Flexible admission to higher education under COVID-19: What can the past teach us about the future?

Authors: Michaela Martin and Uliana Furiv, IIEP-UNESCO
The COVID-19 outbreak is expected to have a serious impact on this year’s higher education intake as well as on students’ progression. The uncertainty brought about by the pandemic forced a number of governments and higher education institutions (HEIs) to cancel national school leaving examinations, postpone final university examinations to a later date, and consider alternative and flexible approaches to higher education admissions. In light of the evolving situation, now is the time to take stock of possible lessons for the future.  
Since 2018, UNESCO’s International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP-UNESCO) has been researching policies and instruments that support flexible learning pathways in higher education, with alternative admissions pathways to higher education being one of the areas of focus. Based on an extensive stock-taking exercise, international survey data, and eight country case studies, the project identifies both recognition of prior learning (RPL) policies and national qualification frameworks (NQFs) as key enablers of alternative routes of admission (see Box 1). Through RPL, learners can have their competencies acknowledged more easily, regardless of whether their skills were acquired in formal, informal, or non-formal contexts. In tandem, NQFs can help facilitate RPL procedures during admission by demonstrating comparisons among the learning outcomes of different programmes, sectors, and contexts. 
Box 1.  What do we mean by RPL and NQFs? 

RPL assesses an individual’s non-formal and informal learning to determine how far they have achieved the required learning or competency outcomes (UNEVOC/NCVER, 2009).

NQFs define ‘all nationally recognized qualifications in higher education in terms of workload, level, quality, learning outcomes and profiles’ (UNESCO, 2007:67).


According to an international survey conducted among UNESCO Member States in 2019, 54 out of the 75 countries which responded indicated that they already have NQFs for the higher education and vocational education sectors. In over 30 responding countries, NQFs also include further/adult education and occupational standards. Only in 20 countries, however, do they include non-formal and informal learning. Similarly, RPL approaches as applied to skills acquired in informal settings remain an unpopular practice across higher education systems: they are used by fewer than 30 of the responding countries. 

Most countries rely on secondary school leaving examinations or national admissions tests to determine entry to bachelor’s level programmes. However, as individual institutions and even entire higher education systems are struggling to organize leaving exams or admissions tests because of COVID-19, there is a real opportunity for RPL to become established as an accepted pathway into higher education. To this end, NQFs would serve as a reference point for the recognition of non-formal and informal learning, allowing access into different programmes and levels of study based on their comparability in terms of learning outcomes, subject content, and competencies. 

The IIEP-UNESCO case studies feature interesting examples of RPL policies that demonstrate how flexible admissions can be organized. They also highlight the importance of collaboration and trust between higher education actors, as well as coordination across different levels and sectors: 
  • The Malaysian Qualifications Agency has successfully introduced the Accreditation of Prior Learning (APEL) system to provide access to higher education programmes and enable academic recognition of learning acquired in non-formal and informal settings. APEL can be used as a pathway for access to and credit transfer across various levels of qualifications set under the Malaysian Qualifications Framework. The framework covers national qualifications in the skills, vocational and technical, and academic sectors. Through APEL-A, students can access bachelor’s and master’s level programmes, diplomas, and certificate learning.
  • In South Africa, policies and criteria for RPL have been developed by the South Africa Qualifications Authority. The RPL system is designed to evaluate learning obtained in non-formal, informal, and formal contexts against learning outcomes described in the NQF. The system allows access to academic and professional qualifications across the higher education, further education, and training and occupations sectors.
  • In Finland, national regulations ensure students’ rights to have their studies recognized at all levels of education and across different sectors. Students can, for example, attend open courses (daytime, evening, weekend, online) organized by HEIs across Finland. These courses do not have admission requirements and do not lead to a qualification, but credits are awarded which can be counted towards a degree at the HEI in question, if a student is planning to enrol. 
The COVID-19 crisis has reminded us of the need for well-prepared, agile, and flexible higher education systems that can ensure learning continuity in all circumstances, regardless of whether   as many believe   learning systems will return to some state of ‘normality’ in the next year. Flexibility should not be reserved only for emergencies, but should rather be an integral feature built into any higher education system that aims for both high quality learning and preparedness for crises. Hence, flexibility will be a valuable asset for higher education admissions systems not only during the COVID-19 crisis, but also beyond. Good RPL practices have the potential to address the immediate issues (in maintaining student intake and mitigating the financial impact of the crisis) that are facing many HEIs. More than this, however, they can also provide equitable long-term solutions for the many learners who are unable to meet the formal requirements for higher education access. 
Michaela Martin and Uliana Furiv are, respectively, programme specialist and consultant at IIEP-UNESCO, working on the flexible learning pathways project.
This project is made possible through a partnership with the Education Above All Foundation’s Protecting Education in Insecurity and Conflict programme (EAA–PEIC).


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