Recognising Prior Learning - an essential workplace element

People at work

Lack of education and skills are arguably two of the most critical aspects determining access to income, and general life chances.  But adults learn through daily life and experience – not simply through formal education; within many South African operations, employees with minimal formal education successfully operate sophisticated machinery and complex systems.  Why then has it been so difficult to recognise this knowledge and experience?

The OECD has recognised that although South Africa is still in the early stages of Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL), pockets of excellent practice do exist nationally.  Recognising this, and with the dual intention of progressing the implementation of RPL - and complying with the National Qualification Framework (NQF) Act of 2008 – the South African Qualification Authority (SAQA) has issued a draft RPL policy document for comment.  

The original RPL policy document issued in 2002 and followed in 2003 by the Criteria & Guidelines. This current document draws on lessons learned and an extensive consultation exercise.  A conference entitled: Bridging and expanding existing islands of excellent practice, was hosted by SAQA in February 2011, addressing 3 key RPL issues, namely: resourcing, effective delivery, and quality assurance.  From the conference a resolution & working document was developed and a reference group established.  This included representatives of the 3 quality councils – Higher Education, Umalusi covering the basic education levels, and the Quality Council for Trades and Occupations (QCTO).  A final workshop was held on the 6 July 2012. 

The current “for comment” phase ends on the 15 November 2012.  Why is this consultation period so important?   Firstly, “... all public and private institutions are required to have RPL policies in place.” (p4) Secondly, recognising the skills and knowledge of employees at the workplace facilitates staff development and productivity enhancement; recognition enables adults to access higher education increasing national human resource capacity; and some South Africans may simply desire formal recognition for personal affirmation.  In short, everyone is affected.

The original objectives of the NQF remain: integration, access and redress, mobility and progression, and assured quality.  The policy intention is to provide recognition of non formal and informal learning for persons of all ages for the purposes outlined above: access to HE institutions, credits for workplace career purposes or where existing positions now require formal certification.

The policy document makes clear that RPL is not simply an assessment, it is in addition “mediation”, that is the individual must be able: “... to make the transition from using knowledge and skills in one type of context, to using the same knowledge & skills in a different context”. (p4)  This mediation is also required for acquisition of qualifications, or part qualifications, or specific credits.

Key priority areas of the policy are: redress for past discrimination in access to education and training, assurance of access to “quality learning pathways”, a fair recognition of knowledge & skills gained – not simply recognition of experience itself.  The document provides comprehensive – and very useful definitions of the various types of learning, differentiating: formal, informal, non-formal, and lifelong.  

Proposals included are: a National Co-ordinating Mechanism, which will assist the three quality councils: that RPL will be context specific and will be available at all levels on the NQF, for qualifications, part-qualifications, and credits; RPL sites will include workplaces and recognised assessment centres; SAQA will be the controlling body; and there will be recognised RPL practitioners.  

Certainly, the successful implementation of RPL will go a long way to provide redress for those previously denied formal qualification, and national co-ordination and guidance should ensure standardised implementation.  However, the comments of context-specific implementation does need further explanation – possibly with examples – to make clear how this links with standardisation and quality assurance.

The proposals for funding are to be welcomed.  Exclusion from education directly relates to access to income.  Therefore it would follow that to break the cycle of deprivation and discrimination arising from previous exclusion – and to provide access to RPL as the first step in access to education - a positive initiative is advisable.   However, there is no indication of from where the funding will derive.

Guidance & support, a developmental approach, and quality assured systems are theoretically all beneficial.  The challenge however is to avoid the apparently mindless over-bureaucratisation exemplified in the current Education and Training Quality Assurance (ETQA) department accreditation systems – although formally under the QCTO these functions are still conducted  by the Sector Education and Training Authority (SETA) ETQAs.    

The proposal for a National Co-ordinating Mechanism, providing research, professionalisation, co-ordination, support, advice and advocacy, and managing a biennial conference sounds excellent.  Finally - RPL practitioners, given the plethora of “professional” bodies and associations, it would be beneficial to require all those associated with ETD – including RPL practitioners to be professionally registered – preferably with the South African Board for People Practices (SABPP).

To read the full document and to comment, the SAQA RPL Policy document is available on this URL:

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