7. Looking to the future

Many analyses have been published in recent years that highlight the changing distribution and content of jobs in OECD economies, the likely impact of further automation and digitalisation and the need for high-quality lifelong learning opportunities to help adults adapt to this evolving environment (OECD, 2019[1]). The OECD has estimated that technological change will fundamentally alter the nature of 32% of jobs in major OECD economies and that a further 14% of current jobs could disappear altogether (Nedelkoska and Quintini, 2018[2]). Such structural changes to employment, which are expected to increase demand for well-developed cognitive capacities, will inevitably require many citizens to adapt and learn new skills during their working lives.

Analysis in Belgium has highlighted not only the need for workers to upgrade their skills to keep up with changes in the world of work, but also the risk of skills shortages if no action is taken to improve the supply of skills (Agoria, 2018[3]; OECD, 2019[4]). In general, the risks of technology-driven job obsolescence and the needs for upskilling are most acute for the least educated sections of society, in Belgium as in other OECD countries. Individuals of working age who have not completed upper secondary education are already less likely to be in work in Belgium than in neighbouring countries. In 2018, only 47% of those aged 20-64 with a low level of education were employed in Belgium, compared to 52% in France, 61% in Germany, and 63% in the Netherlands. The OECD estimates, based on current trends, that the employment rate of this group could fall by up to seven percentage points in the period up to 2030 (OECD, 2020[5]). While low-skilled jobs will still exist – and be required by society – responding to these broad trends will require more emphasis on upskilling and call for effective strategies to deliver well-targeted learning opportunities at basic and intermediate skills levels.

If the most significant effects of automation and economic change will be felt by the lower-skilled sections of society, governments across the OECD will need to focus considerable attention on supporting these groups. Very often, this will mean strengthening and renewing learning support in adult education and employment services. Citizens in OECD countries with higher levels of education are less likely to be dramatically affected by technological and economic change and, particularly among those with tertiary education qualifications, are already more likely to participate in non-formal and formal learning as adults (OECD, 2019[1]). However, changes in higher-skill jobs and increasing demand for specific skills sets, such as data management, cybersecurity or energy-saving construction techniques, to name but a few, will also drive further requirements for lifelong learning opportunities for the better qualified. This includes those with high school diplomas, post-secondary qualifications and degrees. It is in this space that many skills specialists see a clear role for higher education institutions.

Participation among adults in formal learning organised by educational providers is not particularly common in OECD countries. As shown in Figure 7.1, the OECD Survey of Adults Skills, conducted in 2012 and 2015, found that an average of under 7% of participating adults had engaged in some form of formal learning in the previous 12 months. Even in New Zealand, England, Norway and Iceland, where participation rates were found to be highest, only just over 10% of adults responding to the OECD survey had engaged in any form of formal learning. As also shown in Figure 7.1, the proportion of this formal learning occurring in higher education, either in professional fields (formally called ISCED 5b) or academic fields (ISCED 5a and above) varied between OECD jurisdictions, but, on average, accounted for less than half of total formal learning experiences. Only just over 2% of adults from Flanders that participated in the Survey of Adult Skills had taken part in some form of learning at tertiary level (i.e. in a university or university college) in the previous 12 months.

The general patterns of participation in lifelong learning in OECD jurisdictions identified by the Survey of Adult Skills are also visible, albeit with some differences, in data on enrolment in tertiary education. As shown in Figure 7.2, only around 2.5% of the population aged 25 and over in OECD countries was enrolled in tertiary education in 2018. These data encompass everyone aged 25 and over, not just those of working age, as they are intended to provide a genuine picture of “lifelong” learning. However, they provide a broad indication of the level of engagement with the higher education system among work-age adults in the countries concerned. Even in Iceland, Israel, Australia and Finland, only between 4 and 4.7% of the adult population was enrolled in tertiary education in 2018. In the Flemish Community, however, this proportion was particularly low, at 1.28%.

A number of recent Flemish policy documents have acknowledged the challenge facing the region in terms of lifelong learning and stressed the importance of increasing participation in continuing education, including at higher education level. The Flemish Government’s long-term development strategy, “Vision 2050” (Flemish Government, 2016[7]), establishes lifelong learning as one of its seven priorities, while the Flemish Education Council (VLOR) called for greater focus on tertiary-level educational offerings for adult learners and returnees in its 2019 advisory note on the future of higher education (VLOR, 2019[8]). Most recently, lifelong learning has been specified as one of the three priorities for deploying European Union Recovery and Resilience Funds in higher education in the Flemish Community, in the Government’s planned “Higher Education Advancement Fund” (Voorsprongfonds) (Flemish Government, 2021[9]).

The extent and scope of lifelong learning opportunities offered in higher education institutions varies widely between OECD jurisdictions, although most countries are in the process of extending their lifelong learning offerings. While this makes it difficult to identify systems that offer examples of “good practice” in this area, there are a number of established criteria that make learning at higher education institutions more attractive for adults:

  1. 1. Admission criteria that take into account prior learning, in particular for adults from vocational pathways. In Germany, for example, access to higher education for those with vocational qualifications was formally regulated for the first time in 2008. An agreement of the Conference of the Education Ministers of the Federal States (Kultusministerkonferenz) now specifies common rules for the recognition of prior learning. Most federal states agreed to reserve 3-10% of all higher education places for adults with vocational qualifications. Around the same time, the Federal Ministry of Education funded the pilot project ANKOM, which developed and tested approaches to the recognition of prior learning in higher education (Heister, Hemkes and Wilbers, 2019[10]). The number of higher education students without higher education entry qualifications has since quadrupled, but remains at a low level. In 2018, only 2.9% of all new entrants into higher education did not hold a standard higher education entry qualification (Abitur) (Mordhorst and Nickel, 2020[11]).

  2. 2. Flexible learning opportunities, including part-time, modular, credit-based and online learning offers. While higher education institutions in most countries offer some kind of flexible provision, the understanding of what this entails varies across countries (Dolhausen and Wolter, 2013[12]). In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, online learning offers have gained increasing prominence for lifelong learning. Even prior to the pandemic, Sweden was notable for having a high share of higher education students enrolled in distance courses. About one in four students was registered for at least once distance course in 2015/2016. Distance education students are typically older than campus-based students and are more likely to have children and have parents that don’t have a higher education qualification (Gröjer, Berlin Kolm and Lundh, 2017[13]).

  3. 3. Learning opportunities with clear labour market relevance, which are practical and problem-oriented. This requires close collaboration between higher-education institutions and local labour market actors, notably employers themselves. Skillnet Ireland (n.d.[14]), a business support agency of the Irish government, has succeeded in implementing a range of enterprise-led workforce development strategies, for example. The agency facilitates collaboration between local employer networks, higher education institutions and training providers to develop non-formal and degree level training opportunities in line with labour market needs. One of the recent programmes developed through such collaboration of the Technology Ireland ICT Skillnet and higher education institutions is Ireland’s first Masters in Artificial Intelligence.

The 2018 OECD Skills Strategy in Flanders (OECD, 2019[4]) highlighted the limited number of adult learners in Flemish higher education institutions and called for more accessible and flexible course offerings and more work-based learning opportunities within the programmes delivered by university colleges. However, it is important to acknowledge that the Flemish higher education system already has many of the ingredients typically recommended to improve accessibility and attractiveness for adult learners.

Educational content is structured in a flexible manner, with a well-developed system of credit accumulation and transfer, while institutions allow students considerable flexibility in the number of credits for which they enrol. University colleges, in particular, have strong links with the business sector and public employers and institutions receive funding for both degree-seeking students and those enrolled on a “credit contract”. Moreover, the recent development of associate degree programmes in the higher education sector (following the transfer of Level 5 programmes from adult education centres) has created a new higher education learning offering that has the potential to be attractive to certain categories of adult learners. University colleges consulted for this review also reported they had introduced new short credentials to respond to identified skills needs in the economy, notably in the area of digital skills.

There is almost certainly scope to increase the range of learning options for adults further, with the development of more micro-credentials (Kato, Galán-Muros and Weko, 2020[15]), to increase online educational offerings (see below) and potentially to increase provision of certain courses in the evenings and weekends (VLOR, 2019[8]). It is also possible that there is scope to improve the current system of recognition of prior learning (EVC – Elders Verworven Competenties), although this was not a topic covered by this review.

However, it is important for policy to recognise the limits of what higher education institutions can do on their own, even with additional funds for the expansion of adult learning options. Expanding take-up of lifelong learning, so that the population is able to prepare for changes to come, not merely react to them, will require a change in mind set about adult learning in the general population and among employers. This implies developing a culture and expectation that learning extends beyond initial education and training and that engaging in adult learning is the norm. Achieving this is no simple task, as demonstrated by the low rates of participation in adult learning in most OECD countries, despite at least two decades of politicians and policymakers reiterating that lifelong learning is essential. A concerted, cross-governmental approach will be needed to tackle both the supply and demand-side bottlenecks that currently prevent greater engagement with adult learning, potentially informed by international experiences.

Deploying digital technologies is often presented as a means to enhance the accessibility, quality and efficiency of higher education (Wolff, Baumol and Saini, 2014[16]). While some analysts focus on recasting traditional forms of higher education (such as the bachelor’s degree) through the injection of technology-based learning solutions, future-oriented commentary and prospective analyses also consider the potential of technology to facilitate a more radical reshaping of learning and teaching in universities and colleges (KPMG, 2020[17]). However, robust evidence on the effects of digital learning on student outcomes (as proxies for quality) and on the cost of provision is limited.

In an interesting recent study, Chirikov et al. (2020[18]) develop and evaluate a model to allow resource-constrained higher education institutions in Russia to adopt online STEM courses produced by high-ranking universities using blended and online learning. Through a multi-site randomised controlled trial, they found that undergraduate students in online and blended instruction achieved similar learning outcomes to those in traditional in-person instruction at substantially lower costs. This finding supports the theory that routine forms of instruction in higher education (such as lecture-based foundation courses in STEM fields) can be digitalised with no significant loss of quality. It also provides an example of the type of unbundling of learning content into different components facilitated by digitalisation, which could in future support more flexible programmes and micro-credentials (Kato, Galán-Muros and Weko, 2020[15]), as well as more pooling of educational content between higher education institutions.

Evidence on the impact of more sophisticated – and often emerging – forms of digital learning technology, including learning analytics and artificial intelligence (AI) is even scarcer. In principle, adoption of such technologies could lead to increased efficiency in more interactive and practical activities, from tutoring to laboratory work. Some predict that smart bots offer the prospect of personalised learning at scale (KPMG, 2020[17]), while there is evidence that machine learning could help reduce the – hitherto high – development costs for intelligent tutoring systems (Weitekamp, Harpstead and Koedinger, 2020[19]). Other commentators, such as Maloney and Kim (2020[20]), argue that fervent advocates of AI often view learning in primarily transactional terms, focus on algorithmic areas of knowledge (such as algebra or grammar) and ignore the broader role of human educators in supporting students to acquire a rounded set of competencies.

Notwithstanding the ongoing discussions about the impact of specific digital technologies in higher education, there is a widespread recognition that a shift to more online and blended learning can enhance existing programmes and allow the delivery of new, flexible and accessible programme types. More generally, as in other sectors, digital technologies are changing the functioning of higher education institutions across their spectrum of activities. Against this backdrop, OECD governments are increasingly taking steps to support higher education institutions to adopt digital technologies, albeit with different approaches.

In many OECD higher education systems, governments have taken a backseat in relation to digitalisation in higher education, leaving higher education institutions to drive change as part of their strategies. Even in overwhelmingly public higher education systems, such as Denmark and Sweden, governments have generally left digitalisation to institutions (Laterza, Tømte and Pinheiro, 2020[21]). In other countries, such as Norway and France, governments have taken a lead in promoting digitalisation in certain areas of higher education activity. In others still, change is being coordinated by partnerships such as the Irish National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (T&L, n.d.[22]).

Policies tend to focus on three main areas:

  • Digital readiness – which encompasses i) the accessibility of digital technologies to higher education actors (staff – teachers, researchers, administrators – and students), and ii) the development of public policies and institutional strategies that promote the capability of higher education staff and students to use technologies and adopt digital practices.

  • Digital practices  – encompassing the way higher education staff – in leadership, academic and non-academic roles – and students use digital technologies in their activities, and how they adapt their practices as a result of the use of digital technologies.

  • Digital performance – refers to the measurement and assessment of the use of digital technologies in higher education.

Although different policy tools, including targeted funding, have been used by government to support digitalisation of higher education, several OECD jurisdictions have recently undertaken audits of the level of digital maturity of their systems (an aspect of “digital performance”), as an input to more holistic and evidence-based policy making.

In Croatia, for example, researchers have drawn on previous taxonomies to develop a “Digital Maturity Framework” to analyse the digital readiness and practices in the country’s higher education system (Durek, Kadoic and Begicevic Redep, 2018[23]). As shown in Table 7.1, this framework, which has attracted international attention, identifies seven key areas of digital maturity, each with several elements. The areas cover the full spectrum of higher education institution activities, ranging from leadership and planning to quality assurance, learning and teaching and the institution’s “ICT culture”. The framework’s developers have since developed a self-assessment tool, with descriptors for different levels of digital maturity, to allow institutions to evaluate their deployment of digital tools as an input to developing or refining institutional digitalisation strategies.

In Ireland, the National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education has developed the Irish National Digital Experience (INDEx) survey. Implemented in 2019, this survey tool seeks to explore the “digital experiences of students and staff who teach, highlighting what makes a difference to them and providing an evidence base to inform future decision-making and enhancement of teaching and learning” (T&L, 2019[24]). The survey asks staff and students about their experiences of using different digital technologies, their attitudes to the technologies, their knowledge of technologies and the digital training they had received. The 2019 survey attracted a response from 24 484 students and 4 445 staff at 32 higher education institutions. The information collected is being used as an input to institutional strategies and the development of future system-level cooperation and government support.

The Flemish Education Council has identified digitalisation as a priority for Flemish higher education and, in its 2019 advisory report on the future of higher education, proposed to work with the government to develop a digitalisation strategy for the higher education sector (VLOR, 2019[8]). Flemish Government has also identified digitalisation as one of the three pillars of its “Head Start Funds” (Flemish Government, 2021[9]). Given the proposal to invest more in this area within Flemish higher education, there is scope to learn from some of the analytical and consultative approaches that have been used recently in other OECD jurisdictions, to enhance the evidence base for institutional and system-level planning.

Increasing needs for lifelong learning and digitalisation are trends that are already influencing the strategies Flemish higher education institutions adopt and the way they are shaping their educational offering. Pressure for change from society, the economy and from government has to be reconciled with existing legal obligations, frameworks for human resources, programme approval and quality assurance mechanisms, and available funding. At the same time, as discussed earlier in this report, institutions and staff are expanding and refining their activities in research and service. All of these factors and choices influence the profile of individual institutions and their place in the Flemish higher education landscape.

The Flemish university system provides good geographical coverage of the Flemish Region and its bilingual capital, Brussels. The five universities are distributed in the three major cities, in the historical university town of Leuven and in Hasselt, the regional capital of Limburg. In broad terms, the five institutions have differentiated profiles, with distinct institutional strengths and strategies. The establishment of the associations with university colleges creates an unusually strong link between university and non-university institutions, in comparison to other OECD jurisdictions with binary systems. Moreover, through the Flemish Interuniversity Council (VLIR), the five universities cooperate and frequently speak with one voice in discussions with government. The network of regional campuses resulting from the 2013 transfer of academic programmes from university colleges, has further increased the regional presence of the universities. Although the regional campuses add to the costs of the system, this was not highlighted as a major concern during this review.

If the role of the regional university campuses in bringing specialised education in their fields closer to regional populations is unquestionable, their capacity to undertake high-quality research is less clear. Recent analyses have pointed to potential weaknesses in this respect and questioned the effectiveness of the Supplementary Research Funds (Aanvullende onderzoeksmiddelen) that support research in these programmes (Rekenhof, 2018[25]; de Boer and Jongbloed, 2018[26]). Flemish officials and stakeholders stress that these assessments occurred only five years after the restructuring process , meaning effects will not have filtered through, and that developing research capacity takes time.

The university college sector also has many positive features, although the picture is perhaps more nuanced. This is a sector that has undergone considerable change in recent decades. Following a period of significant consolidation in the 1990s, during which a large number of historical university colleges merged, the transfer of academic programmes to universities in 2013 led to a further wave of mergers. Since 2019, university colleges have acquired a new role in delivering associate degree programmes at level five, as a result of their transfer from adult education centres.

The review team was impressed by the commitment and vision of the university college leadership with which it spoke during the review interviews. It is clear that there is a shared commitment to delivering high-quality professional programmes across the sector, responding to skills needs in the Flemish economy and supporting the development of students, a significant proportion of whom are among the first generation in their families to enter and complete a higher education programme. Many university colleges are developing impressive profiles in practice-oriented research, despite the limited funding available (see Chapter 4).

The development of short-cycle programmes within the higher education sector represents an opportunity to expand the reach of university college education and is welcomed by institutional leaders. The high demand for these programmes since their transfer to university colleges testifies to the attractiveness of short-cycle programmes for particular groups of potential students and suggests that these programmes, as they become fully embedded into higher education, will likely make a positive contribution to skills development in the Flemish Community, as they have in other OECD jurisdictions.

Nevertheless, the question of competition and complementarity remains. Many university colleges report that there is an unsustainably high level of competition for students among university colleges in the same region. The comparatively small size of Flanders and its good transport network additionally means that the catchment areas of different university colleges overlap. The competition is also driven by the similarity of the core programme offering in many university colleges and the relatively stable cohort of young people of traditional student age in Flanders. While institutions certainly have distinctive profiles and specialisms, large programmes in business, social work, education, nursing and healthcare, are provided in multiple university colleges, sometimes in the same city.

The analysis and recommendations in Chapter 3 of this report note that the challenge of competition and complementarity between higher education institutions cannot be addressed easily through the design of the funding allocation model, without a departure from the principle of funding that is proportionate to activity levels. The funding model seeks to provide a fair and transparent allocation of resources that is proportionate to the level of activity, efforts and costs within each institution. This inevitably means that the funding an institution receives depends on its capacity to attract students.

Some governments have sought to limit competition between institutions by imposing student recruitment limits. As noted earlier in the report, Finland and Scotland agree to recruitment caps with each institution, for example. California (United States) imposes maximum shares of total in-state student enrolment for the University of California System (UC) and the California State University System (CSU), to ensure that most higher education students in public higher education in the state must first enter the California Community College System (CCC). Such approaches are not uncommon in OECD jurisdictions, but require a willingness for government to regulate higher education institutions and curtail institutional autonomy.

An alternative approach could be to encourage and support further profiling and restructuring within higher education institutions, so that institutions are more distinct and less frequently in direct competition with other, similar institutions. Such approaches, which have been promoted in Finland and the Netherlands through the systems of performance agreements, can have effects, but also tend to require interventionist policies such as mandatory mergers, consolidation or transfer of research units and programmes between institutions. The Flemish Community does have a track record of interventionist restructuring policies, but this sits uneasily with the emphasis on institutional autonomy which is now dominant in Flemish higher education.

The Flemish Community lacks an overarching higher education strategy, similar to those seen in some other OECD jurisdictions, such as Finland (Ministry of Education and Culture, 2017[27]), Ireland (Department of Education and Skills, 2011[28]) and the Netherlands (Dutch Government, 2019[29]). The current proposals for the “Higher Education Advancement Fund” (Voorsprongfonds) (Flemish Government, 2021[9]) set out some very brief strategic orientations, but these appear to have been prepared primarily to respond to the short-term availability of European funding. They are not comparable with the system-wide strategies, informed by broad consultation seen elsewhere. Given the need to address challenges relating to lifelong learning, digitalisation and refining the institutional landscape highlighted above, there is a need for a systematic, collective analysis of the precise nature of these challenges and the direction the higher education system should take in responding to them. This could form the basis for a Flemish higher education strategy, encompassing the issues discussed in this chapter, but also topics related to research, such as the future organisation and scale of practice-based research support for university colleges.


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