This article is more than 4 years old

We need to recognise prior learning

South Bank Vice Chancellor Dave Phoenix is keen to recognise what people have learned before they get to university.
This article is more than 4 years old

Professor Dave Phoenix is the Vice Chancellor of London South Bank University.

Despite the country’s expanding skills crisis, there is a failure to harness the huge pool of talent that potential mature learners could offer. That’s because, for all of its benefits, the current funding system, has been disastrous for part-time and mature learners, causing significant and continuing declines in both groups since 2012.

Last year, I contributed the forward to MillionPlus’s Forgotten Learners report – welcoming a focus on mature learners that was sorely needed. I pointed out that given there are currently around 20 million working-age adults without any higher education qualifications (compared to only around three-quarters of a million 18 year-olds in total), reviving access for mature learners to higher education should be a key educational priority for the government.

Meanwhile, we remain in the dark about the extent to which Brexit could reduce skilled migration to the UK, and a fast-approaching 4th Industrial Revolution will almost certainly make it necessary for many people to reskill and retrain, not just once, but numerous times within their lives.

Lifelong skills

In other words, the supply of mature learners has decreased in the lead up to the period during which we will need them most. That is why I’m pleased that, alongside colleagues from the Open University, Birkbeck and others from across the education sector, I have been asked to sit on the independent panel of Labour’s new Lifelong Learning Commission. I hope we will be able to look holistically at the country’s educational needs and make suggestions for building on the excellence that already exists to promote life-long learning.

Regardless of the solutions that are put forward, it is clear that all institutions will need to become better equipped at educating mature students. For universities, recognising prior learning is one area that deserves attention. This concept primarily affects learners during the application stage but should also be considered in terms of the support required after acceptance – taking into account both certificated and experiential learning.

A more welcoming and transparent approach by institutions to accrediting prior learning may offer a means of encouraging more potential mature learners to re-enter education. Accrediting prior learning as part of the admissions process can assist potential learners in meeting the admission requirements for a programme. It can also enable them to be exempted from parts of the course (such as individual course modules) and the time and costs these incur as well as aiding identification of future support requirements for these learners, helping to aid successful completion.

AP(E)L for the teacher

Accreditation of certificated learning is relatively straightforward, and potential learners can, at least to an extent, evaluate the potential of their existing qualifications to permit them to access and omit parts of a course. The evaluation and accreditation of prior experiential learning (APEL) is more complex however. APEL involves the recognition of learning that a student has already undertaken outside the classroom (i.e. not measured and verified by a process leading to certification). It takes into account and awards “credit” for the experience accrued during what could be, ten, twenty or thirty years working within their industry – removing the expectation they repeat learning unnecessarily. Importantly, credit is not awarded on the basis of experience, per se, but on the basis of what is learned through reflecting on that experience.

Most universities could do more to make better use of recognising prior learning by proactively offering assessments of it to all applicants including those who exceed the criteria for entry to a course (or believe they do so) in order to determine whether or not they can be exempt from some requirements for their award.

At the moment, there are no significant obstacles but neither are there real incentives for institutions to more vigorously apply different approaches to recognising prior learning. I suggest that our ability to respond to the changing nature of the higher education landscape will be enhanced if we start a more radical exploration of these opportunities sooner rather than later.

Accrediting prior learning in this way and facilitating access for mature leaners can also bring a new dimension to the learning environment. Having students in a classroom who themselves have significant life and professional experience can change the teaching dynamic significantly. Students can learn from each other as well as their lecturer creating opportunities for peer-based and problem-based learning models

As welcomed as the current focus on Lifelong Learning Commission is, we shouldn’t rely on external commissions or reviews to provide all the solutions to addressing the collapse in mature learner numbers. Institutions must also look for solutions they can implement now and that are under their own control. A common criticism levelled at universities is that we aren’t attuned to providing the skills the economy needs. Extending the recognition of prior learning (be it certificated or experiential) will not only demonstrate that we do value and recognise such skills, it will facilitate and enhance access for mature learners, and in doing so, enrich the classroom experience for all our students.

6 responses to “We need to recognise prior learning

  1. Sorry there are very real barriers to the use of APEL not just in UK universities but across the world even in countries like France where students have a legal right to it.

    Most experiential learning, unlike formal learning, is trans-disciplinary and simply does not fit with prescribed (subject discipline) learning outcomes.

    The real issue is not the APEL process but redesigning the curriculum so that it can accommodate not just the past learning of adults but create new learning relevant to their needs.

  2. … which means creating a broader curriculum with mandatory elective and cross-disciplinary content and moving away from a curriculum narrowly focussed on single subject disciplines, especially by taking on the whole of the PSRB sector in the process. HE should educate people for life and future skills, not for one job. Nursing and medicine, for example, are the thin end of a very large wedge.

  3. I very much welcome the fact that RPL is highlighted here and agree that there is much to be positive about the potential for fully integrating RPL into the provision of HE. As has been pointed out however, barriers do remain. In particular, I worry that many universities are not living up to the entitlements stated in their own RPL policies, which would seem to bring CMA risks.

    I would also recommend that universities use the excellent SEEC credit level descriptors as a key resources for benchmarking experiential RPL claims (see, the value of which several universities, PSRBs and other organisations have testified to in recently published impact case studies.

    One incentive that is at least on the horizon is that as more universities deliver degree apprenticeships, they will find that the Education ad Skills Funding Agency (ESA) have a clear expectation that an assessment is made of an applicant’s prior knowledge, skills and behaviours. This requirement is designed to avoid funding apprenticeship provision that does not develop new learning. However, those who have seen the transformative power of RPL in enabling learners to understand the value of their existing learning as a necessary platform for developing new learning, know this separation between ‘prior’ and ‘new’ is somewhat arbitrary. I would argue that a key purpose of universities is to recognise learning (prior and new) through rigorous assessment processes to enable the award of credit and qualifications. Learning achieved through RPL is no different from learning achieved through undertaking a programme of study, yet while it remains unfunded it is not consistently promoted by the HE sector as a key entitlement.

    Perhaps the incentive of meeting the ESFA apprenticeship funding rules will encourage universities to ensure that the entitlement to RPL is placed more centre stage.

  4. Our entire undergraduate provision is at targeted at part-time learners at University Campus St Albans (a joint venture between Oaklands College and the University of Hertfordshire). AP(E)L or RPL is at the heart of what we do and our learners attest to the positive effects of learning through APEL ( The focus on APEL is very welcome and the SEEC resources above point to ways in which the curriculum can be designed to realise these. However the issues around funding of APEL and part-time Higher Education remain a real barrier to access for mature learners.

  5. HE is not just about employment. Let’s stop talking as if it is.
    This sort of offer is a great idea – but not mandatory. There is still a need for subject discipline expertise.

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