RPL Implementation: An Opportunity to Build a Better Tomorrow

Countless South Africans find themselves in jobs that offer no growth prospects due to their lack of academic qualifications. These people are often very skilled but underpaid and, understandably, frustrated. Enrolling at university to get more qualifications for career advancement is a pipe dream for almost everyone in this economic climate.

Yet there is an avenue many don’t know about, where your years of experience in a particular field can help you gain access to a programme at University. It’s called Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) and is acknowledged by South African and international policymakers as a critical means of access to, and recognition of, further and higher learning for students who did not have the opportunity to access higher education post-schooling system via the conventional pathways.

In South Africa, the domain of RPL has been closely aligned to the main elements of the national policy discourse since 1994, with a specific focus on achieving transformation, accreditation, lifelong learning, and compliance with the National Qualifications Framework (NQF). “RPL was subsequently defined as the formal acknowledgement of the knowledge, skills, expertise and capabilities that people possess/acquired as a result of the prior learning that may have occurred through formal, informal or non-formal means – through self-study, work or other life experiences.”

The primary purpose of RPL is to facilitate access to, mobility across, and progression within education, training and career paths for people who have experienced historic inequalities with regards to accessing education.

The University of the Western Cape (UWC) Recognition of Prior Learning Unit, has been a pioneer in policy development, implementation and assessment of RPL within South Africa’s higher education landscape for over two decades. RPL is an essential part of the admissions policy at UWC and finds expression in a range of services to promote, support and endorse mature students seeking alternative or flexible pathway access into higher education programmes at the university.

The unit’s work directly impacts,

  • higher education access

  • educational transformation

  • navigation of the NQF system

  • and the promotion of lifelong learning within the higher education sector.

This directly impacts the community of the Western Cape and surrounding areas as the RPL programme promotes education, growth, and the kind of development that has a ripple effect on an applicant’s family and community.

It also lays a foundation for many opportunities for generations to come.

RPL does not have a one-size-fits-all approach to assessment because applicants have a diversity of knowledge, skills and experience. UWC assesses all applicants older than 23 years –  some of whom are grandparents or single parents – working in various sectors, including retail, education and health.

RPL is based entirely on merit and is aligned to the institutional admissions as well as the National RPL implementation policies. The unit also creates awareness and debunks the myths around RPL admission.

While there is a general acknowledgment of the importance of RPL for access, educational transformation, lifelong learning and social inclusion, many learning institutions have not embraced RPL equally across the board, and implementation practices vary greatly, often leading to learner and practitioner frustrations. While there have been some local studies and a growing international literature on the subject, RPL is by and large under-researched in South Africa.

The academic community, industry and relevant stakeholders need to become aware of the practice of RPL and the inherent benefits to the student cohort within the higher education sector. RPL applicants are experienced, well developed in multiple knowledge areas, independent, role models and leaders. If we all work together to use the systems that exist, we can exact massive educational transformation and career growth for many South Africans.

In light of the above and its long tradition of providing RPL, the UWC RPL Unit will host its first international conference on 30 and 31 March 2022, with the theme “Implementation, Assessment, and Articulation of Recognition of Prior Learning”. The conference has confirmed eight international and 14 national guest speakers who will share their RPL research and practices. This is the largest RPL event in the country since 2014, and this conference will open a new era in the quality of RPL implementation practices offered by UWC.

Dr Rekha Rambharose is a teaching and learning specialist at the University of the Western Cape. She is the head of the RPL unit and chairs the IAARPL association for RPL practitioners. She is the principal investigator on the technology-enhanced RPL implementation research project and is proactive in areas of access to education, RPL policy development and supporting RPL student success.