SLPs respond to the demand of large numbers of students for a shorter study period in order to obtain an award, a certificate or a diploma at diverse qualification levels (EFQ 4 to 8: foundation, bachelor, master and doctoral level, see annex). After studying a SLP, students should be able to use the possibility to integrate credits obtained by SLP modules and courses as building blocks in broader degree programs. SLPs can also form a step-up to degree programs. Special SLPs, introducing disadvantaged groups (migrant students, refugees, etc.) to degree studies, can be provided.
The need for SLPs is a complex issue. Integrating flexible and scalable SLPs in higher education systems matters because they make higher education more flexible and attainable for adult learners, who combine work and study or learn for personal development. Many of these learners already have a degree, others don’t, but all those who opt for longer careers or are interested in switching careers are in need for updating knowledge and skills. Flexible online/blended programmes are more suitable because they fit with the time constraints and the time horizon of the learners. Also, the learners can learn where they are, at home or at work. SLPs can also be used to foster the inclusion of disadvantaged learners including persons with a migrant background. In continuous education, flexibility will increase with new modes of teaching and learning and face to face activities which are limited to what is really needed. It doesn’t exclude blended solutions. SLPs are important as they can respond to immediate economical knowledge and skills needs in enterprises or to needs for cultural and personal development in society for learners with a study time horizon of 5 to 60 ECTS. Not all plan a study of 120 or 180 ECTS while working.
Many universities organize SLPs, e.g. as postgraduate courses or certified specialization programs. Next to this, universities organise non-formal programs, which don’t give an award. Examples are seminars, workshops or lectures for professionals or alumni to update them about innovative knowledge. In general, such face to face programs are not meant to reach out to many students.
Some frontrunner universities start with online SLPs, eventually on an international scale reaching large numbers of students, which contributes to the cost-effectiveness of these programs. Also, they enable universities to compensate for decreasing student numbers in mainstream education and are important for the international profile of universities and staff. MOOCs provisions are also part of such policies.
The European open distance teaching universities, which are frontrunners in the field of adult learners, have signed a Memorandum of Understanding on short learning programs. They (including UNED) all commit to engaging with SLPs and in collaboration to make success out of them at national and European level. They are convinced that flexible SLPs are a necessary response to needs in the knowledge society and that they should be integrated in higher education systems.
SLPs are needed because of learners combining work and study in order to update their knowledge and skills for further career development, a career switch or just for personal development or citizenship. The time horizon of many of these students is short for professional reasons. They are not in need for a degree, as many already have a degree. The need for such programs in areas such as health care, education, information technology, food technology or environment are huge. Also, the needs of particular target groups as refugees or migrant students can be met with SLPs for employment within short term. Because of all these target groups, SLPs should be flexible, scalable and personalized. They can also improve transversal skills building on former education.
Universities are not used to SLPs, as the backbone for universities is degree education. SLPs lead to (in some countries new) types of awards (certificates, diplomas, etc.), but complying with EFQ. Current initiatives for continuous education/CPD at universities are too small and not scalable enough to face the needs of people. Just modularisation of the curriculum doesn’t help as students are not enough served by single modules. SLP curricula have to be developed as new entities, eventually composed of such modules and embedded in a needs oriented organization. This requires new pedagogies, new technologies and new business models with appropriate organisational frameworks. National governments should stimulate this by structures, regulations and standards to stimulate SLPs as an entire part of higher education systems. All this contributes to the modernisation agenda of the European Commission and with the ET 2020 objectives, where most European countries are failing.
MOOCs for part, can be seen as flexible building blocks of SLPs. As such, MOOCs should be incorporated in the framework of SLPs as part of (future) flexible formal higher education. To this end best practices on the assessment and recognition of MOOCs in combination with other courses that fit the academic and professional levels are required. The same could be done for the recognition of other badges and micro-credentials for the recognition of specific skills or prior learning experiences.