International project comparing flexible learning pathways in higher education has been completed – many good practices in Finland

Higher education sirpamoitus

An international study indicated that setting of Finland’s policy objectives for flexible learning pathways (FLPs) in higher education has been consistent and cover various stages of the learning pathway. The development of FLPs has been steered effectively with reforming the funding model and legislation. In addition, the key projects funded by the previous government have created numerous new practices to support flexible access to higher education, flexible implementations of the studies, and integration of higher education with working life. Systematic follow-up and impact research regarding flexible learning pathways is an example of area for improvement for Finland.

Eight countries involved in an international research project

Between 2018 and 2022, IIEP-UNESCO implemented an international comparative research project entitled Flexible learning pathways in higher education. Learning pathways were examined from the point of view of flexibility of access to degree education leading and flexibility during the completion of the degree and working life placements.

The research stages were an extensive literature analysis, an international background survey and case studies of eight participating countries: Chile, South Africa, India, the United Kingdom, Jamaica, Malaysia, Morocco and Finland.

FINEEC was responsible for Finland’s country case report and the implementation of the study in Finland in cooperation with the Finnish Institute for Educational Research.

Finland’s good practices were highlighted in the final report

In October 2022, IIEP-UNESCO published an international comparative analysis entitled SDG-4: Flexible Learning Pathways in Higher Education – from Policy to Practice as the final report of the project. The report contains a large number of good practices 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 ECTS credits in open education and cross-studying with a funding model for HEIs
  • 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 countries:

  • In the United Kingdom, two electronic 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, namely the Open University.
  • 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 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.

Development of the open studies pathway needs to be continued

The final report includes a report by FINEEC and the Finnish Institute for Educational Research on the development of the open studies pathway. The article is based on interviews and data collections carried out in Finland. The open studies pathway means applying to higher education studies on the basis of studies completed in the open university or the open university of applied sciences.

The funding model of HEIs and the key projects have clearly encouraged HEIs to increase the provision of open higher education studies and the attained ETCS credits and to extend the routes of admission for open studies. At the same time, the importance and status of the open studies pathway in the student admission system has strengthened.

However, the open studies pathway is not available in all fields of study. The development areas also include the variation in the admission criteria of the open studies pathway and access to information on the available open studies routes – they can be found only through the individual HEIs. Furthermore, the fees in open studies may prevent some students from taking advantage of this route. The development of the open studies pathway would require impact research and longitudinal monitoring to support it.

Finland’s national and institutional recommendations

In addition to IIEP-UNESCO’s final report, national and institutional recommendations were given in the case study report of each participating country.

In Finland’s country case report (2020), defining the concept, objectives, development measures and monitoring of flexible learning pathways as a whole was proposed as national development recommendations. The statistical monitoring related to the implementation 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 student transfer 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 monitoring at the national level.

The development of the open higher education studies pathway by using good practices originating from the development projects was proposed as institutional recommendations. In addition, 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 university of applied sciences bachelor’s degree structure, and to develop the transfer application procedures. This would enable students to make choices as part of their current learning pathway 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 developed to identify the needs of students with different backgrounds. Furthermore, HEIs should draw up strategic objectives for flexible learning pathways and integrate them into their quality systems.

Publications issued in the 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.

For more information, contact FINEEC

Sirpa Moitus, tel. +358 29 533 5518,