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The use of recognition of prior learning in the Australian higher education sector

Tim Pitman
The University of Western Australia
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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.

Key concepts

Lifelong learning

Awareness of, and interest in, lifelong (i.e. from the cradle to the grave) and life-wide (i.e. across all contexts, formal, non-formal and informal) learning predate the modern era. From a modern, educational policy perspective, however, interest in lifelong learning can be said to have three 'ages'. The first age could be defined the humanistic age and was driven notably by UNESCO who noted that "every individual must be in a position to keep learning throughout his [sic] life. The idea of lifelong education is the keystone of the learning society" (Faure et al., 1972, p. xxxii). In this discourse, lifelong learning was considered a positive agent for social change and the democratisation of education. The second age of lifelong learning policy age could be defined the economic-rationalist age and was driven notably by the OECD. Advocates of this policy direction argued that lifelong learning policy should not attempt to 'force' social change but rather should respond to the growing need for skilled workers for an increasingly globalised workforce. The key driver of this policy suite was the need to support economic growth (Johnston, 1998; OECD, 1996). Finally, some researchers - most notably Rubenson (2004, 2006) argue that we are currently in a third age which acknowledges and synthesises the humanistic and economic aspects of the first two ages. Nearly all lifelong learning agendas include the following key points:

Recognition of prior learning (RPL)

RPL has many definitions, however in policy terms it is generally viewed as a belief that learning acquired in one context (e.g. work experience) can be transferred to another (e.g. university studies). Thus, the prior learning is 'recognised'; both as having value and relevance as well as being assessed for equivalence in some way. This equivalence might be used to meet traditional entrance requirements (e.g. using life and work experience in lieu of Year 12 exams to enter university) or even for credit (e.g. matching appropriate work experience against a course/unit learning outcomes and consequently receiving credit).

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 study

This paper is based on the preliminary findings of a PhD analysing the RPL policies and practices of selected Australian universities. Within a critical theoretical framing, this paper presents selected findings from the larger research study. This paper focuses on two research particular research questions:
  1. What RPL policies have been enacted by the case-study universities and what missions, goals or values are they driven by?
  2. Is there any evidence that these RPL policies make these universities more equitable or accessible? [1]

The findings

What RPL policies have been enacted by the case-study universities and what missions, goals or values are they driven by?

The vast majority of Australian universities accept RPL for both access and credit. At the time of the study, 29 out of 38 public universities in Australia accepted RPL for the purposes of admission and/or credit (Pitman, 2009). In fact, it is probable that all universities accept RPL for admission; however since RPL is generally considered an issue of credit rather than access, most do not define RPL in this way.

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.

Is there any evidence that these RPL policies make these universities more equitable or accessible?

When RPL is considered an issue of access (that is, prior learning is used to meeting admission requirements) then there is strong evidence that it has the potential to make the higher education sector more accessible and equitable. From a policy perspective, RPL-for-access allows universities to consider a broader range of prior learning and reconceptualise what it means to be 'university ready'. From a practice perspective, there is great understanding of and support for this approach. Interestingly, it is not often viewed by the sector as RPL; rather it is considered in terms of alternative entry.

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.


  1. In March 2008, as part of the new Labor Government's 'Education Revolution', the Federal Minister for Education initiated a Review of Australian Higher Education to examine and report on the future direction of the higher education sector, its fitness for purpose in meeting the needs of the Australian community and economy, and the options for reform. A significant part of the Review focussed on the need to widen participation in higher education. The authors of the Bradley Review recommended that the Government set a national target that 40 percent of 25 to 34-year olds would have attained at least a bachelor-level qualification by 2020. Furthermore, another important target set was that by 2020, 20 per cent of undergraduate enrolments in higher education should be students from disadvantaged groups - mostly those from a low socio-economic background (LSEB). For this study, therefore, 'accessibility' was related to the 40% attainment target and 'equity' was related to the 20% LSEB target.


Breier, M. & Ralphs, A. (2009). In search of phronesis: Recognizing practical wisdom in the Recognition (Assessment) of Prior Learning. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 30(4), 479-493.

Faure, E., Herrera, F., Kaddoura, A., Lopes, H., Petrovsky, A., Rahnema, M., et al. (1972). Learning to be: The world of education today and tomorrow. London: UNESCO.

Gallacher, J., & Feutrie, M. (2003). Recognising and accrediting informal and non-formal learning in higher education: An analysis of the issues emerging from a study of France and Scotland. European Journal of Education, 38(1), 71-83.

Johnston, D. J. (1998). Lifelong learning for all. OECD Observer, 214, 4.

OECD (1996). Lifelong learning for all: Meeting of the education committee at ministerial level, 16-17 January. Paris: OECD.

Pitman, T. (2009). Recognition of prior learning: The accelerated rate of change in Australian universities. Higher Education Research & Development, 28(2), 227-240.

Rubenson, K. (2004). Lifelong learning: A critical assessment of the political project. In P. Alheit, R. Becker-Schmidt, T. Gitz Johansen, L. Ploug, H. Salling Olsen & K. Rubenson (Eds.), Shaping an emerging reality: Researching lifelong learning. Denmark: Roskilde University Press.

Rubenson, K. (2006). The Nordic model of lifelong learning. Compare: A Journal of Comparative Education, 36(3), 327-341.

Author: Tim Pitman
The University of Western Australia
Email: tim.pitman@uwa.edu.au

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

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Created 19 Aug 2010. Last revised 19 Aug 2010. URL: http://www.waier.org.au/forums/2010/pitman.html
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