Flexible Pathways for “Getting Out of Higher Education” Will Be Even More Important in the Post-COVID Era

Higher education institutions and the labour market can work together on offering work-based learning and flexible completion opportunities to tackle growing unemployment rates in the post-COVID era.

While enrolments in higher education worldwide have rapidly increased at the international level, economies and labour markets in many countries have failed to keep pace with an ever-growing number of higher education graduates. This has led to higher levels of graduate unemployment. Now, the COVID-19 pandemic has further complicated entry into the labour market. According to OECD data, graduate unemployment has hit young people and women especially hard. The total unemployment rate in OECD countries increased from 5.2% in February 2020 to 8.7% in May 2020, and for young people (15 to 24 years old) and women from 11.2% to 18.7%, respectively.

Still, higher education plays a key role in providing skills and qualifications that prepare graduates for employment. Given the impact of COVID-19 on the labour market, higher education institutions (HEIs) and employers must work together even more to build training systems that focus on skills development. Flexible pathways for getting out of higher education can play a significant role in supporting learners as they transition into the labour market. Developing such pathways will require HEIs to adopt innovative approaches in organizing study programmes that are based on effective engagement with employers and industries.

Flexible pathways for getting out of higher education can play a significant role in supporting learners as they transition into the labour market.

Flexible pathways for getting out of higher education

Pathways for graduation and towards employment are facilitated through various programmes aimed at improving linkages between HEIs and the labour market. These can be work-based learning programmes, continuous professional development opportunities, or a more flexible study pace. Such pathways mainly cater to non-traditional students, which include working adults, part-time students, international students, people returning to higher education, socio-economically disadvantaged students, and migrants. However, given the current context, flexibility towards graduation will need to be mainstreamed to benefit both traditional and non-traditional students. Finland and the United Kingdom, in particular, offer interesting insights, as HEIs in these countries work closely with industries to facilitate flexible and effective pathways towards graduation and employability.

IIEP- UNESCO research on flexible pathways

In 2018 IIEP-UNESCO launched the project ‘SDG4: Planning for flexible learning pathways in higher education’ to advance the UN Education 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals that emphasize well-articulated higher education systems with multiple entry and exit points to improve access, equity, and employability. The research is based on a three-stage methodology, which considered FLPs in getting into (alternative access), going through (transition), and getting out of higher education (graduation and employment). First, a baseline study clarified concepts and definitions on FLPs and identified good policies and practices internationally. Second, a global survey of ministries of (higher) education in all UNESCO Member States identified factors that facilitate and impede the implementation of FLPs. Lastly, eight country case studies from Chile, Finland, India, Jamaica, Malaysia, Morocco, South Africa, and the United Kingdom provided in-depth analysis on how effectively FLP policies are implemented at the national and institutional levels.

‘Studification of work’ in Finland

Finland is a prime example of a country that has attempted to strengthen the linkage between higher education and the labour market. The country has one of the highest employment rates of higher education graduates in the world. Some 90% of university graduates, 84% with vocational and 95% with specialist vocational qualifications, were employed in 2018. To improve graduates’ employability, Finnish HEIs collaborate with the labour market based on the principle called ‘studification of work’. All HEIs allow learners to combine work and higher education studies. This flexibility allows students to gain credits towards their degree in working life or through internships and student exchange periods embedded in the degree programmes. For example, at a selected HEI for the Finnish case study, after completing around 140 ECTS credits (240 ECTS equals a four-year bachelor’s degree) students in a nursing degree programme can get a temporary job (e.g., as a nurse) and have their working experience recognized towards their degree.

The ‘studification of work’ has been supported with multiple national projects by the Ministry of Education and Culture (e.g., Toteemi, Tyyli, and WORKPEDA), which helped HEIs develop internship practices and guidelines and a work-integrated pedagogy.

Flexibility in degree structure towards graduation in the UK

The UK higher education system prioritizes graduate employability. In 2017, based on the Higher Education Graduates Outcomes Statistics, graduates in employment represented 81%, while 10% were combining both work and further study. Flexibility in completing degrees is intended to enhance the employability of graduates in the UK. There are opportunities to complete degrees in shorter and longer periods, or combine work and studies.

Recently, accelerated degrees have been introduced to allow students to complete a bachelor's degree in two years if they devote more weeks per year to their studies than students pursuing the standard three-year degrees. Students have three semesters per academic year with shorter breaks and summer holidays between the semesters. This study pace benefits mature students, but also students who cannot afford the financing of regular, more extended degree programmes. Part-time studies are also a common way to combine work and studies. Some 24% of students in the UK are studying part-time and completing bachelor’s degrees in more than four years. This flexibility enables students to pay their tuition fees while working.

Lessons for the future

Flexible learning pathways towards graduation and employment can offer important benefits as economies recover from the COVID-19 crisis. By allowing a more diverse set of learning opportunities, the educational profiles of learners can be better adapted to both their learning styles and labour market needs. It is, therefore, necessary that higher education systems and employers work together to introduce flexibility in the organization of degree programmes (part-time study, accelerated degrees) and enable learners to combine study and work (‘studification of work’). Such practices have the potential to improve the employment of graduates and introduce flexibility to respond to different learning styles. In order to facilitate FLPs for getting out of higher education, recommendations include:

  • Involve labour market organizations in shaping policies on flexible pathways. A consultation process between the government, HEIs, and the labour market is necessary for initiating projects that support exit pathways and the employability of graduates.
  • Engage labour market actors in the design of higher education programmes. Such collaboration is necessary for articulating a more diverse curriculum that responds to the needs of the labour market.
  • Improve collaboration between HEIs and employers to further develop recognition of work-based learning.
  • Monitor and evaluate flexible pathways for graduation and employment to ensure its implementation and effectiveness.


Higher education post COVID-19 work-based learning flexible learning pathways for getting out

About the authors

Uliana Furiv
Associate Research Officer, International institute for Educational Planning UNESCO (IIEP-UNESCO)

Uliana Furiv is an Associate Research Officer at the International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP) of UNESCO. She supports the research activities of the institute in the areas of higher education policy making, planning and management, and external quality assurance. Currently, she is specifically supporting IIEP’s research on flexible learning pathways in higher education.

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Michaela Martin
Programme Specialist, International institute for Educational Planning UNESCO (IIEP-UNESCO)

Michaela Martin is a Programme Specialist at the International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP) of UNESCO with a track record of more than 25 years in research and teaching in higher education policy, governance and planning. Since 2017, she is in charge of IIEP’s research on flexible learning pathways in higher education.

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