Flexible pathways into and within higher education: importance, practices, students’ experience

Online, 06 September 2021

Discussion summary

EUROSTUDENT VII Final Conference

May 18th, 2021

During the EUROSTUDENT VII Final Conference, stakeholders from different European countries gathered at the workshop “Flexible pathways into and within higher education: importance, practices, students’ experience” to discuss the strengths and challenges of greater flexibility in higher education (HE) and share good practices of implementing flexible pathways in HE.

The following is an overview of the workshop and its key points. Even more about the transition patterns into and within HE can be found in the EUROSTUDENT VII Thematic Review “Flexible Pathways into and within Higher Education".


  • Andrius Zalitis (Adviser to the Minister, Ministry of Education, Science and Sport of the Republic of Lithuania)
  • Joonatan Nõgisto (Vice-Chairperson of the Estonian Student Union)
  • Dr. Maria Keplinger (Head of the Unit of Evidence-Based Higher Education Development, Federal Ministry of Education, Science and Research of the Republic of Austria)
  • Marco Tabone (Assistant Registrar, Office of the Registrar, University of Malta)


  • Elisabeth Kendrali & Sandra Haugas (Praxis Center for Policy Studies)

As the findings of the aforementioned Thematic Review show, the existence and use of flexible entry paths (i.e. delayed transition and alternative access) to HE vary quite a lot among EUROSTUDENT countries. Thus, in order to have a fruitful discussion, representatives from countries with diverse profiles were asked to participate in the workshop. It was both possible to hear about the experience of Malta and Austria as countries where there is large share of delayed transition and alternative access students but also Lithuania and Estonia where most students enter HE with standard qualifications.

The discussion focused on three topics:

  • The meaning and importance of flexible study paths in HE and policy towards the flexibility in each country;
  • Risks concerning the large extent of flexibility in HE and ways to avoid these risks;
  • Ways to make HE systems more flexible and the role of recognition of prior learning (RPL) in the context of the flexibility of HEIs.

1. What do flexible study pathways mean? Is flexibility in the context of HE important and how is the situation regarding the flexibility in different countries?

There was consensus among the speakers that flexible pathways into HE are getting more and more attention. HEIs have understood that student populations should be more diverse and reflect the society as a whole, so they are seeking for ways to make participation in HE available for everyone.

The demand for flexibility is also growing and it is revealed in two ways:

  1. demand for flexibility in forms - different ways of accessing HE and participating in studies (e.g. flexibility in terms of entering HE, transferring from BA to MA, from one study programme to another, etc.;
  2. demand for flexibility in content - the shift from strict curricula-based ways of learning to student-centred learning which is more modular and where students can create their exact study programme themselves; freedom of students in increasing/decreasing the amount of workload, etc.

Country examples

Estonia: Trends towards more flexibility can be seen. The most significant change took place approximately 10 years ago with the adoption of the RPL system, which has allowed more flexible inclusion of informal and non-formal learning. There have been also other developments that enhance the flexibility in HE, e.g., allowing studying during study leave, creating many different types of doctoral studies, cooperating with employers, etc. In Estonia the discussion regarding the implementation of micro-credentials is ongoing and the topic will probably be added to the “Estonia 2035” development strategy. However, there is still a lot of uncertainty as there is currently no clear approach to micro-credentials either at the European level.

Lithuania: Currently the HE system has strict access routes (especially to BA level studies) with only a few exceptions. However, policymakers are aware that there is a need for diversification of the ways of entering HE and now, while working at the social dimension strategy, flexible access routes are one of the key tools that they are planning to enact. The access to HE will also be broadened with the 5th qualification framework, short-cycle studies, some bridging courses, etc.

Malta: The system is characterised by high flexibility in entry points, especially regarding adult learners, i.e., applicants who are 23 years old or older. This way of accessing the HE is very popular. Often applicants who initially (after completing secondary education) do not make it to university start working and enter university at the age of 23 or older. Then they are admitted to undergraduate courses at the university through an interview or a test. The recognition of prior learning (RPL) is also applied, including postgraduate courses. In the University of Malta, the regulation of the RPL was implemented quite recently, 3-4 years ago, and it has become increasingly popular. Applicants under the age of 23 years are not usually admitted with the RPL clause as the probability that they have obtained enough experience that will make them eligible is low.

Austria: Flexibility in the Austrian HE system has several meanings. First, there is broader access for non-traditional student groups which means that some additional, alternative forms are offered for receiving the entrance qualification: a) combining learning and prior working experience (i.e. practicing RPL); b) going through an additional examination. Secondly, flexibility in the sense of lifelong learning (LLL) exists. There are around 15-18% of students who have worked for 2-3 years and at some point they quit the job or reduce the workload and enter HE. It is not exactly the same group as adult learners who often re-enter HE to receive some further education, but rather people who for the first time start their studies after gaining some working experience. Thirdly, there are special study programmes for various groups. For example, in the universities of applied sciences sector some study programmes exist for people in paid work and these programmes are designed to have large compatibility with employment, i.e. the lectures are on weekends or in the evenings, etc.

2. Are there any risks in relation to the high extent of flexibility in HE? How to avoid the realization of these risks?

As stated in the Thematic Review, in 70% of EUROSTUDENT VII countries serious drop-out intentions are more common among students who entered HE via alternative access routes. Besides this student-level risk, other possible risks in relation to high extent of flexibility in HE were pointed out during the workshop.

  • Offering HE to non-traditional student groups is more expensive and resource intensive for HEIs as it means organising bridging courses, teaching in smaller groups, having better student-staff ratio, leaving more time flexibility in courses, etc. Also, staff related problems were mentioned - not all staff members are used to instructing non-traditional student groups, the necessity for new didactics might arise, etc;
  • To keep non-traditional students (e.g., students who work alongside studying, students who have parental obligations) from dropping out, a fixed structure is needed during studies to succeed and graduate. Those students often have a limited time budget and other obligations besides schoolwork, so they need additional support and special attention from HEIs;
  • Offering bridging courses and special support for applicants before the flexible entry does not always guarantee success in the studies. To not discourage students, the level of support available prior and during studies should be even to avoid false promise and a too sudden stopping of support;
  • The HEIs have an obligation to assess the risks regarding flexible entry paths to avoid the abuse of the systems and guarantee high standards of qualifications. For example, when applying RPL, sufficient amount of knowledge is still required from applicants and not every applicant will make it through. Also, it was deemed to be rational that some specific study programmes are not available with flexible access routes (e.g., it is not possible to enter medicine programmes with alternative entrance qualifications).
  • From the perspective of the students’ unions, there is also the risk that increasing flexibility might lead to the fragmentation of the student population. Due to other obligations the participation in the traditional student life areas and in student democracy is lower among non-traditional students and it is a challenge for students’ organizations to represent those non-traditional students.

3. What should be done to make HE systems more flexible?

Speakers suggested the following measures to make HE systems more flexible:

  • The possibility to study in shorter time units might encourage people, especially those with lower socio-economic background, to access HE. In Lithuania, short-cycle studies, bridging courses, and micro-credentials are some measures that are mentioned in the strategy of social dimension as possibilities to enhance the level of flexibility in the future.
  • Having a strategy regarding flexibility is one thing, but the real challenge is implementing it. To ensure flexibility in HE, it is important to have an appropriate structure, i.e. one that is adapted to specific needs of each particular student group.
  • Universities, especially old research universities, are very traditional institutions, and it is not easy for them to open up for various student groups. Thus, even if strategies for increasing flexibility exist at the national level, HEIs should also separately be encouraged to develop their own strategies and clear implementation plans and to promote incentives to work on the topic. At least the Austrian experience shows that it is a tough task to activate national strategies, so HEIs should receive extra attention and encouragement on this matter. Luckily, what will probably accelerate the change towards greater flexibility are the demographic trends - the age cohort for the 18-19-year-olds is not increasing, so HEIs will try attracting new student groups and those with alternative pathways.
  • Allowing adult learners to study bit by bit, so that it makes up a full degree in the end, is one way to increase the flexibility and having a general European framework for micro-credentials is therefore important. However, at least among students’ unions there is also some caution, and it has been pointed out that implementing micro-credentials should not be a preliminary way to commodify HE and impose tuition fees on students to increase the funding of HEIs.