Recognition of prior learning (RPL) policy guide

Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) should assess skills and knowledge gained outside formal learning, but RPL is problematic in practice, says City & Guilds.

The international training certification authority City and Guilds, via its Centre for Skills Development policy advisor Chris Sims, report in a July 2010 circular on benefits and pitfalls of RPL in African countries like Mauritius, South Africa and Namibia.

RPL could occur before or during formal learning, or lead directly to a qualification or promotion, or simply give formal credit to individual skills, but RPL can only take place within an established framework of credit, qualifications, or occupational standards as equivalent, or as a map, for recognised skills and knowledge, writes Sims.

RPL is often confused with credit transfer, which is a purely administrative procedure. RPL is simply an assessment, as in regular learning, and part of a process of certification.

RPL can overlap with ‘accelerated learning’ or ‘early assessment’, which can create confusion over how much RPL is taking place.

Motivation for RPL policy

Policy drivers for RPL include;

• Equity. RPL brings those who may have felt excluded from education, back into learning pathways, better jobs, boost motivation and self esteem.

• Employer needs. RPL is a cost effective and time effective way to determine skills levels in an organisation and to demonstrate investment in staff.

• Choice. RPL aids flexibility and customer choice in training and education systems.

• Efficiency. RPL should allow maximum utilisation of human resources by allowing current skill sets to be codified and serve as a step into further training or development. It avoids duplication of learning.

• Culture of learning. Learning should be an attainable goal for every individual.

RPL may be of particular relevance in sectors where many workers lack formal qualifications. The care services sector has been highlighted in this regard.

RPL pitfalls

Practical implementation has often proved difficult. Take-up has frequently been lower than anticipated. Countries with significant informal economies face several RPL challenges

* Demand lack. Most learners value the learning process, theory depth, and social interaction.

• Awareness lack and low esteem. Without strong marketing, learners and practitioners lack awareness of the option to pursue RPL. RPL has frequently struggled with an image problem, seen as an ‘easy option’ and not valued by employers.

• Complex processes. RPL implementation has had a tendency to be beset by heavy bureaucracy. Complexity tends to exclude some skilled people. RPL requires communication skills usually gained through academic education, that those who stand most to benefit from RPL often lack.

• Inadequate support for evidence gathering. The need for quality assurance has sometimes led to onerous requirements for collecting evidence in support of an application for RPL. Without adequate support many candidates may struggle and become discouraged.

• Confusing language. A process that makes use of qualification frameworks and standardised units, can become filled alienating jargon. In some sectors this may be exacerbated by language difficulties.

• Practitioner workload is acute where RPL occurs around enrolment on programmes, which is the busiest time of year for training providers.

RPL prerequisites

Few examples of RPL initiatives have been fully evaluated. Australia offers a good example, though results there have been mixed.

RPL requires;

* An established framework of credit, qualifications and/or occupational standards

• Buy-in from stakeholders and awareness among employers, practitioners and candidates

• Rigorous assessment processes to ensure quality

• Minimal bureaucracy and sources of support to help practitioners and candidates

• Clear, jargon-free information

• Sufficient resources to administer the system, and investment in the skills of practitioners and assessors

• Recognition of, and investment in, skills needed by applicants to access an RPL process. In educational institutions, introduction of a separate module in preparing for RPL has been shown to be a good way to address these skills needs and raise awareness of RPL.

• Autonomy for providers to develop their own system according to target group, needs and resources.

RPL African challenges

Few African countries have extensive experience of RPL, and relatively little attention has been paid to how RPL can be used within developing economies.

African countries like Mauritius, South Africa and Namibia have begun to introduce RPL policies, but extensive evaluation has yet to take place. Africa and other develop0iong countries face particular challenges in RPL.

RPL presupposes a sophisticated and comprehensive educational system, a clearly defined qualifications framework linked to occupational standards, and a sufficient resource capacity to administer the system and ensure quality.

Mauritius, South Africa and Namibia are among the richest on the continent, with relatively developed educational infrastructures. Hasty introduction of RPL in Australia is partly to blame for the low take-up, confusion around its purpose and scepticism about value.

RPL cost challenge

Some people most in need or RPL are not employed and not able to afford formal training. Challenges in identifying where skills exist, communicating to potential candidates, and administering the process, are immense, including low levels of literacy and numeracy among potential candidates.

RPL is expensive, yet should be less expensive than training. In developed countries RPL has tended to incur costs for learners. Cost could be reduced by streamlining processes, using online support, and workshops for candidates

Namibia uses clear indications of who is required to pay for what, and when. A nominal charge may help adult learners value the process.

RPL curriculum challenge

In African countries, outcomes are linked to occupational standards rather than curricular structures, leading to a lack of connectivity with further education and a mindset that a certificate of recognition is an end rather than a means to further development.

RPL policy

Countries looking to introduce RPL should ensure they have a functional and effective framework of qualifications and learning credit, with widespread recognition by employers, before embarking on full scale introduction of RPL.

RPL practice and practitioners

RPL should be available at any time during training. Record keeping should be adapted to conflate with other learning processes.

RPL terminology should be simple.

Practitioners should clearly understand the relationships between RPL, accelerated assessment and regular assessment, within a broad, flexible framework for assessment.

Accommodate vulnerable candidates with negative earlier experiences of education, but note parity between RPL and formal learning.

* Cited resource; Gillis, T and R Moore, 2002; Capacity Building and the Recognition of Prior Learning in Southern Africa. Presentation to the Biannual International conference of the Association for the Study of Evaluation in Education in Southern Africa, Johannesburg.

•    Chris Sims is policy and strategy adviser at City & Guilds Centre for Skills Development in London, The report is an edited version of a referenced paper.

•    City & Guilds Centre for Skills Development is an independent, not for profit, research and development organisation for vocational education and training, aiming to provide an evidence based approach to policy and practice in skills training.

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