Towards seamless progression on learning pathways

Recent global events have meant educational institutions, as important agents of transformation, are doing a lot more thinking about what they do and how they will operate in the future.

There is no doubt that adaptations will need to continue to be made to ensure they can effectively meet the new realities. Learners also recognise that gaining a good education is about much more than preparation for a single job.

In the current climate, it seems reasonable to assume that some will face the need to (re)train or upskill as they confront unemployment and-or a forced job change. They expect that their education will be durable and transferable and equip them with broad-based skills and professional, discipline-specific knowledge, values and understandings.

They want the credentials they earn to meet at least two goals, namely, to prepare them for employment and to give them a solid grounding for the further studies they wish or now need to pursue.

This article concentrates particularly on the second goal to consider whether pathways for further studies are clearly presented and available for prospective learners and achieve the goal of broadening access to formal learning.

Non-linear pathways

Pathways incorporate articulation and credit arrangements, which enable learners to progress from one qualification to another either automatically or through the receipt of credit for prior learning successfully completed.

Pathways are not necessarily continuous – in fact they are more likely to be discontinuous. While they generally tend to go in one direction, namely up, they can also go down. No qualification, other than the doctorate, should be seen as ‘terminal’. Individuals should be supported to return to formal studies to enhance or renew their knowledge and-or skills, or to further their employment progression or for personal fulfilment reasons.

Accessible pathways provide progression options to learners who are moving up and down and fit with the notion of lifelong learning.

For a variety of reasons individuals enrol in higher education, but do not necessarily progress in a linear fashion to complete their studies and graduate. Some enrol in a degree programme and graduate only to find that they are lacking in some practical skills that a lower level diploma or certificate can provide.

Some students enter on a full-time basis, then convert to part time or change their course of study or leave for a period of time before resuming their studies. For those who reside in geographically remote or rural areas or for students from low socio-economic backgrounds with limited resources, access to university level education may not be as readily available and their only option is an initial qualification offered by a vocational training institution.

Lifelong learning

Many post-secondary education institutions have policies and processes that support the concept of lifelong learning. What seems to be less prevalent is the extent to which pathway arrangements allow for smooth progression. Rather, learners are presented with an overabundance of bureaucratic hurdles and-or reduced recognition of former study, which equates to additional time and cost being added to their learning progression.

Learners should be able to access learning pathways without encountering unnecessary, inflexible barriers. They need to be provided with clear information about how to access each pathway according to their individual career journey.

Another impediment relates to the fact that separate post-secondary sectors offer the different qualification levels, each with their own expectations and quality assurance standards that are overseen by discrete authorities.

Those institutions that are dual providers and offer certificates through to doctoral level at least have communication channels and functioning arrangements in place that allow for relatively smoother pathway transitions.

While it can be a challenge to overcome the labyrinth of political, institutional and bureaucratic issues faced by the different post-secondary education sectors, the foremost role should be to support successful student learning.

Connecting qualifications

Most countries have a national qualifications framework (NQF). It provides guidance to post-secondary education providers about the expected standard of student learning outcomes at different levels of education, from certificate through to doctorate level.

The NQF is aimed, among other things, at standardising the level and quality of what is offered or delivered to students.

It is also intended to improve international recognition of qualifications gained by learners, to facilitate access and transferability of these qualifications for student educational mobility and progression between qualifications. So, a central tenet of an NQF is to integrate the various levels – to connect them and support learners’ access to and transition through the levels.

One critical element in providing for efficient pathway moves is curriculum design, which should ensure learners achieve the learning expectations appropriate for that level as indicated in the NQF and allow for unproblematic articulation. It may be impractical for collaborative curriculum development to occur between those designing each level, but better acknowledgement of what is included in each qualification level could enhance alignment and facilitate transitioning.

This means all those with responsibility for developing curriculum should firmly understand the NQF expectations spelt out for each level and align their programmes of study accordingly. This can go some considerable way to recognising pathways and ensuring that each level is complementary.

Being adaptable to change

In the current climate more than ever it will be important to be responsive to new ideas due to changes occurring in some professions as well as in industry and business, which may necessitate quick action in redesigning or adding new programmes brought on by workplace, social and economic shifts.

There are associated consequences for universities along with technical colleges and the growing number of private providers, which all offer post-secondary qualifications.

Whatever the level of qualification, the curriculum should allow for meaningful learning pathways and help reduce unnecessary bureaucratic practices. The implication is that consideration of the relationship between and progression to different level qualifications should factor as a core component of curriculum planning and design in post-secondary education and training.

Dr Nita Temmerman has held senior university positions including pro vice-chancellor (academic quality and partnerships) and executive dean in Australia. She is an invited accreditation specialist with the Hong Kong Council for Accreditation of Academic and Vocational Qualifications and international associate with the Center for Learning Innovations and Customised Knowledge Solutions, Dubai. She is chair of two higher education academic boards, invited professor and consultant to universities in Australia, the Pacific region, Southeast Asia and the Middle East.