Flexible learning pathways in higher education

Faced with a massive influx of new learner profiles into higher education, the number and diversity of higher education institutions and study programmes have considerably increased. This raises crucial questions about articulations between institutions and their programmes so that students have more options for access to and progression in higher education, as well as preparing for labour market entry. The overarching objective of our research project is to produce knowledge and provide evidence-based policy advice to ministries of (higher) education on how to build flexible learning pathways (FLPs).

Global enrolment in higher education has more than doubled in the two last decades. How can countries develop FLPs in higher education for all students, whatever their age, gender, financial situation, education level, and skills? This question, identified in the Education 2030 Agenda and in Sustainable Development Goal 4, is central to this global IIEP-UNESCO research project. 


Why explore flexible learning pathways?

The United Nations Education 2030 Agenda encourages all countries to develop well-articulated education systems that offer FLPs for their students. Providing multiple entry points to and progression routes between institutions, courses, or educational levels brings many benefits for individuals and society, particularly in terms of equity, employability, or efficiency in the management of resources.

However, considering the world’s increasingly complex and fragmented higher education systems, both in terms of governance and funding, offering flexible and inclusive learning pathways is a challenge. Our research project aims to shed new light on the issue by analysing options for policy and practices that can support the implementation of FLPs in higher education for all students – and for disadvantaged groups in particular.

Flexibility enhances the resilience of education systems. Whether students are entering, moving through, leaving, or returning to higher education, the more flexible the learning pathways, the more likely it is that systems will be able to adapt to change and new challenges.

Michaela Martin, IIEP Researcher 

Launched in 2018, this programme is a continuation of IIEP-UNESCO's research on governance and quality assurance issues in higher education.

4 research questions about flexible learning pathways

The project aims to provide evidence-based answers to the following research questions:

  1. What are the policies, regulatory frameworks, instruments, and practices that support flexible learning pathways (FLPs) in higher education?
  2. How effective are they in establishing FLPs and building closer linkages between and within higher education levels and institutions?
  3. How do FLPs influence the higher education access, progression, transfer, and completion – as well as the transition to the labour market – of disadvantaged groups?
  4. What lessons can be learned from the experiences of case countries regarding the implementation of FLPs in higher education?



Our methodology & research

This research project is based on a three-stage methodological approach that is both quantitative and qualitative. 

Each country case study provides an in-depth analysis on how national policies are implemented, at both central and decentralized levels, and how they affect institutional practices. Studies are based on a series of stakeholder interviews and focus group discussions at national and institutional levels, statistical analysis, and desk research on policy documents and existing literature.

How will our research help IIEP-UNESCO's audiences and partners?


The results of our research on FLPs will further enrich IIEP-UNESCO's training content for higher education planners. In particular, it will add a new dimension to our existing online courses on external quality assurance, internal quality assurance, and indicator systems in higher education.

Technical support to States

Lessons learnt from this research will directly benefit countries that are aiming to develop or strengthen FLPs in their higher education systems – and more generally to support their higher education management and planning strategies – through IIEP-UNESCO’s publications, recommendations, and expertise.


Our research results will be disseminated through publications, thematic papers and country notes, international conferences, and outreach content.

- This research project specifically addresses our Thematic Priorities 1 and 4 for the period 2018–2021.


Learn more about IIEP's 2018–2021 strategy


International Policy Forum on flexible learning pathways in higher education (2021)

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.