"Higher education needs to adapt to people’s needs": IIEP International Policy Forum

13 July 2021

Flexible learning pathways (FLPs) are an important new policy direction in higher education systems worldwide. As the sector rapidly expands and students become more diverse, FLPs support students with everything from getting in to getting out of higher education. They can also help address equity and fairness, and prepare students for the realities of a changing world.

New directions in higher education

How to support flexibility for students in higher education was the focus of IIEP-UNESCO’s recent online International Policy Forum. From 6-8 July 2021, policy-makers, experts, and researchers from over 80 countries discussed how to improve the effectiveness of FLPs in a series of panels and parallel workshops.

The forum was also an opportunity to share new research findings from IIEP’s multi-year international study on flexible learning pathways in higher education to advance the United Nation’s Education 2030 Agenda. Exploring the broad question of how national policies influence institutional practices to foster flexibility, the research zoned in on experiences from Chile, Finland, India, Jamaica, Malaysia, Morocco, South Africa, and the United Kingdom.

“Higher education remains central to IIEP’s research to deliver on the global Sustainable Development Goals. Today, we are ready to share and discuss the findings with a truly international public of policy-makers.”

Paul Coustère, Director a.i, IIEP

The global picture 

Occurring amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the Policy Forum was an opportunity to discuss the rapid, global change facing the sector, as well as where it will go next. It also showed how prescient FLPs are: evidence is increasingly showing that institutions that already embraced flexibility were better equipped to face the crisis, which has affected some 220 million post-secondary students worldwide.

“Higher education institutions that have been offering flexible approaches in the delivery of education are better equipped to respond to crisis. We need higher education systems that can accommodate these new realities.”

Michaela Martin, Team Leader a.i, Research and Development, IIEP

Aside from the current crisis, FLPs can help higher education institutions adapt to other global shifts. For example, the ongoing industrial revolution – and the development of artificial intelligence – requires a radical new approach to upskilling and reskilling, and therefore a more flexible approach to accessing higher education than taking part in full degree programmes.

“There is a need for most of the working population to have their qualifications upgraded and skills as well as knowledge enhanced in line with the industrial 4.0 revolution.”

Noraini Ahmad, Honourable Minister of Higher Education, Malaysia

To help facilitate this, Institutions must embrace new technological developments to facilitate flexibility in terms of where, when, and how students learn. The current COVID-19 crisis advanced the practice of online learning; however, major questions still stand. How can FLPs truly benefit all students and ensure the relevance of higher education for years to come? Moreover, as IIEP’s Martin said, “the challenge now is to move from remote teaching to quality e-learning.”   

“Higher education is expanding in all world regions. However, it has been done at the expense of the most vulnerable. Not all segments can benefit from higher education.”

Francesc Pedró, the Director of the UNESCO Institute for Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Supporting entry to higher education

Diverse entry pathways are one of the most important ways to support the policy objective to improve availability and accessibility of higher education. To broaden access, successful recognized prior learning (RPL), for example, needs both national policies, funding and institutional investment. The variety of open universities, open studies, MOOCs, and micro-credentials shared during the Forum illustrated how to widen access and develop skills in new, shorter, and more accessible yet certified formats.

“The time has come for micro-credentials. There is a demand for new competencies. People need to train, and retrain. We need to find new access to higher education and avoid this meritocracy trap.”

Peter van der Hijden, Higher Education Strategy Advisor, Brussels, Belgium.

However, quality assurance and recognition remain a challenge in many countries. And, with the proliferation of programme options, better information and individualized support is needed to help students make informed study choices and reorient when needed.

Technology-based solutions

Technology-enhanced learning empowers students to have choices in the pace, place, and mode of delivery. As mentioned, the pandemic has accelerated this shift to online learning at momentous speed. While its impact is still being explored, one thing is for sure: this mode of learning is here to stay. Therefore, moving from remote teaching to quality e-learning and defining quality standards for it is indispensable. Addressing disparities in technological access and recognition of online learning are also a work in progress, and the latter requires quality assurance in the same manner as face-to-face learning that will need to be organized between institutions, governments, and quality assurance agencies.

Flexible progression through higher education

Transfer policies in higher education are necessary to allow students to reorient their studies and increase their chances of succeeding in higher education. To help foster seamless transfers and recognized prior learning processes, national qualifications frameworks aligned with quality assurance will play a fundamental role. Guidance during one’s study, flexibility in the pace of learning, and combining work-based learning and traditional study are useful ways to adapt to the needs of diverse learners.

“As the road to higher education can no longer be confined to only one pathway, diversification should be the new practice. Students need to be able to decide which course they want to embark in and when and where they want to study.”

Mazlan Yusof, Secretary General, Ministry of Higher Education, Malaysia

The way forward

Higher education is a sector on the move, constantly evolving and adapting to changing realities, whether it be in what students want to learn or what the job market demands. Going forward – even when the current crisis subsides – flexibility will remain the policy target.

“We need to stop and think and change. Today’s universities are not the same as yesterdays. It is not just about bachelors or masters, that is over, that is last century. We need to think about what people need.”

Peter Wells, Chief of Higher Education Section, UNESCO

Only by embracing change, and letting go of what higher education may have looked like in the past, will the sector remain relevant, equitable, resilient, cutting-edge, and a means for people to lead fruitful lives and contribute meaningfully to society. The challenge now is to strengthen governance and instruments that further enhance flexibility, and to balance regulation and quality standards with autonomy to create the higher education systems of tomorrow.

The event was a collaborative effort between IIEP, the Commonwealth Tertiary Education Facility, the Malaysian Ministry of Higher Education, the Department of Higher Education (JPT), the Universiti Sains Malaysia, the Malaysian Qualifications Agency, and the Malaysian National Commission for UNESCO.