RPL Challenges in Higher Education

Easy to legislate…difficult to apply?

Initially when Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) was proposed and imposed through different legislation and prescripts in the early 2000s, the purposes of RPL in South Africa were social redress and transformation.  Higher Education institutions realized sporadically that RPL implementation will not only change their mission statement, but will also influence their admission policy, existing resources, assessment procedures, staff, exit policy and mode of delivery.

Today, 16 years later, Higher Education institutions still struggle to grapple with challenges in RPL implementation which may compromise high standards of institutions which provide them with credibility and integrity.  Some challenges still hinders implementation…

Challenges in RPL implementation

During a RPL workshop in May 2016, the following challenges were anticipated by high level (level 8-10) attendees from different faculties in Higher Education:

  • Conceptual knowledge can be difficult to find in workplace evidence.
  • Inexperienced assessors will have difficulty to assess RPL evidence in a holistic manner due to lack of workplace experience.
  • Admission policy guidelines will have to be amended to be more inclusive.
  • Exit points are currently protecting HE interest –open exit points can be misrepresented.
  • Fee structures can’t be generic, but should differ over the huge range of programmes.
  • Promotion of RPL to own management and training staff.
  • RPL Office for speedy implementation rather than immediate integration.

Conceptual knowledge difficult to find in workplace evidence

One of the challenges of RPL assessors in Higher Education is to identify and recognize conceptual knowledge within the evidence provided from the workplace.  Conceptual knowledge is different from procedural knowledge that simply follow rules to get to the same outcome. As long as you know “how” to do geometry, you will achieve acceptable marks, but why you are following the steps might be unknown for the candidate.  Conceptual knowledge answers to the “why”.  An excellent chess player can win a match purely by using his procedural knowledge in pattern recognition. However he will not necessarily prove conceptual knowledge.  Conceptual knowledge however can develop through years of experience in following procedures, but this is the question academics should ask:  ‘do we have proof of conceptual knowledge in prior learning, to recognize learning in a Higher Education context?’.

To enable recognition of learning in an Academic institution, emphasis of conceptual knowledge should be higher than procedural knowledge.  A person’s competence can only be justified if he/she understands why he/she is following the procedure. Assessors need to be advised on the difference so that the integrity of deliverables from a Higher Education institution will uphold their credibility.  In the case where an RPL candidate lacks conceptual knowledge as required through set assessment criteria, the candidate should be referred to institutions where the emphasis is more on procedural knowledge.

Holistic RPL assessment approach

Consistency in assessment judgement can only be obtained if assessors speak the ‘same language’, e.g. share a common understanding of competence in their subject matter.  Holistic thinking skills are developed through years of experience, which leaves young RPL assessors as a risk in making an RPL judgement.

The problem however lies in the fact that if we only allow high level assessors to make RPL judgements, the cost of the RPL assessment should drastically increase.  RPL thus become an expensive option, which is against the intended purpose of RPL.

Admission Policy

The admission policy in Higher Education is expected to be very strict to be fair to all learners and the institution.  However, in the case of RPL, a generic approach should be used and applications should be judged in a holistic manner.  Once again high level subject matter expertise should be involved in the admission of individuals, which increase cost even in application.

Should exit be voluntary for the RPL candidate?

In all learning institutions, policy states that exit is voluntary for the RPL candidate.  This means that at any stage when the candidate feel he/she does not want to continue, they may exit.  Academics however reason that in most cases, the input of Higher Education is acknowledged within their products (publications or thesis).  In the case where a professor spent hours in finding the gap in the candidate’s evidence, and went through numerous hours of top-up learning, his institution should be acknowledged.  However this will not be possible if the candidate decides at this stage to exit and applies at another Higher Education Institution.  Policy should thus include guidelines to exit mechanisms to protect the interest of the institution.

Fee structures can’t be generic

An RPL candidate cannot be required to pay a minimum, generic fee for RPL in Higher Education, as the different fields, different levels and requirements on high levels will differ.  Fees must rather be broken down into consultation, assessor, moderation and administration fees per level and field.  The turnaround time of RPL is also a disputable concept as this will also increase fee structures.

Promotion of RPL in Higher Education

An advantage for Higher Education in applying RPL is the partnerships that they will form with different workplaces to associate with typical workplace evidence.  However, it seems that academics still fail to see these advantages for their own academic development.

Need for RPL Office

Although the integration of RPL into existing training structures seems to be the most cost-effective way of implementing RPL, it seems as if it will rather be an add-on that will only increase the workload of high level assessors.  If assessors do not agree on the necessity of this function, it will not carry sufficient weight to mandate this function.

The alternative is to start with a RPL office from which all initial RPL interventions are promoted and coordinated.  Promotion should take place not only outside the institution, but ideally internally so that staff can first pick the fruit of RPL endeavours.  Internal RPL will promote the concept to the highest levels and assist in the training of RPL facilitators, assessors and moderators.


So what do we say?  It is easy to legislate RPL, but not so easy to apply…

Unless Higher Education starts implementing it convincingly and forcefully, we will never know whether this will be feasible and viable in their environment.

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