Recognition of Prior Learning: A Philosophy for Promoting Lifelong Learning in Higher Education

7. April 2022

The dual meaning of recognition

Recognition of qualification vs. recognition of learning outcomes

In the context of qualifications systems (OECD, 2007), and awarding of qualifications, “recognition” has two rather different, yet connected, meanings. First, “recognition of a qualification” is the acceptance that this particular qualification has currency in the labour market and/or in the lifelong learning formal system. In other words, it is the acceptance by the main stakeholders in the labour market and in the lifelong learning formal system that holders of this qualification do possess the competences that the qualification describes. A typical stakeholder in this context is a recruiter, for instance an employer in the process of hiring new employees. It is therefore essential that s/he recognises the qualification of any job applicant applying to her/his company so that they are hired at the level of responsibility, of autonomy and of wage they deserve; to name a few parameters of a job that are associated with the qualification. Another example of a recruiter is a university, or higher education institution, that seeks to promote its education and training programmes. There is generally no issue regarding qualifications achieved in the national qualifications system, as they are well known by all higher education stakeholders and therefore, almost by definition, recognised. However, for transnational students, the university first has to accept that the qualification handed to them to back up an application to enrol in a programme is a proof of competence. This process has been long based on (mostly) bilateral agreements between two universities for mutually recognising qualifications awarded in the other university. In the absence of bilateral agreements for mutual recognition of qualification, this research of equivalencies between two qualifications awarded in different institutions has proven complex, expensive, and not necessarily reliable because it is oftentimes difficult for a university to know exactly what another university, with which they have had little or no contact, is actually teaching, and to what level. It is for dealing with transnational students, among others, that meta qualifications frameworks – regional ones such as the European Qualifications Framework – are the most useful because they may be used as translation devices from a national qualifications framework to another (Coles and Bjørnåvold, 2010; EC, 2008 and 2011).

Second, “recognition of learning outcomes” is the process by which what learners have acquired is assessed and validated to allow for the awarding of credits and/or a full-blown qualification.

As it is clear by now, the discussion about these two meanings of “recognition” is not specific to the context of recognition of prior learning. All universities seek maximum recognition of the qualifications they award, by employers and the society at large. There is clearly a reputation effect in the matter, and long-established universities clearly benefit from a higher reputation. The full recognition of their qualifications is generally not an issue.

It is not specific either when it comes to recognition of learning outcomes as it is what all education and training providers, including therefore universities, do when they assess their students with the objective, among others, to award them with a qualification.

Again, the issues with recognition are not specific to the context of recognition of prior learning, but everything is more complex with recognition of prior learning, as the next section shows.

Recognition in the context of RPL

These two acceptations of the term “recognition” are particularly relevant in the context of recognition of prior learning because achieving recognition in the two senses – recognition of qualifications and recognition of learning outcomes – is highly critical for any RPL system to work (OECD, 2010; Aggarwal, 2015). And they are achieved through rather different routes.

Recognition of learning outcomes is a technical process and, to that extent, it may be seen as relatively simple. To a large extent, recognition of learning outcomes boils down to assessment and validation (Cedefop, 2018). The assessment is carried out by assessors and lead to the validation – or not – of learning outcomes toward credits, and/or a qualification. Achieving recognition of learning outcomes needs assessment with, for instance, assessment methods such as demonstration, simulation, observation, portfolio of competences, written examinations, tests, and/or interviews. It also needs qualification/assessment standards, for establishing clear criteria regarding the way applicants will be assessed. It finally needs assessors, and proper training of these assessors because assessing non-formal and informal learning outcomes is significantly different from assessing learning outcomes after a course for which the curriculum is clearly identified.

Recognition of qualifications in the context of RPL is, on the contrary, rather complex because it is a societal process. It takes a lot of effort for a society to accept that a qualification awarded through recognition of prior learning is a genuine proof of competences. Recognition of qualifications achieved in the RPL system needs, among others, the early involvement of actors and other key stakeholders of the labour market and of the lifelong learning and qualifications systems. This is a key necessary early step for creating a sense of ownership among the main users of qualifications, i.e., employers, universities, and other education and training providers. In fact, evidence suggests that there are more detractors – or at least sceptical stakeholders – than supporters of RPL if this early involvement is not organised in order to create commitment and ensure that all stakeholders accept qualifications achieved in the RPL system as a proof of competences.

Most countries – with the notable exception of Colombia – have opted for RPL systems whereby the qualifications awarded are the exact same as the qualifications awarded in the formal education and training system. However, there are always ways to identify that individuals achieved their qualifications after an RPL process, e.g., age of the individual, lack of education and training provider related to the qualification in the CV. Clearly, the lack of societal recognition, and therefore of acceptance of qualifications achieved in the RPL system as genuine proofs of competences, may put the entire RPL system in jeopardy.

Understanding the two meanings of recognition: why does it matter?

The rationale behind the promotion of a comprehensive understanding of the two meanings of the term “recognition” is that the way to address the issues related to dealing with the two meanings are significantly different. And there is no such a thing as a good RPL system if the issues related to both spheres – the technical one and the societal one – are not addressed in a thorough way. In other words, there is no point in setting in motion a technically valid RPL system – with sound assessment, valid assessment/qualifications standards, properly trained RPL professionals – if the society is not ready to accept that awards delivered to successful RPL applicants – e.g., exemption(s), credits or qualifications – are not recognised by the society. It is critical that employers, higher education institutions, families, and peers accept these awards as proofs of competences.

There is indeed strong evidence that recognition of prior learning is potentially a strong promoter of lifelong learning –but this first and foremost requires societal recognition.

Conclusion: In need of a new Philosophy

At this stage, it is clear that “recognition of prior learning” as a term on its own does not reveal much, so it requires further specification. Firstly, it is necessarily the prior learning that should be recognised because it is impossible to recognise future learning! Secondly, it is not learning that is to be recognised but learning outcomes. To that extent, recognition of non-formal and informal learning outcomes is probably a more suitable term, but it is long and somewhat tiresome. Therefore “recognition of prior learning outcomes” is a reasonable alternative.

The fact is that recognition of prior learning is amply used everywhere in the world – and it is the chosen term by the International Labour Organization (ILO) – which also means that it is the most reasonable term for international communication, and this is what matters. Even in the countries where they do not use the term “recognition of prior learning” in their official rhetoric, it is a term that also has currency.

Finally, it is probably more appropriate to retain that RPL is a philosophy. RPL is about accepting that we all learn everywhere and all the time, and that the learning outcomes coming from this learning should be given currency, through a qualification or any other relevant means (e.g., credits, exemption to access higher education).

This is an abbreviated version from the author’s forthcoming paper on “Recognition of Prior Learning: A Philosophy for Promoting Lifelong Learning in Higher Education”, to be published as first number in our new “Impulse” series.

Views expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of HRK. Your point of view is different, or you would like to discuss a topic? Then please send us your contribution to

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