The Austrian path to RPL

29. November 2021

With the year 2021, a paradigm shift has taken place in Austria regarding the recognition of already acquired competences (recognition of prior learning RPL). Due to the current amendments to the legal basis of the various types of higher education institutions (public and private universities, universities of applied sciences (Fachhochschulen) and universities of teacher education and the [future] private university colleges), it is now possible for the first time that competences acquired non-formally and informally are also recognised.

A brief look back

In Austria, RPL in the higher education system was for a long time limited to the recognition of formally acquired competences. The first important steps towards opening higher education to new, non-traditional target groups were the TVE Diploma Examination and the University entrance qualification examination. A second major step in this direction took place with the establishment of the higher education sector of Fachhochschulen in 1994, which was new for Austria at the time. For the first time, vocational qualifications were recognised for access to studies and also during studies in the sense of shortening study times. The recognition of prior learning experienced another significant upswing with the Austrian LLL strategy from 2011. This envisages that non-formal and informal education processes should be considered equal to formal education pathways. At that time, this vision was opposed in Austria by the rather restrictive legal basis, which until recently essentially limited recognition to formally acquired competences.

Paradigm shift

About ten years later, the Austrian legislator has now taken this long overdue step to enable the recognition of non-formally and informally acquired competences as well and now the implementation process at the universities is about to start. The Austrian higher education institutions are not unprepared, however, because the last few years have been used intensively to develop principles for recognition procedures and also to look for experience in other European countries in questions of implementation.

Specifically, recommendations for the design of recognition procedures are available from these project experiences and the close cooperation of AQ Austria with a group of a total of 15 higher education institutions from all sectors over several years. In an advisory process for the HEIs, comparable to that currently being carried out in Germany within the framework of the HRK's Modus project, the HEIs were able to improve their procedural bases and develop pilot projects. Although many foundations have been laid, the universities are now facing the important step of implementation.

The new legal regulations

The higher education institutions are autonomous in the implementation process; this means that the design of the procedures and the recognition decision are up to them. However, they are obliged by the relevant laws to lay down the procedural principles in their statutes.

The recognition of competences acquired at higher education institutions is based on the Lisbon principles of "substantial difference") and the reversal of the burden of proof, and also unlimited in terms of scope.

In addition, and this is the novelty, already acquired competences from the school sector (from the very well established sector of VET colleges in Austria) and through validation can be recognised, whereby the upper limit from each of the two sectors is 60 ECTS-CP or a total of 90 ECTS-CP. Although this restriction contradicts the basic idea of recognising competences already acquired - if competences exist, they are to be credited - it can be interpreted as a precautionary measure, as it is also known in Germany in a similar form.

Responsibilities

As mentioned, the responsibility for procedures and recognition lies with the higher education institutions; in the case of higher education institutions subject to accreditation (private universities, universities of applied sciences), the relevant provisions of the statutes are part of the accreditation procedures carried out by AQ Austria.

Since the beginning of 2021, AQ Austria has also been entrusted by law with the task of informing and advising higher education institutions on the recognition of non-formally and informally acquired competences and has since expanded its advisory services.

The Nationale Informationszentrum für akademische Anerkennung, ENIC NARIC AUSTRIA, is responsible for questions regarding the recognition of academic degrees and academic titles.

Current and next steps

In the next few months, an important phase is coming up for us - that includes all actors in the Austrian higher education area: Information work for and at the universities, implementation of the procedures at the respective universities, training courses, persuasion work, etc. The legal basis alone will not be sufficient to dispel the still widespread mistrust of RPL. However, we now see ourselves in a better position to do so on the basis of the new legal regulations.

By dealing with RPL, our understanding of other areas (including problems) has also developed, such as the connection of curriculum development and learning outcomes orientation with RPL or the contribution of qualifications frameworks for recognition procedures.

However, we have also learned from the past years that the exchange of experience and cooperation is a key success factor for the implementation of RPL. We have therefore founded the RPL Network Austria under the coordination of AQ Austria, which will expand to include more partner universities and go public in the coming months. As in all our activities, it is important to involve the interest groups of the universities (in Austria each university sector has its own interest group) as well as the responsible ministry. In addition, AQ Austria is currently in the process of establishing a European network for RPL with several European partners, including the HRK.

From AQ Austria's point of view, we are well on the way in the Austrian higher education area, on the basis of the new laws, to designing procedures according to the principles of organisational development and quality assurance in such a way that trust in RPL is ensured in the long term.

Key Facts

  Winter Semester 2020/2021     Study year 2019/20
  Public Universities Universities of Applied Sciences Private Universities Teacher Training Colleges
Institutions 22 21 16 14
New students 48,304 23,509 5,715 5,698
Proportion of women (%) 57 52 63 78
Students 268,42 58,735 13,963 16,526
Proportion of women (%) 54 51 60 75

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