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Author - Kate Collins


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1 Introduction and Context

This article investigates how higher education (HE) and the training sector generally perceive the value of the recognition of prior learning (RPL) in responding to changing learner profiles in the context of increasing economic difficulties globally, and their resulting impact on employment, the labour market, and education and training systems. The article is based on an element of my doctoral research data and related to a presentation I made at the SRHE Postgraduate and New Researchers Conference in December 2010.

What the statistics say

Investigations of unemployment since the economic crisis from 2008 have found that unemployment rates are highest amongst those with lower secondary education or below (European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions [Eurofound], 2011) in the 25-34 year old age cohort, as well as older lower-skilled workers, and younger age cohorts (under 25s) Forfás, 2010 With the diversity of unemployed persons in Ireland, different labour market activation measures have been put forward, increasingly including RPL EGFSN, 2011; Forfás, 2010)

In Ireland, the Expert Group on Future Skill Needs (EGFSN) found that in order to sustain a knowledge economy 45% of the workforce would need to hold a third level qualification and that further up-skilling of the current workforce was essential Behan, Condon, McNaboe et al., 2007) Despite the economic downturn the EGFSN reports for 2009 (Behan, Condon, Hogan et al., 2009) and 2010 (Behan, Condon, Hogan et al., 2010) found that there was still a need for up-skilling and even more so to re-skill those facing redundancy and to address the still significant shortages in certain, often high skill areas.

The 'National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030' (Hunt Report) report by the Strategy Group (Hunt, 2011), whose work was framed in the context of the Government Framework 'Building Ireland's Smart Economy' (Government of Ireland, 2008) called for the transformation of the higher education landscape in Ireland. By 2011 policy documents were recommending that higher education transformation should facilitate the growing numbers and changing profile of students in higher education, and reflect the emphasis now placed on lifelong learning and up-skilling as a result of unemployment and changed work patterns (Hunt, 2011). The Hunt Report stressed the role higher education should play in future economic development, particularly with regard to widening participation. In addition to the national higher education context international and European higher education policy has been promoting RPL to address the demands for greater levels of skills and qualifications in the international labour market.

The severity of the financial crisis was acknowledged in the second half of 2008 when the European Commission issued its communication 'New Skills for New Jobs: Anticipating and matching labour market and skills needs',arguing that for economic recovery it was essential to enhance human capital and employability by upgrading skills (Commission of the European Communities, 2008). This focus on enhanced human capital is evident in European RPL policy such as the Education and Training 2010 Work Programme to build on the Lisbon Strategy (from 2001) where RPL was considered a means to facilitate access of all to education and training (Council of the European Union, 2001). The 2010 Work Programme was superseded by the 'Strategic Framework for European Co-operation in Education and Training' (ET2020) where RPL formed part of realising lifelong learning (The Council of the European Union, 2009). Within the Bologna process (from 1999) RPL for access to, and as an element of, higher education and to create flexible learning paths, was explicitly mentioned in the Bergen Communiqué (Council of European Minister responsible for Higher Education, 2005). The Copenhagen Process (since 2002) looked to RPL for the recognition of competences and qualifications across vocational education and training in Europe (European Ministers of Vocational Education and Training & European Commission, 2002). The European Qualification Framework for Lifelong Learning (EQF-LLL) was formulated with the purpose to encourage lifelong learning by promoting the validation of non-formal and informal learning (European Commission, 2010b).

The European and national higher education (HE) landscape has been changing and there is now a need for greater transparency of qualifications, mobility of learners, and flexibility in and access to education and training. Much higher educational policy reform is tied to European Union (EU) priorities of labour market development and economic competitiveness, where education and training are considered key contributing factors to success.

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