer model in the United States; however, its complexity results in a significant amount of credit being ‘lost in transit’, and so an England (or UK-wide) version would require strong partnerships at a national and local level.

The further education / higher education alignment agenda is relevant in this context. The reflections in both the Augar review, and the Westminster Government’s priority to ‘rebalance’ the sector, present an opportunity for a more joined-up landscape in which to deliver flexible pathways. The Welsh Government and Scottish Funding Council are also advancing proposals on tertiary reform, bringing higher education and further education into closer alignment. Many universities and colleges already have deep and valuable links, but this is often inconsistent around the UK. In order to deliver credit partnerships effectively, it will be important to take an localised approach, matching offerings to skills needs – there is an important role for regional credit consortia, such as the Midlands Credit Compass, NUCCAT and SEEC, to play. There is potential here for a new system of flexible learning which could be transformative for regions which have been ‘left behind’ economically.

However, this alignment in itself needs strategic, long-term investment and funding mechanisms rather than short-term interventions. Bringing higher education and further education closer together will require a careful balance between joining up the funding system and avoiding damage to institutional autonomy. Our participants referenced the new tertiary systems which appear to be developing in several Asian and emerging high-income economies, which have strong permeability between ‘academic’ and ‘occupational’ provision. Closer to home, England could perhaps look to the prevalence of Level 4 and 5 provision in the Scottish sector, where the system is more planned.

A key part of this work should be to map the silos which already exist – between higher education and further education, between academic and vocational learning and between different kinds of learners – in order to understand the potential progression pathways for new students. With this framework in place, the sector could begin to develop a joined-up public relations effort to promote the value of new qualifications, provide guidance for students on credit transfer, and aid co-operation locally.


There remains significant complexity facing the sector, and this is by no means restricted to the UK. A recent working paper from UNESCO’s International Institute for Educational Planning suggested that ‘in many contexts, flexible learning pathways are not yet a national priority for higher education’ and are lacking ‘targeted measures to facilitate their implementation.’

If regulatory and funding barriers can be resolved, it seems that there is a real interest on all sides to provide innovative approaches. There is a clear attention from Government, willingness from providers and potential demand from students and employers too. The post-pandemic recovery may be the time to finally advance this decades-old issue. In order to achieve it, however, the sector will need to work more closely together than ever before.

1 comment

  1. Albert Wright says:

    Very sensible proposals.

    Money should follow the learner.

    Each individual should have a non transferable FE/HE lifetime loan pot, (annually adjusted for inflation) to be spent between the ages of 18 and 80.

    The value of the loan should be recovered through a PAYE linked income related Education Contribution payment, collection starting 3 years after loan tranche drawdowns.

    Student Loan Company would be abolished.

    Adjustments would be needed to ensure those who are rewarded for work done via dividends from their own companies, to create financial fairness

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