Contemplating the rapidly changing face of international education in recent years, an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) team of investigators writes as follows:

Many countries in the world are investigating or developing ways to raise awareness to the fact that people learn always and everywhere and formal education is only one of the many learning pathways available. While formal education has formed the backbone of what are becoming known as knowledge societies, the importance of harnessing the full range of available skills and knowledge is being increasingly appreciated. Evidence suggests that countries see advantages for individuals, communities, enterprises and the economy in recognizing this informal and non-formal learning.

This is an accurate observation: lifelong learning is high on everybody’s agenda and the recognition of prior learning (RPL), including the recognition of prior experiential learning (RPL) has come to the fore as a relevant and contingent contemporary issue, particularly in relation to the enhancement of the capabilities of the workforce. Another OECD team, in a ‘Country Note’ referring specifically to Ireland recommends attention be given, in the context of RPL, to the raising of educational standards at all levels, up-skilling the workforce in general, but particularly the low-skilled and low-educated, increasing participation rates in the workforce by groups such as immigrants, older people and women, and redirecting the workforce to greater employment opportunities by diversifying skills.

Though these ideas are narrowly focused and appropriately geared to the economic brief of those who set them out, they do, nevertheless, represent a version of what is becoming part of the conventional wisdom, part of the upgrading and enhancement of RPL in the educational world. But, as the OECD team recognised, there are barriers to the provision and implementation of RPL. Some are systemic. Higher education institutions value the integrity of their programmes, the coherent intellectual training they provide, the way in which courses account for subjects in holistic ways, and the conceptualisation of this knowledge in larger academic, social and cultural paradigms. Higher education providers are mainly geared to dealing with certified learning, which is easily understandable and quantifiable, and informal and non-formal learning, which tends to be fragmented and random, is unlikely to enjoy the same parity of esteem either for access to, or for credit towards, course abridgement. There is also a high cost in terms of time and money involved in the assessment of candidates who present informal or non-formal profiles for entry to courses. Other barriers relate to the individual applicants themselves who may not recognise the potential value or the potential benefits of the knowledge and skills gained through informal or non-formal routes. Or they may not know how to access recognition systems. Or they may have had negative experiences in relation to formal education and be diffident or reluctant to re-engage with such systems because of fear of failure. Those who can negotiate their way easily and confidently through qualifications frameworks and admissions processes are usually in the system already. For those outside the formal systems, accessing what may be beneficial to them can be a daunting prospect, unless they receive advice and guidance.

And yet, as is demonstrated copiously in the pages of this FIN Handbook which follow, there are numerous courses, at a variety of institutions, which are accessible to students presenting with prior informal or non-formal learning as an acceptable entry route to a qualification or sometimes for credit towards a recognised award. There is no reason, theoretically, why RPL should not apply in relation to any course, but the courses which are most welcoming tend to be practical or vocational, whereby the recognition of prior experiential learning is more congenial and easier to assess. These courses do not always take their origins from nationwide or governmental initiatives, but are often rooted in local communities, local organisations, specific professions or industries. These courses usually develop where a particular need has been identified and where local educational providers have been prepared to modify their structures or devise something new to address that need. There is a considerable degree of local or regional self-help involved here, and the education provided is none the worse for that. As our case studies show, these courses are often sustained by a massive personal commitment on the part of many individuals and a justifiable local pride.

Of course, European and national educational bodies have, quite properly, involved themselves in the whole issue of lifelong learning and RPL– issuing guidelines and making suggestions for best practice, usually in an enabling and non-coercive manner. And some of these suggestions are described and discussed in what follows. Particularly important for Ireland was the publication in 2005 of the National Qualifications Authority of Ireland (NQAI)’s Principles and Operational Guidelines for the Recognition of Prior Learning in Further and Higher Education and Training – a forbidding and literalistic title which somewhat belies the nature of some of its content. Behind the spare, official language there is a vibrant commitment to the enhancement of the lifelong learning process:

Learning occurs in many contexts which include work, involvement in social and community activities, or learning through life experience generally. In order to enable the individual to learn throughout life, equal value should be given to all these forms of learning regardless of source, how it is achieved and when in life it is achieved (NQAI, 2005; 2).

The document goes on to commit itself to “supporting the development of alternative pathways to qualifications (or awards)” and to “a process by which prior learning is given a value”. (p. 2)

The recognition of prior learning, informal or non-formal, involves identifying its nature and range, assessing it, acknowledging it and giving it a value in relation to formal learning. Critical to this exercise in Ireland was the establishment in 2003 of the National Framework of Qualifications (NFQ) with its precise and detailed definition of ten levels, with their accompanying descriptors in terms of knowledge, skills and competences. But equally important is the system of learning outcomes, at programme and module level, which is being put in place throughout the higher education sector. Learning outcomes, definitions of what a student will know or be able to do after a specified period of learning, can enable individuals to measure their informal or non-formal learning against more formal qualifications. Learning outcomes provide ways of talking about what learning means and how it is valued, without an automatic recourse to certification. It is clear, from some of the testimonies which follow, that learning outcomes, on which the FIN group reported in an earlier document, are crucial to the assessment of prior learning: where the learning is not certified they are the appropriate medium through which it can be assessed.

There is fairly general agreement in what areas the assessment of informal and non-formal learning applies:

  • access, or entry to a programme which leads to a formally certified award;
  • credit towards an award, or exemption from some course requirements, or abridgement of a course; and
  • eligibility for a full award without additional coursework or assessment.

By far the most frequent situation in which RPL applies is the first, for access or entry to a course. This has been the traditional route into formal learning for generations of mature students, or ‘second-chance’ applicants, though some more formal entry paths, such as the Trinity College Dublin Access Programme, have been instituted. Often, in these cases, a mixture of [formal and non-formal] qualifications and learning experiences are presented, but the formal qualifications would not in themselves be adequate for entry. This area is relatively unproblematic: interviews are often used to ascertain the suitability of applicants and to provide advice in an open and individual way. Conversely, educational providers sometimes react with some caution to applications for credits, exemptions or course abridgement. This is understandable: individual programmes and the modules of which they are comprised are usually quite distinctive and exemptions, if awarded, might disadvantage a student in future years. There is also a tendency to limit the number of exemptions, and the extent of course abridgement allowed is usually not more than 50%: quite understandably if institutions make an award they want to be certain that the recipient has done a substantial amount of their own distinctive courses. It is difficult to imagine that the third category – a full award – would occur very often: one can, however, imagine, for example, a local amateur historian publishing significant research over several years which might cumulatively qualify him or her for a postgraduate award. But, rare though its occurrence may be, the possibility of this sort of award for non-formal or informal learning is a salutary reminder that not all learning takes place in higher education institutions, and that significant learning can flow inwards towards the academy, as well as outwards from it.

Whatever the level, though, there is general agreement that there has to be a process – transparent and clear, impartial, stringent but enabling – by which applicants offering informal or non-formal learning for entry to courses or for awards can be assessed. The NQAI (2005) has suggested a set of principles which educational providers should observe when dealing with the recognition of prior and experiential learning. These include a commitment to value all learning, no matter how it is achieved, to recognise that this learning may provide opportunities for access, transfer and progression towards the achievement of an educational award, and a principle that prior learning procedures should be fully integrated within the quality assurance procedures of educational providers. It is also suggested that clear statements of the policies, processes and operational practices of the educational providers for RPL should be available to applicants and assessors, that the assessment criteria should be explicit and applied consistently and fairly, and that guidance and support should be available to all applicants. A number of institutions have responded to this and devised codes of practice: as an example, that developed at the Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT) is particularly detailed and comprehensive.

But it is clear, from the example given in this report from the National University of Ireland, Galway, (NUIG), that local practice within a particular institution is likely to have considerable influence on the general institutional criteria which evolve. And this is perhaps inevitable, because applicants offering prior learning, whether formal, non-formal, informal or experiential, either for entry to courses or for credit, are likely to be highly individual in their profiles and so ought to be assessed in areas where there is a high degree of subject-based expertise, that is at the level of schools or departments.

In the political, social and economic conditions prevailing at the present time – which are particularly challenging and volatile – the recognition of prior and experiential learning and all that goes with it can confer some important tangible benefits. It can support and enhance the social inclusivity for which higher education should stand, because it can facilitate entry to programmes, provide credit and course exemptions and contribute to the achievement of an award. It can meet some of the needs of disadvantaged groups, part-time students, mature students, ‘second-chance’ learners. It can contribute to the up-skilling of individuals so they may better meet changing workforce needs and enhance their employability. It can assist with staff development within organisations. Or it can simply enhance personal development and individual fulfillment. Much hard work, at both a theoretical and a practical level, has been done on the issues surrounding the recognition of prior learning, but it is still something of a hidden subject: those involved, in their dedicated and unobtrusively modest ways, simply get on with things and let the results, which are impressive, speak for themselves.

It is the purpose of the following pages to bring to light some of the considerable achievements in the university sector, at both a national and a local level, in the area of RPL and to raise general awareness of the issues surrounding them. This Handbook of the university-sector Framework Implementation Network has had particular cognizance of the recent and important work of the CIT-led Education in Employment RPL project [since followed up by the Roadmap for Employment – Academic Partnerships (REAP)] and has addressed issues to support, rather than duplicate it.

Professor John Scattergood

Chair of University Sector Framework Implementation Network

August 2011

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