Looking back on 2019: The zone Flexible education


Looking back on 2019: Paul and Ulrike from the Flexible education zone

The first year of the Acceleration Plan is over. In a series of interviews we look back on 2019 with the leaders of the zones. In this edition: Paul den Hertog (Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences) and Ulrike Wild (Wageningen University & Research), leaders of the zone Making education more flexible.

What were your expectations when the zone started?

Ulrike: I expected it to be difficult to find one line, because how do you capture the multi-headed monster of flexible education in one concept? It was clear beforehand that the subject is not limited to the institutions, but that changes in the educational system would be needed. We had no plan on how to change the whole system. In this light, I think we have achieved more than we had expected.

Paul: I feel the same as Ulrike. We started with eighteen participants from all kinds of institutions: small, large, universities of applied sciences and universities, specialists and generalists. That richness means that it takes a while to develop a common language. I was a bit worried at first whether it would work, but I did it.

How did it go?

Paul: We took students as a starting point because, in the end, we do it for them. Through different thinking sessions and design processes we developed four study routes. By describing the study routes, we know exactly what we mean by ‘studying at your own pace’ or ‘studying off the beaten track’. In the conversations that followed, we peeled off the different layers of the concept of flexibility. What does it mean for the institution and the student?

Ulrike: Currently, no one can ignore those student routes anymore. They have also landed nationally. The concepts are simple, everyone understands what they’re about. They serve as starting points to get the conversation going.

What tangible results did you produce in 2019?

Paul: The four student routes ended up in a flyer. We have already distributed seven hundred of these and we have to keep stocking them.

Ulrike: I find our flyer in the craziest places.

Paul: We also translated the flyer into presentations for a number of conferences. We have also used them at the SURF Education Days and made them into actual routes across the conference floor. After our story, the visitors were given a kind of roadmap with which they had to find four real students, who were hidden and ready to tell them about their experiences with flexible education.

What are you most proud of?

Ulrike: I’m most proud of the student routes, but also of our infiltration in all kinds of places, from RIO (Registration Institutions and Study programmes) to the government in The Hague. The Acceleration Plan unleashes something: people are more willing to really listen.

Paul: The Acceleration Plan is seen as an authority in the field of educational innovation.

Ulrike: But you also have to live up to the image of that authority. Formulating student routes is not enough. By enriching them in more and more detail (what does it take to make this possible for students?) You will automatically encounter barriers. Institutions must then start working on removing those barriers.

What didn’t go as expected?

Paul: Everything! Nothing ever really goes just like you expected. There have been personnel changes, zone members who changed institutions and new institutions that sought access to the zone, such as Leiden University, Delft University of Technology, and Erasmus University.

Ulrike: Sometimes people have far-reaching beliefs about flexibility. They think our zone is just going to rethink the whole system, but that’s not how it works. You will not be presented with your institution plans on a silver platter either, including resources. Active participation of the zone members is a precondition for the Acceleration Plan to work.

What’s next?

Paul: We have just started a major student mobility project and an administrative micro-credential analysis that we will deliver this summer. Actually, that is only the beginning, because once the analysis is on the table, we have to get started.

Ulrike: This also depends on how much the participating institutions want to do with it. We can facilitate and offer a lot, but everyone has their own pace in picking up what we offer. And that is also completely legitimate.

Are there things the team should do more?

Paul: We started four working groups on different subjects. I am interested to see how they will make progress this year. You can talk about the flexibility of education for a long time, but in the end, it should lead to redesigned education, or a publication that people can use. It has to become tangible. Institutions must dare to experiment.

What do you hope to achieve in 2022?

Paul: In any case, micro-credentials should have a formal position in the system by then.

Ulrike: The language about flexibility should also have become established. Actually realising more flexible education takes more time, but by putting it on the agenda, people will realise that the nominal flow of students is not the only way to go. We want to collect a number of good practices within the institutions. And we are building a national infrastructure with three universities, with which students can easily enroll in courses of another institution. Students are already allowed to do this, but it’s administratively still very difficult. I hope that by 2022 we have laid the foundations to get the system moving.

Are you on the right track to achieve that?

Paul: Without a doubt.

And in ten years? What is still visible of what you are doing now?

Paul: Then it only becomes visible. It takes a while before micro-credentialing has become as commonplace as, for example, a bachelor’s degree.

Ulrike: In ten years there will be much more diversity in education. We want to make the system more flexible, to put the four study routes into practice. As a result, the distinction between initial and post-initial education is becoming blurred. And because it becomes more normal that you don’t get all of your education at one institution, there may also be a different dynamic in the educational landscape. Not all psychology courses always have to offer the same thing … Diploma funding is also outdated by then: the idea that the institution where you get a degree will get everything. But that is technical stuff. Ultimately, it is about the students. Flexible education remains a choice: studying for a few years after pre-university education also remains possible. We do not want to replace the system but expand it.

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