Flexible Learning: The Pathfinder Projects (2005-2010)

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

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


In response to the Government’s 2003 Higher Education White Paper (DfES, 2003), the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) provided funding for the Higher Education Academy (HEA) to investigate different forms of flexible study and provision. The HEA launched the Flexible Learning Pathfinders (FLP) to fund eight Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) to pilot such projects. The Pathfinder projects ran from 2005 to 2010. This work culminated into a final report (Outram, 2011) that provided a springboard for the HEA to develop a major theme around flexible learning.

Defining ‘Flexibility’

The report (Outram, 2011) recognised that definitions of flexible learning tended to “vary and are often too general or nebulous”, but contended that flexible learning could be concerned about “how, where, when, and at what pace learning occurs”. It also recognised that technology had a part to play to “enable greater flexibility in learning”, though flexibility could be “introduced in significant ways” that were not dependent on technology (e.g. accelerated programmes).

The Findings

The Pathfinder projects reported some success in introducing, sustaining and developing different forms of flexible provisions, particularly around accelerated degrees and work-based learning. However, the initial pilot pathfinder projects had remained “small-scale” and did not “significantly transfer” flexible delivery into other subject areas.

Where there was demand for flexible provision, it had been limited to vocational courses and from mature students. Furthermore, certain subjects, like Law, were considerably interested in accelerated degrees. However, the take up from prospective students had been “relatively low” due to their lack of awareness on the study alternatives that were provided.

It was also reported that there seemed to be support from employers and professional bodies for flexible provision. Moreover, there was some evidence to suggest that accelerated degree students’ achievements were comparable to those students who undertook traditional degrees.

The Barriers

The eight institutional Pathfinder projects raised a number of concerns and issues that could potentially hinder wide-scale expansion of flexible provision. These included:

  • cost and difficulties implementing the necessary infrastructural changes;
  • gaining the ‘hearts and minds’ of staff to support such an undertaking;
  • the perceived costs involved in delivering accelerated degrees; and
  • accelerated delivery may only attract certain subjects and types of students.

The Report’s Recommendations

The report’s author recommended a number of actions that needed to be undertaken in order to support the development of flexible learning provision. These included:

  • providing prospective students with better information around alternative study options and how these would be delivered;
  • basing fees on credits delivered rather than years of study;
  • changing institutional structures and systems to support flexible delivery;
  • demonstrate that accelerated degrees deliver similar outcomes to traditional degrees; and
  • give institutions organisational change and development support in delivering flexible provision.


DfES. (2003). The Future of Higher Education. London, England: Department for Education and Skills (DfES). Available at: http://www.educationengland.org.uk/documents/pdfs/2003-white-paper-higher-ed.pdf [Accessed 17.3.2015].

Outram, S. (2011). Final Evaluation of the HEFCE-funded Flexible Learning Pathfinder Projects. York, England: The Higher Education Academy (HEA). Available at: https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/node/3527 [Accessed 17.3.2015].