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The use of recognition of prior learning in the Australian higher education sectorTim Pitman
The University of Western Australia
The recognition of informal or non-formal learning as credit towards tertiary qualifications (RPL) has traditionally been viewed as having limited application in university studies, being more suited to the vocational and technical education sector. This paper reports the preliminary findings from a three-year study into the RPL policies and practices of selected Australian universities. Within a critical framing, participant interviews complemented a discourse analysis of university policy documents. The findings reveal that RPL practices are not limited to the notion of 'credit for work experience' but encompass a wide range of admission and equity policies, marketing strategies and the development of alternative entry pathways. Furthermore, RPL policies highlight tensions between quality and access goals in the Australian higher education sector.
Interest in RPL increased from the mid-1990s, as more and more policy makers believed that knowledge-based societies were placing mounting demands on traditional education and training systems, meaning that they were struggling to provide adequately qualified graduates as fast as they were needed (Gallacher & Feutrie, 2003). As well, countries such as South Africa saw great value in RPL as a means of addressing the social inequities. RPL is positioned in South Africa as a central pillar of redress, seen as having the capacity to widen access to education and training and to enhance the qualification status of historically disadvantaged adults (Breier & Ralphs, 2009). Worldwide, RPL is often used in conjunction with some form of national qualifications framework to encourage and support learners to continue to learn and re-skill by ensuring that all of their prior learning - both informal and formal - is appropriately recognised.
The senior executives within the higher education sector (for example, vice and deputy-vice chancellors, chairs of teaching and learning committees, etc) generally express social agendas when describing the motivation behind RPL policy development. RPL policy is described as a mechanism to assist universities in becoming more accessible and equitable, as well as strengthening links between universities and their communities, both local and broader.
However 'frontline' staff (e.g. admissions officers, prospective student advisers, academic staff assessing RPL applications) evidence a far more pragmatic approach to RPL. There is general consensus in this demographic that universities have developed RPL policies as a marketing strategy to increase market share. There is evidence that this perception is influenced by the international student market in the Australian higher education sector. International students pay full tuition fees and many Australian universities have created partnerships with offshore educational providers to allow international students to have prior formal qualifications credited. A typical scenario is where an international student completes a one-year diploma in their home country, then enrols for two more years in an Australian university and receives a three-year bachelor's degree. International students are therefore perceived to 'shop around' for the greatest 'discount' on their degree/tuition fees. This study found evidence that interactions will the international student market and its practices have influenced how frontline staff perceive RPL applications from domestic students.
When RPL is considered an issue of credit (that is, prior learning is assessed as meeting learning outcomes and where appropriate the student is given credit) then it appears that RPL does not make universities more accessible or equitable. Although the policy intent is still to achieve these related aims, the practices mean that in effect the RPL policy acts as a gatekeeper and there is a belief that the quality of the educational experience will be compromised by RPL. Learners often experience a form of Catch 22 via codification. This occurs when the student is required to translate or explicate their prior informal learning experiences into formal language constructs. Students who had little or no experience in formal learning environments often find this extremely difficult.
An understanding of and support for RPL can be related to a corresponding understanding of and support for the ones of the goals or purposes of universities - the acquisition of knowledge. For some participants in this study, the purpose of a university was to produce new knowledge. These participants tended to be more resistant to the idea of RPL, as it represented a potential threat or competitor to this knowledge production. However other participants expressed the purpose of a university as to discover new knowledge. These participants, overall, were more supportive of RPL, since they saw their role as one of working with the informal learner to describe, understand and explicate their prior informal learning experiences.
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|Author: Tim Pitman|
The University of Western Australia
Please cite as: Pitman, T. (2010). The use of recognition of prior learning in the Australian higher education sector. In Proceedings Western Australian Institute for Educational Research Forum 2010. http://www.waier.org.au/forums/2010/pitman.html