HIGHER EDUCATION INTHE ECONOMIC CRISIS: RPL AS A TOOL FOR THE RECOGNITION OF QUALIFICATIONS, STUDENT MOBILITY, UP-SKILLING AND RE-SKILLING
There are a number of points to be made regarding RPL and its role in defining higher educational practice in globalised terms that are shaped by economic pressures, social dynamics and policy developments. The first point is about higher education and the recognition of qualifications which, according to this study, has the potential to act as a means of social inclusion by providing access routes to higher education for non-traditional students whether that is due to level of educational attainment, origin of original qualifications, or the attainment of occupational or sectoral awards. The second defining point is about higher education is its role in both professional and academic mobility where mobility is tied to concepts of employability and social inclusion, and also to RPL, which in the context of higher education is considered a means to achieve mobility. A third and final point is about higher education is the up-skilling agenda, particularly evident in labour activation schemes and over-arching funding mechanisms such as the European Globalisation Fund. These three points are discussed further below.
5.1 Higher Education and the Recognition of Qualifications
In Round One, RPL for ‘access to qualifications’ was chosen in relatively high proportions across all of the fourteen listed contexts for that question, but the highest ranking were higher education (77.3%), further education (45.5%) and continuing professional development (40.9%). It is expected that higher education can and will address the needs of non-traditional learners although in the majority of cases this takes place within the bounds of traditional structures. This is not surprising, however, when considering the concept of credit which in the case of Ireland has become tied to awards and is therefore in many ways an inflexible tool. For example, in Round Two of this study, the strongest level of agreement was with the statement ‘RPL credits will increasingly count towards an award or qualification and not for the notional concept of “credit” as in “valuing learning”’ (84.2%). This tendency toward a credit-qualification link was further supported by the ambiguity surrounding the statement ‘a market in tradable credits is inevitable’ which was ranked in eighteenth place at a 25% level of agreement, a mean of 3.14 (the neither agree nor disagree mark) and median of 3 also. This might be related to the large proportion of Irish respondents and the Irish National Qualifications Framework, which is an award-based framework. The high ‘credit’ rating for the higher education context in round one was qualified in round three by the perception from the expert panel that outside of higher education RPL is not very well known. Furthermore there is still a perception that it is difficult to both assess and validate RPL in the higher education context, which is still according to many respondents, focused on credit arrangements.
There were low levels of support for the contexts of the voluntary sector, youth sector, community education, adult education, work sectors, trade unions and professional bodies for the practice of RPL for the purposes of ‘re-skilling’ and ‘up-skilling’. This raised questions around the priorities attached to using RPL in the first place, and whether they extend beyond the economic to the social and cultural integration of individuals. This does not appear to be the case as the respondents found RPL facilitating social inclusion a return to the labour market from RPL, but not to the individual, the employing organisation nor higher and further education. Furthermore, a social justice model of RPL was not rated highly in the future development of RPL. In round two this lack of a social inclusion agenda was less evident, but in thinking of responses to the ten policy statements presented in round three for comment, it appears that it is a lack of policy and funding and inbuilt inequalities in the existing systems for RPL, which do not address the needs of the disadvantaged. What did emerge, to a certain extent, was the possibility that RPL in terms of the recognition of qualifications rather than of non-formal or informal learning were more a means of social inclusion, through the mutual recognition of qualifications and awards.