Flexible Learning: Conditions of Flexibility

Source: The Higher Education Academy (HEA)
Source: The Higher Education Academy (HEA)

This is the seventh (and final) in a short series of posts on the work undertaken by the Higher Education Academy (HEA) on flexible learning.


This final report (Barnett, 2014) is the culmination of four earlier reports, under the aegis of ‘Flexible Pedagogies’, which have considered flexible learning from a range of perspectives. It draws upon and brings together those many threads that have been offered in the previous complementary reports. The report references the HEA‘s overarching research question:

Why and to what extent might flexible pedagogies be promoted, and in what ways?

Professor Ron Barnett, the report’s author, offers a nuanced critical analysis of what flexibility may – and may not – mean, and the conditions under which a greater measure of flexibility is likely to flourish within, and benefit, the United Kingdom (UK) Higher Education (HE) system.

Flexing Flexibility

The notion of flexibility in higher education is not new. Barnett (2014) recounts that in 1858, the University of London offered degrees to any (male) student regardless of where they were in the world. Barnett also notes that flexibility, within the literature, has been theme for inquiry and investigation for more than 20 years, yet it has become something of an “empty concept”, arguing:

Flexibility being such a fluid and indeed inchoate and elusive concept, with rather loose attachments to specific settings, it can be – and is – called up to meet many if not all of the alleged shortcomings in and challenges facing higher education. (ibid., 2014:32)

If there is too little flexibility then the systems that are in place are unable to be responsive. On the other hand, too much flexibility could run the risk of lowering standards.

Conditions of Flexibility

Barnett (2014) proposes a set of yardsticks that he calls conditions of flexibility by which institutions are able evaluate their flexible provision:

  1. lead to a qualification that contributes to major awards (such as degrees or their equivalent);
  2. offer all students access to suitable materials and appropriate cognitive and practical experiences;
  3. offer academic interaction with other students;
  4. offer access to tutors, in real-time interaction;
  5. offer prompt and informative (formative) feedback from tutors;
  6. offer access to other academic services (such as counselling, academic and careers advice);
  7. offer financial services (appropriate to the cost to students in financing their studies);
  8. enable students to offer feedback on their total experience;
  9. provide a pedagogical openness;
  10. be academically and educationally structured;
  11. offer ladder(s) of progression;
  12. be suitably robust and reliable (with built-in safeguards appropriate to the risk);
  13. be cost-effective;
  14. have sufficient structure so as to enable student completion to be a likely outcome; and
  15. contain sufficient challenge that students are likely to be cognitively and experientially stretched and to be informed by a spirit of criticality appropriate to each stage of a programme of studies (so as fully to realise the promise of a higher education).

…and finally

In his concluding remarks, Barnett (2014) is cognizant that “not every instance of ‘flexible provision’ will meet all of these 15 conditions of flexibility” (p.68) and suggests that institutions should construct a flexibility analysis and evaluation as a means to check the “educational soundness” of the flexible provision project. He calls for a “steady gaze” upon the “conditions” to act as a catalyst towards new thinking, new practices and new approaches in response to an uncertain and complex world.


Barnett, R. (2014). Conditions of Flexibility: Securing a more responsive Higher Education system. York, England: The Higher Education Academy (HEA). Available at: https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/flexible-pedagogies-preparing-future [Accessed 17.3.2015].