Conditions of Flexibility

On the 10th June 2014 the Higher Education Academy published a report entitled “Conditions of Flexibility: Securing a More Responsive Higher Education system” from which I have extracted the following sections as an aide-memoire for my own CPD.


The Higher Education Academy logo


Conditions of flexibility: securing a more responsive higher education systemis the culmination of a series of reports which have considered flexible learning from a range of perspectives. Each provides a flavour of flexibility from its own context and includes consideration of the pedagogies that contribute towards and enhance it. In this report, Professor Ron Barnett, Emeritus Professor at the Institute of Education, London, draws many of the threads together and offers a nuanced critical analysis of what flexibility may – and may not – mean, and the conditions under which a greater measure of flexibility is likely to flourish within, and benefit, the UK higher education (HE) system.  Fifteen conditions of flexibility are proposed; ‘conditions’, here, referring bot to the measures that need to be in place in order for flexibility to take root in an appropriate way, as well as to those that might lead to a great responsiveness within the sector.  The report emphasises that they are, at heart, conditions of a bona fide higher education regardless of where, when, how and at what pace this takes place.  A ‘steady gaze’ on them – as advocated by Professor Barnett – will allow them to act as a springboard to propel new thinking and new practices for an emerging new age.”(HEA, 2014:4)

“a set of conditions of flexibility – 15 in total – are proposed as yardsticks by which any move towards flexibility might be evaluated. In moving towards greater flexibility in higher education, and to safeguard educational integrity, programmes should:

  1. lead to a qualification that contributes to major awards (such as degrees or their equivalent);
  2. offer all students access to suitable materials and appropriate cognitive and practical experiences;
  3. offer academic interaction with other students;
  4. offer access to tutors, in real-time interaction;
  5. offer prompt and informative (formative) feedback from tutors;
  6. offer access to other academic services (such as counselling, academic and careers advice);
  7. offer financial services (appropriate to the cost to students in financing their studies);
  8. enable students to offer feedback on their total experience;
  9. provide a pedagogical openness;
  10. be academically and educationally structured;
  11. offer ladder(s) of progression;
  12. be suitably robust and reliable (with built-in safeguards appropriate to the risk);
  13. be cost-effective;
  14. have sufficient structure so as to enable student completion to be a likely outcome;
  15. contain sufficient challenge that students are likely to be cognitively and experientially stretched and to be informed by a spirit of criticality appropriate to each stage of a programme of studies (so as fully to realise the promise of a higher education).” (HEA, 2014:9-10)

“At the heart of the flexible learning agenda is the notion of student choice in how, when, where, what and at what pace they learn (something echoed in HEF E’s 2011 trategy tatement, Opportunity, Choice and Excellence in Higher Education) and although, as this report indicates, affording students such choice is a complex matter, it is not to be felt to be a necessary concomitant of online provision.” (HEA, 2014:25-26)

four levels of flexibility:

  • sector flexibility: to what extent does the sector as a whole (including state agencies) offer and/or encourage flexibility in the ways in which students gain their higher education experience?
  • institutional flexibility: in what ways and to what extent might an institution itself be flexible, in responding to students’ emerging needs and wishes?
  • pedagogical flexibility: in what ways might teaching processes evince greater flexibility in their engagement with students as learners? To what extent do academic teachers have personal control to respond to students as individuals and to vary their pedagogical stances? How open, how flexible, is the pedagogical relationship between teacher and taught?
  • learner flexibility: to what extent do students have choice over the modes of their learning? In what ways might learners as future graduates be encouraged and enabled to develop their own forms of flexibility, in engaging with the wider world? ” (HEA, 2014:30)

“It is apparent from this overview that digital technologies can help the provision of higher education not just to be more flexible but to offer educational benefits. However, the judgement overall must be that digital technologies are not always optimised for effective learning (Laurillard et al 2013).

This is perhaps not entirely surprising since it is likely that, especially where technology is being deployed to meet system and cost agendas, and where there is an undue emphasis on the structural aspects of innovation (perhaps with rigid deadlines and regulations that allow learners few opportunities to flex according to their own needs and circumstances), opportunities for the student’s personal transformation and self-flexibility are likely to be neglected (cf Swan and Fox 2009).”  (HEA, 2014:48-49)

The QAA plays a vital role in checking the quality of HE provision via institutional reviews.  A recommendation from the report is that:

“QAA might:

  • consider for adoption the 15 conditions of flexibility;
  • audit each institution’s ‘flexibility profile’ ;
  • in its institutional reviews: consider adopting the set of ‘key questions’ suggested here, in any exploration with institutions of more flexible provision
  • explore the extent of students’ pedagogical isolation (86, 89, 115), the (possibly limited) scope of students’ educational experience and challenge  and the (possible) fragmentation of that experience
  • explore the extent to which an institution’s curricula and pedagogies are likely to sponsor ‘personal flexibility’ within students ;
  • in its institutional reviews, review the extent to which curricula exhibit ‘epistemic flexibility’, with students able intellectually to explore knowledge in a relatively open-ended way
  • especially against the background of moves in the direction of ‘flexibility’, examine the forms of student support, their speediness and their accessibility and transparency
  • conduct an inquiry into ways in which drives towards greater flexibility in the system are possibly having an impact both on standards and on quality;” (HEA, 2014:48-69)

“Nevertheless, transformations in what it is to be a student – and to be a graduate – are in prospect here. Flexibility may bring challenges of its own but it surely opens worthwhile possibilities not yet even glimpsed. There lies ahead much work for the imagination, judgement and action.” (HEA, 2014:74)





The Higher Education Academy (HEA), 2014 ‘Flexible Conditions: Securing a More Responsive Higher Education System’ by Emeritus Professor Ronald Barnett
Available at:
Accessed:11 June 2014

Laurillard, D., Charlton, P., Craft, B., Dimakopoulos, D., Ljubojevic, D., Magoulas, G., Masterman, E., Pujadas, R., Whitley, E.A. and Whittlestone, K. (2013) A constructionist learning environment for teachers to model learning designs. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning. 29: 15–30.

Swan, E. and Fox, S. (2009) Becoming Flexible: Self-flexibility and its Pedagogies. British Journal of Management. 20, 149–159.


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