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Flexible Learning Pathways: how to provide them?

  • 15 December 2023
  • By John Brennan
  • This blog was kindly authored by John Brennan, Emeritus Professor of Higher Education Research at the Open University and Visiting Professor at the University of Bath.
  • This piece is the second part of two on the topic of flexible learning pathways. The first piece – ‘A new HE or something else?’ – was published yesterday and can be read here.

Increasing flexibility is a common feature of the changes taking place in higher education, but how this is being done can differ considerably between institutions. It can provide students with more options, and with the challenges of choosing the right ones and the risks of choosing the wrong ones. And whilst the diversity of the sector does provide potential students with more options, it does make it more difficult to move between institutions. Although RPL (Recognition of Prior Learning) and Credit Transfer between institutions does happen, there are no national arrangements for organising it. This then can increase the complexity of students’ learning pathways. Who provides the education and who provides the qualification?

Drawing on the UNESCO project on Flexible Learning Pathways, there are some messages about ‘what to do’ and ‘what not to do’. The report of the international UNESCO project was published as a book in 2022[1]. It ends with a long list of recommendations for ‘moving flexible learning pathways from policy to practice’. They are organised under three policy aims.

1. Creating a favourable policy framework for flexible learning pathways:

This requires:

  • Develop a comprehensive policy framework for an integrated post-secondary education.
  • Approach flexible learning pathways as a coherent and holistic set of policies and practices.
  • Emphasize equity concerns in the national policies on flexible learning pathways.
  • Involve stakeholders in the development of policies for flexible learning pathways.
  • Improve awareness about flexible learning pathways among stakeholders involved in their implementation.

2. Constructing flexible learning pathways at different life stages.

This requires:

  • Enable government support and collaboration between sub-sectors to enhance diverse entry pathways to higher education.
  • Develop an overarching policy for the implementation of recognition of prior learning.
  • Develop flexible progression of learners through effective transfer systems.
  • Improve the perception of open and distance learning programmes as being on a par with regular face-to-face academic programmes.
  • Allow recognized MOOCs to bear credits in regular degree programmes.
  • Create a national credit bank system to allow for easier validation and storage of credits.
  • Strengthen pathways for learners to flexibly transition from higher education to the labour market.

3. Supporting flexible learning pathways with appropriate governance tools.

This requires:

  • Balance regulation and autonomy to ensure a comprehensive introduction of flexible learning pathways.
  • Quality assurance should embrace flexible learning pathways as a policy objective.
  • Create an integrated national qualifications framework system with well-aligned vocational and academic sub-sectors.
  • Provide financial resources to incentivize the implementation of flexible learning pathways.
  • Use data to monitor and evaluate the implantation and impact of flexible learning pathways.
  • Guidance during progression can help students to move to higher levels of education and attain better outcomes.

It’s a long list, with many of the recommendations addressed to national government policies and others being more focused on institutions. Though in the UK systems, the relative autonomy of institutions shifts the focus more to the institutional level. But the recommendations bring challenges at both policy levels.

Moving to the conclusions reached about flexible learning pathways in UK higher education, written by the present author for the UNESCO book, we have the following:

The diversity and institutional autonomy characteristics of the UK, and especially the English, higher education systems bring many potential benefits to learners and to wider society. But achieving these benefits also brings many challenges, most particularly the challenge of balancing and matching the diversities of the system with the diversities of the learners: their needs, aspirations, conditions, and abilities. It requires more blended learning, a greater number of micro-credentials, more collaboration between institutions, a broadening of the student experience, balancing external and internal quality assurance, more contextualised admissions, stronger institutional managements with a diversity of professional supports, and, above all, the provision of better information and support to learners in selecting and travelling on their flexible learning pathways.

Flexible lifetime learning has definitely arrived. But more traditional forms of higher education have not disappeared. In a recent journal article, Simon Marginson wrote:

“Higher education is not primarily the formation of “employable” graduates. It is the cultural formations of persons through immersion in disciplined-based knowledge.”[2]

This can remind us of the useful distinction that Martin Trow made in distinguishing between elite, mass and universal higher education[3]. In terms of Trow’s three higher education stages, the universal higher education stage has been reached in the UK, with over 50% of the population entering higher education at some stage of their lives. But Trow also made the important point that ‘elite’ higher education doesn’t disappear with the arrival of mass and universal forms.

Another point to make is that increasing numbers of people are experiencing several of the different forms of higher education. In the author’s recent project on microcredentials, most of the learners were already graduates, and about a third of them were postgraduates. Thus, ‘advantaging the already advantaged’ might be an appropriate term to use about them. It remains unclear whether the Lifelong Learning Entitlement will be mainly about upskilling and reskilling the existing graduate workforce or about providing a new access route for those who had not already experienced higher education. The answer could well be ‘a bit of both’.

However, it should also be remembered that society as a whole, and not just graduates, can benefit from the impacts of higher education, whether traditional or new forms.

Higher education is changing and it needs to. But quality issues remain. ‘What to protect’ is as important as ‘what to change’ in shaping higher education’s future. And different answers are likely to reflect institutional differences across the expanding and diverse higher education sector.


[1] Michaela Martin and Uliana Furiv, 2022, SDG-4, Flexible Learning Pathways in Higher Education – from Policy to Practice, Paris: UNESCO International Institute for Educational Planning

[2] S. Marginson, 2023, “Is Employability Displacing Higher Education?”, in International Higher Education

[3] M.Burrage, 2010, ‘Martin Trow: Twentieth-Century Education – Elite to Mass to Universal’, Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press

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