IIEP-Unesco Project on Flexible Learning Pathways in Higher education

Higher education
Kuvituskuva. Ryhmä opiskelijoita poseeraavat kameralle.
Image: Roman Samborskyi/Shutterstock.com

Between 2018 and 2022, IIEP-UNESCO implemented a research project entitled Flexible learning pathways in higher education. The research stages were an international background survey and a case study stage, in which eight countries participated: Chile, South Africa, India, the United Kingdom, Jamaica, Malaysia, Morocco and Finland.

The research questions were as follows:

  1. What are the policies, regulatory frameworks, instruments, and practices that support FLPs in higher education?
  2. How effective are these policies, regulatory frameworks, instruments, and practices in establishing FLPs and building closer linkages between and within higher education levels and institutions?
  3. How does the establishment of FLPs influence the access, progression, transfer, completion, and preparation for the labour market of those identified as disadvantaged groups in the case countries?
  4. What lessons can be learned from the experience of case countries regarding key enablers and factors lacking in the implementation of FLPs in higher education?

Flexible learning pathways were explored from three perspectives: flexible entry pathways to higher education, flexible opportunities during the studies and flexibility towards graduation and finding employment. In accordance with the IIEP research framework, post-graduate learning pathways had been excluded from the study.

FINEEC was responsible for Finland’s country case report and the implementation of the country case study in Finland in cooperation with the Finnish Institute for Educational Research. The data for the study consisted of interviews with representatives of national-level actors such as the Ministry of Education and Culture, the Finnish National Agency for Education, rectors’ councils, student unions and stakeholders, and interviews with staff and students in two case institutions, as well as related statistical data and research reports.

Below, we will introduce the results and reports of the project in chronological order.

The key results and recommendations in Finland’s country case report in 2020

Finland has set long-term policy objectives for flexible learning pathways and the objectives cover the different stages of the learning pathway diversely. However, there is no consistent national definition for flexible learning pathways.

Of the national instruments, especially the reforms of the higher education funding model and legislation enabling flexible choices have had a key steering impact on flexible learning pathways. The reformed funding models reward HEIs for open higher education-study and cross-study ECTS credits. In addition, numerous instruments have been created in the key projects of the previous government to support the implementations of flexible studies, cross-studying and the integration of on-the-job learning periods in higher education studies. The European Credit Transfer System (ECTS), recognition of prior learning, national qualifications framework (FiNQF) and quality assurance of education are important instruments supporting the implementation of flexible learning pathways.

Although the structural preconditions for flexible learning pathways in higher education exist and a great deal of development work has been carried out, there is still a lot of potential associated with the concept of flexible learning pathways that would enable Finland to respond to the challenges facing it: the demographic structure and diminishing age classes, upgrading and renewal of the skills of the workforce, and the policy aims related to equal opportunities.

When the study was conducted, equity perspectives (socio-economic position, region, gender, immigration background, ethnic groups, linguistic groups and persons with impaired functional ability) had just been defined in Finland as part of the plan for accessibility in higher education and research projects supporting the policy objective had been launched.

In the next phase, it would be important to compile this information into one entity. Based on the interviews with representatives of higher education institutions, the current focus is on supporting all students in the same way (equality principle), whereas supporting students with different backgrounds from their own starting points (equity principle) is not realised consistently. In addition, the implementation and monitoring of policy objectives related to equity and accessibility of HEIs is complicated by the fact that no national objectives or indicators have been set for equity and the treatment of different groups.

National recommendations:

  • The concept of flexible learning pathways and the related objectives, development measures and monitoring should be defined as one whole.
  • The statistical monitoring related to the realisation of flexible learning pathways should be strengthened and the existing data should be used more efficiently. The areas in need of improvement include longitudinal monitoring of the open pathway, improving the monitoring of transfer application procedures and developing the indicators for continuous learning.
  • Flexible learning pathways can serve as a way of promoting the realisation of equity and accessibility of higher education from the point of view of different equity groups. Drawing up national objectives and indicators for equity would support implementation at the institutional level and promote monitoring at the national and institutional level.
  • A plan should be drawn up for utilising the good practices created in the previous government’s key projects. Good practices should be compiled on one website where they will be available for HEIs and stakeholders to use.

Recommendations to HEIs:

  • The development of the open higher education studies pathway should be developed in universities and universities of open sciences (UASs) by taking advantage of the good practices created in the development projects. The development of the open pathway should be based on monitoring and research data.
  • HEIs must continue to develop internal pathways, such as the opportunities for orientation and specialisation included the university bachelor’s and master’s degree structures and the UAS bachelor’s degree structure, and to develop transfer application procedures – possible with support from national development projects. This would enable students to make choices as part of their current learning pathways instead of applying for a second study right.
  • Students need to be informed of the existing routes and learning pathways better than currently. Study guidance should be enhanced and, if necessary, reformed to identify the needs of students and the learners and customers of continuous learning.
  • HEIs need to lead the change towards flexible learning pathways and integrate them into their quality systems.

Finland’s country case report and key findings of the study (2020)

UNESCO’s country note based on Finland’s country case report (2021)

The country case reports of the eight participating countries 2021

International Policy Forum 6–8 July 2021

The key findings and recommendations of the international comparison report in 2022

In October 2022, IIEP-UNESCO published an international comparative analysis entitled SDG-4: Flexible Learning Pathways in Higher Education – from Policy to Practice. The report contains a large number of good practices and ideas for the planning of policies concerning flexible learning pathways and their implementation at the institutional level.

The following are among the highlighted good practices in Finland:

  • flexible learning pathways as a long-term and consistent objective in higher education policy
  • a participatory process for drawing up the policy objectives
  • rewarding for credits in open higher education and cross-studying with a funding model for HEIs
  • the open studies pathway as a flexible route for entering higher education
  • audits and thematic evaluations of HEIs as methods of assessing the realisation of flexible learning pathways
  • integrating on-the-job learning into higher education studies and
  • personal study plans supporting the planning of flexible learning pathways.

The following are examples of good practices from other participating countries:

  • In South Africa, SAQA (South African Qualifications Authority) supports HEIs in the recognition of prior learning with instructions and assessment. SAQA’s systematic research activities also support the implementation and monitoring of flexible learning pathways.
  • In the United Kingdom, two e-learning platforms, FutureLearn and OpenLearn, bring together more than 4,000 courses and micro-credentials, making it possible to supplement competence and proceed to degree studies. There is one body responsible for the provision of open university studies: the Open University. The development of the skills required in higher education is supported by the foundation degree offered by vocational institutions and universities to prepare for higher education studies.
  • In Malaysia, two accreditation procedures for recognising prior learning have been created: the APEL (A) model enables the applicant to apply for the right to complete a degree and the APEL (C) model to apply for the accreditation of an individual study unit. Research on the APEL (A) model shows that the learning outcomes of students who have been admitted using this route are at the same level as those of students admitted using other selection methods.

IIEP-UNESCO has drawn up a wall chart summarising the recommendations given in the final report. The wall chart presents 18 ways to put the policy objectives concerning flexible learning pathways into practice. The methods include, for example, the policy and development measures promoting flexible learning pathways, involvement of stakeholders in the planning, and monitoring the implementation of flexible learning pathways by means of statistical methods and evaluations.

Background of the IIEP-UNESCO project

IIEP-UNESCO (UNESCO International Institute for Educational Planning) operates in connection with UNESCO. Its task is to support the development of education systems and education planning in its member states.


The evaluation provided information on FINEEC’s focus areas Increasing the functionality of the education system and Promoting equity

Further information

Sirpa Moitus.

Sirpa Moitus

Counsellor of Evaluation
Higher education
+358 29 533 5518 Helsinki