Flexible learning has always been associated with part-time study. It has been perceived as the principal way in which adult learners wanting to change or further their careers through gaining (often post graduate) qualifications can do so, simply because such people frequently have to juggle competing demands of work, family, study and leisure.

The recent statement reporting the main findings and policy recommendations of a project conducted jointly by Universities UK and the CBI, focuses on the economic case for flexible learning. It argues that ‘for the UK to prosper economically, compete international, and reduce economic disparities, the UK’s skills base will need to be responsive and meet these changing needs. More flexible learning approaches have the potential to help address current and future skills shortages and/or mismatches’. Drawing on evidence from learners, providers and employers, the statement’s three policy recommendations are that:

While the statement usefully identifies a number of barriers that hinder the development of more flexible provision within higher education, it is paradoxical that it pays scant attention to the important, parallel, question of whether there is an economic case for Higher Education Providers to engage in flexible delivery. Over the years, many models have been tried, ranging from whole institutions which focus on part-time learning; to universities which create a discrete and dedicated ‘arm’, separate from their full-time provision, where the needs and interests of part-time, adult and lifelong learners are deliberately catered for; to individual programmes and courses offering some form of hybrid delivery. The well-publicised financial challenges experienced recently by the Open University also highlights the enormous negative impact that funding decisions and policies such as the ELQ and the separate funding models (FT vs PT) employed originally by Hefce and now by the Office for Students, have on the majority of models of flexible delivery.

The real challenge, of course, is the economic question of how to offer what can very easily amount to bespoke education and training to hundreds, thousands, even tens of thousands, of individuals. Our economic systems are premised on the reality that the more learners there are doing the same thing, the more economically viable it is for institutions to provide that ‘thing’. The contemporary social and economic thrust is to merge, become bigger, to have more and more people doing the same thing, using the same systems… This allows for automation, for cost reductions, and for streamlined excellence of provision (in principle, if not always in practice). Giving learners choices – any choices – immediately raises the potential cost to each individual as well as challenges of well-administered and well-delivered learning.

In 2015 the then Higher Education Academy published a series of thematic Frameworks. The Flexible Learning Framework highlighted the need for ‘balanced pragmatism’. By this, it was recognising the complex and often competing interests – financial and practical – of an institution and its learners if flexible learning was to be part of the institutional portfolio. This remains a central challenge and is the hidden subtext lying under the UUK/CBI statement. Only when the need for a ‘balanced pragmatism’ is foregrounded and properly scrutinised will the laudable aims of the statement become potentially achievable. Only then will there be a genuine economic case for flexible learning in the UK.

– Dr Alison Le Cornu, UALL Policy Officer, November 5th 2018

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