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Where does AP(E)L fit in Higher Education?

Author - Anne Murphy

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Bridging rhetoric and reality: accreditation of prior experiential learning (AP(E)L) in the UK

The purpose of this analytical report on the development of AP(E)L in higher education in the UK and elsewhere was to provide data for a series of policy-oriented national fora on the issue in London, Cardiff and Belfast in 2004, with the intention of developing a national plan for AP(E)L. With regard to scale and methodology, this short report is essentially an analytical review of research literature on AP(E)L, with brief case studies of AP(E)L policy and practice in Europe, Australia and North America. It was produced by Jonathan Garnett, Derek Portwood and Carol Cosley, Middlesex University, under commission from the University Vocational Awards Council and the Learning and Skills Council.

The immediate UK contextual issues of the report are acknowledged as the roll-out of the widening-participation policy programme and the introduction of foundation degrees: both of which require new thinking about how learning is framed and acknowledged. The report was required to answer the specific question: what next for AP(E)L in the UK? It outlines the power of AP(E)L rhetoric and the weaknesses in its implementation over twenty-five years. A persistent weakness was identified as the lack of acceptance by traditional, subject-based academics who cannot concede that there could be a clear match between evidence of experiential learning and the learning which is planned through taught programmes. Despite modularisation and the use of credit, practical issues of costs, training of staff and allocation of resources have persisted. Additionally, the university sector rarely engages in work-based learning (WBL) as the further education sector does, and therefore the links between AP(E)L and WBL have never been fully exploited by the university sector.

The research for this report deliberately set out to build a case for a pro-active stance on AP(E)L systems for both HE and FE, based on successful practices in Europe, North America and Australia. The conclusions of this comparative research include the truisms that AP(E)L enables universities to engage with ‘a wider constituency of learners’, to widen participation and to provide equal opportunities for learners.
The conclusions include an acknowledgment that, traditionally, knowledge is constructed in a consistent way due to the hierarchical structures of universities, where interdisciplinary knowledge is rarely shared between and among faculties. Knowledge resulting from experiential learning, therefore, is perceived as of less worth since it cannot be commensurate with the structured learning of modules and programmes. It is additionally of less worth as it emanates from vocational or competence-based contexts where there is a perceived lack of criticality.

The challenge, therefore, for AP(E)L in the university sector is to develop a ‘forward-looking’ policy-driven model where prior learning experiences of adults act as the starting point for new learning projects and for work-based learning activities, as is the case in the French model. To achieve this, the report recommends that AP(E)L, WBL, and vocational training for the labour market should present an integrated front and should seek a coherent and cohesive policy position in higher education.

Additionally the report acknowledges the shift in power-knowledge from the education providers to the creators of knowledge outside the academy. It recommends that universities should be alert to the risk that AP(E)L might become yet another means of exclusion, by creating new ‘micro-circulation of power’ which might impact negatively on issues of access and equity. Within this power-shift, AP(E)L represents a means by which university awards can be achieved without the university’s traditional total ownership of the learning and knowledge for such awards. Universities, therefore, need to recast their definitions of credible and legitimate knowledge and to forge partnerships with new knowledge producers.


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