Paving flexible learning pathways: From policy to practice

Higher education enrolment has reached unprecedented levels over the past few decades, having more than doubled from 100 million students in 2000 to over 227 million students in 2020 globally.

The immense growth in enrolment has also contributed to a changing student body and calls for higher education systems to become more flexible to respond to the changing needs of its more diverse students. The evolution of flexible learning pathways (FLPs) over the next years will be critical to how these students reach higher education and leave prepared for the future.

Not only has the student body diversified due to the expansion of higher education, but so has the landscape of providers and modes of educational delivery.

Hence, traditional state-funded institutions for students, staff and funding are contested by providers of private, open and distance learning (ODL), cross-border and other types of education, making it more difficult for students to navigate through.

The increasing digitalisation of teaching and learning further results in a rapidly growing offer of online and hybrid learning, as well as part-time programmes and courses, which have played a crucial role in providing access to higher education for millions of learners globally, particularly in the developing world.

Nevertheless, data on the development of internet users in developing countries testify to a staggering urban-rural divide affecting students from disadvantaged and vulnerable groups who wish to access and succeed in higher education.

Yet, the overall increase in and diversification of providers and modes of delivery have not resulted in the provision of equal opportunities for disadvantaged learners. Access to higher education remains unfairly distributed and often rigid, with the wealthier segments of the population much more likely to benefit from higher education than the poorest.

This calls for more equitable and permeable higher education systems that allow all learners to access, progress through and complete higher education, including those from disadvantaged groups.

SDG 4: Planning for flexible learning pathways

In line with the Education 2030 Agenda, which commits countries to developing higher education systems that emphasise the recognition of all forms of learning and to offer FLPs, the UNESCO International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP) has carried out a comprehensive comparative research project to examine policies and practices facilitating and creating FLPs in higher education.

The four-year research project conducted from 2018 to 2021 comprised a stocktaking exercise of good practice, an international survey of FLP policies, instruments and practices among UNESCO member states and eight in-depth country studies on Chile, Finland, India, Jamaica, Malaysia, Morocco, South Africa and the United Kingdom.

Given the focus in Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 on equitable higher education systems, the study pays particular attention to the effects of FLPs on disadvantaged groups.

IIEP-UNESCO’s newest publication, SDG-4: Flexible Learning Pathways in Higher Education – From policy to practice, presents the findings of the study and aims to support decision-makers, planners and higher education institutions in designing policies for FLPs.

The authors Michaela Martin and Uliana Furiv shed new light on policy options and good practice to assist countries in the creation of more flexible higher education systems and to augment learner choices.

Putting the student perspective at the centre, IIEP-UNESCO’s research has conceptualised FLPs as diverse pathways for getting into, progressing through and moving out of higher education.

To benefit all learners and systems, the authors argue for a holistic approach to implementing FLPs. They should be accessible across the whole higher education system and encompass all stages of the student journey.

Enabling diverse entry pathways

The findings emphasise the relevance of collaboration between upper secondary/vocational institutions and higher education institutions when it comes to equitable access.

Preparatory programmes, open entry policies and the recognition of prior learning have effectively introduced alternative paths promoting flexible access to higher education in the case study countries.

To benefit disadvantaged students, some of the examined countries make use of alternative approaches, such as contextual admission and compensatory entry criteria to grant access to higher education.

Continuous learning and reducing student dropouts

ODL, which heavily relies on the use of the internet, digital platforms and other tools, became a mainstream activity in many higher education systems during the pandemic. As it enables flexibility in terms of learning location and pace of study, ODL plays a key role in widening access and creating continuous learning opportunities for reskilling or further study.

Yet, ODL programmes are still not recognised at the same level as on-campus programmes in many countries. The findings indicate that quality assurance mechanisms can support the implementation of ODL programmes and ensure their quality.

Higher education systems are able to reduce dropout and repetition when learners are given choices allowing them to change and transfer credits from one programme or provider to another. To implement transfer and recognition of prior learning processes at the institutional level, credit accumulation and transfer systems are an essential tool.

Transition to the labour market

Flexible pathways that enable students to prepare for the labour market were found to be the least developed in terms of policy and practice. The eight in-depth country case studies show that, by allowing students to combine work and study, higher education systems enable truly integrated work-based learning in their curriculum.

Overall, the study observes that new ways of learning and acquiring skills already engage millions of learners worldwide. As the provision of flexible learning that is economically viable and appropriately manageable for institutions and students can be challenging, the authors have elaborated concrete action points to guide decision-makers from policy to practice.

Michaela Martin is assistant director at the UNESCO International Institute for Educational Planning, leading the project on flexible learning pathways in higher education. Milena Gaede is a Carlo-Schmid-Fellow at the UNESCO International Institute for Educational Planning supporting the research and development team. The SDG-4: Flexible Learning Pathways in Higher Education – From policy to practice report was launched at the ADEA Triennale on Education on 19 October in Mauritius, one of Africa’s seminal high-level forums for political dialogue and sharing of knowledge and fruitful experiences. The full publication, further information on the research project, as well as other outlets of the research project are accessible through the UNESCO-IIEP home page.