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Flexible Learning Pathways: messages for UK higher education

  • 23 June 2021
  • By John Brennan

John Brennan, Emeritus Professor of Higher Education Research at the UK Open University and Visiting Professor at the University of Bath and an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Oxford has kindly contributed this blog. You can reach out to John via his email, john.brennan@open.ac.uk

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Many of us still regard higher education as something which happens to us immediately after leaving school and before getting our first job. And that timetable remains the case for a high proportion of people in the UK. They leave home to go away to university to study for a degree in a particular subject.

However, for many people today, it is higher education which comes to them, as an online experience on their computer. And it can come at several different life stages, move between different subjects, and reflect different objectives and aspirations of the learner. But as well an online experiences, with over 130 universities and a considerable number of other providers of higher education, many learners can access a quite local higher education provider, stay at home for the higher education experience, and quite possibly combine that experience with domestic, employment and other life experiences.

This new reality has been the focus of a recent international project led by UNESCO’s International Institute for Educational Planning. As part of that project, the present author undertook a national case study on Flexible Learning Pathways in Higher Education in the UK. The project adopted a UNESCO definition of flexible learning pathways as:

entry points and re-entry points at all ages and all educational levels, strengthened links between formal and non-formal structures, and recognition, validation and accreditation of the knowledge, skills and competencies acquired through non-formal and informal education.

The UK project collected information from relevant national policy bodies and from four higher education institutions, selected for their work and innovation in providing flexible learning pathways. The institutions were the University of Birmingham, the University of Exeter, Teesside University, and the Open University together with its FutureLearn organisation.

At the national policy levels, there are differences between the four UK nations but generally there is support for increasing flexibility and a lifelong learning conception of higher education. The most specific and recent example of this support is the UK Government’s introduction of the Lifelong  Loan Entitlement with its aim of facilitating adult learning at different life stages.

At the institutional levels, there are different things happening at different institutions, reflecting the diversity of the UK higher education system and the traditions of considerable institutional autonomy. Thus, at the University of Birmingham, there was considerable flexibility in choices that students could make, especially on the Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences (LANS) degree programme where students could select from a wide range of major/minor combinations of modules as well as experiencing work-based learning and study abroad.

At Teesside University’s  School of Social Sciences, Humanities and Law, there was a large mix of academic and professional programmes which were mainly recruiting fairly local students of all ages, mostly studying full-time but with part-time and online options available. Students were given considerable flexibility in managing their studies. They could interrupt their studies for six months, switch subjects, obtain work experience, move between full-time, part-time and online learning. There were also strong links with local employers and collaboration with them to meet changing workforce needs.

The Exeter model for flexible learning comprised academic partnerships, accreditation of prior learning, part-time study, degree apprenticeships, flexible combined honours, liberal arts and massive open online courses (typically known as MOOCs). The flexibility offered by Exeter required a mix of diverse staff expertise and commitments, bringing academic, administrative and other professional skills and orientations together in order to manage and deliver the learning pathways to meet students’ and society’s needs.

Since its establishment in the 1960s, the Open University has been ‘open to all’, with no entry requirements to most courses and with most students studying part-time, typically combining their higher education with paid work and/or domestic responsibilities. In 2012, the Open University created FutureLearn, a social learning platform providing online learning internationally with over 170 UK and international partners. FutureLearn offers short courses, online degrees together with microcredentials and study programmes which enable students to acquire certificates and degrees from different sources at different times in their lives. There are over 13 million people signed up worldwide on FutureLearn courses.

The four case studies provide many examples of the flexibilities that are needed and possible in shaping what, when and how learning can be made available and achievable to meet different learning needs at different times in people’s lives.

A detailed report on the UK Flexible Learning Pathways project is available online from both the UNESCO International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP) and the UK Quality Assurance Association (QAA) for higher education. The report ends with some conclusions, recommendations and questions.

Increasing flexibility brings opportunities and challenges, for both higher education institutions and for the potential learners at those institutions. For the ‘users’ of higher education, whether students, employers or governments, there are questions about ‘who pays?’, ‘who benefits?’, ‘who wins?’ and ‘who loses?’ from the continually expanding and diversifying higher education system.

The recommendations contained at the end of the UK report include:

  • more attention to be given to the certification of learning from diverse and multiple sources;
  • more collaboration between higher education institutions and employers could benefit both learners and society;
  • broadening the student experience with learning pathways that cross boundaries of subjects, institutions, teaching and learning methods (face-to-face and online), and nations;
  • the importance of quality assurance but also its need to diversify, moving beyond courses and institutions as the major units of analysis, as well as to balance regulatory control and quality enhancement and to achieve an effective relationship and division of labour between external and internal institutional quality assurance processes.

Flexible learning pathways are needed to meet the increasingly diverse and changing needs of people throughout their lives. But flexibility and diversity entail student choices – about whether, when, where, what and how to study. It is important, both for individual learners and the wider society, that choices are informed choices and that people can change direction on their learning pathways if they discover they are heading towards the wrong destination. The UK report from the UNESCO project on Flexible Learning Pathways is just a starting point in providing such information.

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