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Shining the spotlight on Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) with Dr Alison Eales of QAA Scotland

Can you explain your role and the role of QAA Scotland?

QAA (The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education) is the UK’s expert quality body for tertiary education. In Scotland – where the higher education sector has an enhancement-led approach to quality – we’ve played a key role in delivering the Quality Enhancement Framework over the past twenty years, with specific responsibilities for the cyclical review method (Enhancement-Led Institutional Review) and the Enhancement Themes. 

I’m a Quality Enhancement Specialist and have worked at QAA Scotland since 2015, during which time I’ve been heavily involved with the Enhancement Themes work. The quality landscape is shifting significantly in Scotland now, and I’m excited to be part of the team who are shaping how the new Tertiary Quality Enhancement Framework will be delivered.

How does having the opportunity for Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) enhance a student’s learning experience?

On a practical level, it can help to avoid duplication in the learner journey, whether it is counted for access or for exemption. This can be hugely beneficial, particularly when our learners have so many competing pressures on their time. However, I think there is something more fundamental and valuable about RPL – it reflects the constructivist view that students are not ‘empty vessels’, but rather individuals who come to their learning experience for their own reasons and with their own goals. As our student body diversifies, with learners joining us at all points of life and on different modes of study, it becomes ever more important that people feel that their prior learning is valued.

Tell us about the purpose of the RPL Framework for Scotland

The Framework is intended to:

  • expand and embed RPL in the tertiary education sector within the context of flexible learning pathways;
  • address the barriers to widespread use of RPL through the sharing of effective practice and signposting to resources and guidance;
  • raise awareness and increase transparency of RPL processes for staff, learners, employers and professional bodies;
  • reduce inconsistencies in RPL processes between and within institutions;
  • support tertiary education providers and other organisations to develop RPL practice in a consistent and sustainable manner;
  • enhance and streamline support and assessment processes to ensure that these act as enablers rather than barriers to further learning; and
  • support upskilling, reskilling and other workforce development through recognition of existing skills and those developed within the workplace.

The first edition of the Framework was published in 2014 and was heralded as being at the forefront of Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) development in Europe.

In 2020 we launched the last Enhancement Theme, Resilient Learning Communities, which included a specific focus on flexible and accessible learning. This gave us an opportunity to review the Framework and to bring it up to date. We conducted some background research including a scan of international practice (39 institutions across 14 countries) and surveys of employers and professional bodies. We then convened an Expert Review Group comprising members from seven Scottish universities, two Scottish colleges, and sector bodies including the SCQF Partnership, SQA, Universities Scotland, Colleges Development Network and sparqs. This group reviewed and revised the Framework, the key changes being a shift to a tertiary focus, and a greater emphasis on employers and professional bodies.

Following the publication of the revised Framework, we ran some online CPD sessions with the support of the SCQF Partnership, SQA, and Munster Technological University – the videos of these are available on the project webpage, alongside the Framework itself.

Tell us about your aims for the future

I’d like to think there is a shared vision of a joined-up Scottish tertiary sector in which RPL is a normal and expected part of the learner journey, rather than something that is exceptional and which students have to seek out themselves. The question is how we get to that point. Practitioners have understandable concerns about consistency, fairness, quality assurance, and the resources needed to achieve these things – but it’s important to recognise that we’re not starting from square one. There are institutions within and beyond our sector who have been doing this well for years.

We’re in the process of establishing an RPL practitioners’ network to facilitate the sharing of practice. The aim is to include a wide range of stakeholders including educators, learners, professional services, employers, professional bodies and credit rating bodies.

If you would like to join the network, please email ARCadmin@qaa.ac.uk – we would love to hear from you!


Visit the SCQFP's Guide to RPL

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