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Policy development and implementation procedures for recognition of prior learning: a case study of practice in higher education

Author - Anne Murphy


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Recognition of prior learning, both formal and non-formal learning, is now a key area of policy interest across national frameworks and across the two meta-frameworks in Europe: the European Qualifications Framework for Lifelong Learning (EQF-LLL) and the Bologna framework for the European higher education area (EHEA). It is also a significant policy area in vocational education and training, in continuing professional development, in sectoral qualifications, and with regulatory authorities and quality assurance bodies. Mutual recognition of formal awards and qualifications is being addressed through databases which have a high level of trust and confidence among users such as the ENIC-NARIC system. That trust and confidence is, of course, reinforcing the perception, and perhaps the belief, that knowledge, skills and competences (learning outcomes) which are codified in the standardised descriptors of education and training providers are somehow of greater exchange value than those acquired through social and work practices. RPL systems which try to mimic codified systems contribute to perceptions that experiential learning outcomes are somehow qualitatively less worthy of trust and confidence and therefore need more rigorous assessment than formal learning. However, experiences of RPL practitioners over two decades have dispelled many such myths and have proven that there are greater rewards than risks in integrating RPL into the normal business of education and training.

This case study, however, is not a defence of RPL practice per se. Rather, it takes as a starting point that RPL is an inevitable higher education practice resulting from the trajectory of years of organic research and development at practitioner level which has now become an element of instrumental policy development at the meta level. This is not to argue that policy makers are ill-informed about learning from research and practice: rather it is to argue that sustainable RPL development is more likely when policy development follows existing practices which already have the trust and confidence of practitioners at the real-world, micro level, and that RPL is less likely to succeed in contexts of instrumental, externally imposed policy interventions.


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