Flexible learning pathfinders

Flexible learning has become a familiar phrase in higher education (HE) policy. It aims to attract and meet the needs of a wider range of students and stakeholders - including employers - and make full use of the opportunities to enhance learning and teaching offered by learning technology.

Flexible learning can take many shapes, based on variation in pace, time, location and mode of study – or a combination of these.  It can include accelerated, extended and part-time study, work-based, open, distance and blended learning, sometimes in combination.   

Credit plays a central role in flexible delivery as it enables the recognition of learning that has already taken place, and allows students to accumulate learning at their own pace. This includes accreditation of prior experiential learning (APEL) and accreditation of prior certificated learning (APCL). 

About the pathfinders

The Government's 2003 White Paper 'The Future of Higher Education' highlighted the need for 'more flexibility in courses, to meet the needs of a more diverse student body'. In response to this, we gave development funding to eight higher education institutions between 2005 and 2010 to pilot different models of flexible HE provision  - the flexible learning pathfinder project.

The Government’s 2011 Higher Education White Paper, ‘Students at the heart of the system’ acknowledged that many students do not follow the traditional route of a three-year residential degree after school, and that the government’s new regulatory framework will allow for greater diversity of provision.

The flexible learning pathfinders focused on variation in pace and intensity of study, and on flexible methods of delivery (for example, blended learning, distance learning, and the use of information and communications technology). All developed their flexible programmes within an overall institutional strategy to encourage flexible learning.

The pathfinder project has now been completed. The findings are reported in a final evaluation by the Higher Education Academy.

All eight pathfinder institutions are continuing to offer flexible provision (including, in most of them, accelerated degrees).  Some institutions have developed their flexible pilots to increase the subject areas covered and the number of courses offered. Over the life of the project, the numbers of students on the pilot courses have increased from 145 in 2007-07 to 3,332 in 2009-10 (the latest year for which we have reliable data). Numbers on accelerated degree programmes have increased from 70 in 2006-07 to 614 in 2009-10.

The pathfinder projects

Listed below are the eight pathfinder institutions and the courses that they piloted.   There are links to the courses that they are continuing to offer.

 Research and evaluation

  • Flexible learning pathfinders – final evaluation report (March 2012)
    This report, produced by the Higher Education Academy, sets out the findings of the Flexible learning pathfinder project.
  • Three studies of flexible learning with an introductory statement (February 2011)
    Flexible learning pathfinders: key statistics 2008-09,  Costing study of two-year accelerated degrees, and Diverse provision, options and challenges. These studies examine some of the issues around flexible learning and address some of the questions raised by the pathfinders.
  • Interim evaluation of the flexible learning pathfinders (2009).
  • Introduction of fast-track degree programmes (2009)
    A study by Staffordshire University of  two-year ‘fast-track’ degree programmes in their institution.  It compares the characteristics of students on two-year accelerated degrees with those on the equivalent three-year pathways, and identifies issues for the future prospects for two-year degrees. Some of the main findings were that 'fast-track' students at Staffordshire:
    • outperformed equivalent three-year degree students by an average of two-thirds of a degree classification
    • were more likely to be mature, but there was no evidence of any other widening participation effect
    • were no more likely than three-year students to adopt a 'surface' approach to learning overall, and in the first year were more likely to have a 'deep' approach.

The Higher Education Academy published a research report into accelerated learning programmes (Adobe PDF) in May 2007.

Funding flexible learning

For entry up to and including 2011-12, two-year accelerated honours degrees attract mainstream HEFCE funding for two years plus a targeted allocation for accelerated and intensive provision (see 'Guide to funding: How HEFCE allocates its funds' (HEFCE 2010/24)). Accelerated degree students pay two years’ fees and are eligible for fee and maintenance loans for two years plus additional maintenance loans for study over the two summer periods of their course.

For entry in 2012-13, mainstream funding for the majority of subjects will no longer be provided by HEFCE, but through student fees.  For both accelerated and conventional three-year degrees, fees will be subject to an increased limit of £6,000 per year, or £9,000 if they meet strict criteria for access.  For accelerated degrees, students will continue to pay two years’ fees, within these limits, and depending on the level at which the institution decides to set its fees.  Accelerated degree students will continue to be eligible for fee and maintenance loans over two years. 

We are currently seeking views, as part of our consultation on the teaching funding method for 2013-14 and beyond, on our proposal to continue with the targeted allocation for undergraduate accelerated and intensive provision; and also whether there are other innovative types of flexible provision that might warrant funding in order to widen the choices for students.

Sector impact assessment

In developing the flexible learning pathfinder pilot work, we have undertaken a formal assessment of the impact it will have on the HE sector in terms of regulatory burden, equality and diversity, and sustainable development.

Flexible learning pathfinders sector impact assessment

Download the Flexible learning pathfinders sector impact assessment as PDF (42 KB)

Further information

For further information on flexible learning pathfinders contact Sheila Wolfenden, tel 0117 931 7301, e-mail s.wolfenden@hefce.ac.uk.

Page last updated 14 December 2011

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